Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I've been reading the fascinating book, Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist. He writes about musical maladies and phenomena, such as those of folks who get struck by lightning or are injured in an accident and suddenly discover a new interest in playing piano, composing or listening to classical music. He includes a chapter on "idiot savants," who typically are male and have one amazing ability -- such as total recall of music they've only heard once with the talent to play it on the piano and transpose it to any other key. Another chapter addresses people who lose hearing in one ear and then compensate for not being able to hear in stereo by moving their heads slightly while listening and/or compensating by developing additional brain skills.

A chapter on absolute or perfect pitch suggests that most of us might have been born with absolute pitch but failed to recognize and develop it, and therefore lost it, when we learned language skills. This is supported by the high percentage of people who speak a tonal language, such as Chinese, who have perfect pitch, compared to persons who speak non-tonal languages such as English.

The general concept that struck me most is that listening to music requires the coordination of a multitude of skills. Of course, we hear the basic elements of pitch and rhythm, but we also hear tone, timbre, loudness, tempo, contour (rise and fall), spatial location, and reverberation. People with absolute pitch notice another element, which some call "chroma" -- such as the personality of an F# or Ab. Hairs in our ears, the shapes of our inner and outer ears, and other aspects of our ear physiology receive these elements and our brains combine our receptions into a listening experience. Some ears and brains lack certain capabilities, bringing a different experience to their humans, which at times can be irritating or disappointing, especially in the event of a change caused by an injury or illness. Similar differences happen with sight and, I suppose, the other senses.

"So what I see and hear may be different from what you see and hear," says Virginia.

Exactly. I recently discussed this with an artist friend, who recalled that once upon a time when she was lying in bed with one eye closed, she noticed that the wall was -- I forget what she said -- let's say pink. She happened to close that eye and open the other and saw that the same wall was another color, let's say orange.

I had a similar experience about 25 years ago, but mine was auditory. I was on a telephone call. When I was put on hold I noticed that the music being played to entertain me while I waited moved up a half-step. I thought, "now, why would they do that?" A little later, it moved back down a half-step. Then it moved up again. Eventually I realized the pitch changed whenever I got tired of holding the phone with one hand and switched it to my other ear. This hasn't bothered me. My brain normally takes what I'm hearing through two ears and interprets it as one pitch, which happens to be the "correct" one. At least, people who hear me sing say I'm in tune. I suppose they could be humoring me.

I recently heard a singer performing flat, on every song. I had enough bad taste to ask a couple other people if they agreed with me. They did. Having read Musicophilia, next time I'll be more considerate.


  1. I had a dream you told me you couldn't stand to hear me sing but waited 23 years to tell me this. I was devastated and pissed off. Now I realize it could just be your ears and maybe others would think I sound good.

  2. If what you hear in one ear is 1/2 step lower or higher than what you hear in the other ear, try to stick your finger up the nostril opposite that ear and see if you can equalize the two notes that way. Going to concerts must be a horrible experience!