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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Perfect Pitch

My little son is only ten. He hands me teeth when he walks by every once in a while, and likes Minecraft, and riding his bike and sledding, and lots of other little kid stuff. But he’s kind of wonderful around the edges.

He plays the drums in a band with his big brother. They call themselves Unorganized Hancock. Just the two of them. He can, and has, played in front of live audiences for as many as three hours at a time, without making many noticeable errors. He’s homeschooled. He has not been drilled in drumming fundamentals very much. I gave him rudimentary lessons for a few weeks to start him off a couple years ago or so, but he really learned simply by playing along with his brother.

They were rehearsing a new song, and the little feller asked why his big brother was playing the first note of the song as a D#. That’s wrong he said, the first note of the song is supposed to be E. The big guy had tuned his guitar down a half-step, which makes it easier to sing some songs while still playing the guitar as if it was in a standard tuning. There was no way for my ten year old son to know that. He just hears the first note and knows it’s not correct.

Musicians with absolute perception may experience difficulties which do
not exist for other musicians. Because absolute listeners are capable of
recognizing that a musical composition has been transposed from its
original key, or that a pitch is being produced at a nonstandard
frequency (either sharp or flat), a musician with absolute pitch may
become distressed upon perceiving tones they believe to be “wrong” or
hearing a piece of music “in the wrong key.” Wikipedia

He doesn’t need a reference note to know what any given note is when he hears it. That’s Perfect Pitch, also called Absolute Pitch. People without the gift of Perfect Pitch can train their ear to recognize intervals from a reference note to name notes on a scale, which is called Relative Pitch, but there’s no way to “learn” Perfect Pitch. My older brother is a very fine musician, and is quite adept at hearing “Relative Pitch,” by dint of lots of work on his part. Me, I was a bad musician and don’t even play the radio now. I told my older brother that his nephew, who is also his namesake, seemed to have Perfect Pitch, he told me that he thought that perfect pitch was the noise you hear when you throw a bagpipe into a dumpster, and hit a dulcimer you threw in there yesterday. He says try the veal, too.

Wikipedia says maybe one person in 10,000 has Perfect Pitch, but that number sounds way wrong to me. I was a working musician for a long time, and played with and alongside hundreds of musicians, and never met anyone with perfect pitch, never mind among the general populace. Maybe lots of people have it, but don’t know it. It’s an uncanny thing for me to see in my little boy. It’s much more neato because it’s just a part of him, like a freckle or something.

It’s one hell of a freckle, though, ain’t it? You know who else had that freckle?

Bach, Bartok, and Beethoven; Casals, Cole, and Chopin; Miles and Ella and Hendrix…

[Update: Many thanks — no, really, many of them — to Teresa C, and Robert J for hitting our tip jar. My wife and I generally use the money to buy musical instruments for our kids and tranquilizers for ourselves]
[Yet More Update: Many thanks to J.P. in Waco, too!]
[Across the Pond Update: Many thanks to Saul J in the UK for hitting our colonist Tip Jar! ]

23 Responses

  1. Quite a freckle, indeed. Which makes it kind of funny that he's playing the drums. Quick – get that kid a glockenspiel!

    If you really want to give him a challenge, name a pitch and have him sing it or hum it, then see if he got it right. A little trickier, because even if he hears the note in his head sometimes it's tough to make the vocal cords play along.

  2. You ought to take some credit for developing the musical talent in your boys. But, I know you.

    Musical talent may be more of a blessing than you know. Universities and places of higher ed may allow for this art to flourish in the next decade. Who knows.

    Many happy wishes.

  3. Well, you've made me go and do it. Your kids are amazing, and from that brief video clip I can deduce that you have an amazing relationship with them too. You are an example to all of us, and I'm glad to know you.

    Homeschooling is a blessing.

    Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family.

  4. The world around us hums at the frequency of the power-line and its harmonics — this tone is nearly unescapable in modern life, although we largely have "tuned it out".
    I had "relative pitch" that was functionally indistinguishable from perfect pitch, and many of my classmates in the conservatory claimed to have perfect pitch. It was nothing I worked at, it just happened.
    I found that my "perfect pitch" disappeared when I moved from the land of slightly-sharp B-flat to the land of slightly-sharp G

  5. It doesn't hurt a bit that he's such an adorable freckle!

    I wish I could arrange for them to do a summer gig here at the marina, but they deserve a toney-er crowd than us live-aboards! Charleston is an awesome place for musicians.

  6. They had to inherit the talent from somewhere. That perfect pitch gene is in the brain. I used to tell people I heard the music at a certain spot in my brain. I later read an article saying science had found the spot, it's where I hear it. I am now 77 but I am still very sensitive to bad music.

  7. I was diagnosed with absolute pitch at an early age as well. When I was in high school I was able to perfectly mimic the sound of the class changing bell which was piped through the school's loudspeakers. As a result, the entire class stood up and left two minutes earlier tha the real time the class endend. When I went to my school's thirtieth reunion, they gave us a tour of the school. To my astonishment, the same tone– a high "E" above middle "C." Just one of the many uses of having "perfect pitch."

  8. Dang! And this is the little scamp that could do Presidential Arithmetic.

    I'm starting to think that sending kids to public school is a crime against humanity.

  9. Beautifully done (regarding the musicians and their parents.)

    We began homeschooling my 12 year old daughter this year, and it has really opened my eyes.

  10. I have a sharp sense of hearing, but my father has perfect pitch as well. It serves him well as a piano tuner, but mucks up his daily life when he hears something out of whack. I hear the thrum of electricity. I can't tune it out. Even with the earphones on it penetrates and drives me a bit mad sometimes. I can't play my piano right now, since the upper registers are so out of tune.
    It's like shattering glass to my ears and just as painful.
    You might do with the boy what my father did with himself: Find some way to teach him how to tune pianos. We had old junkers laying about our house and my father makes a damn good living tuning. I just wish he lived 2000 miles closer.

  11. Thud!

    You’d probably appreciate this, knowing how hard it is to “keep time” on the drums. Besides his perfect pitch, the kid seems to know how many beats per minute a given tempo is. He likes to use FL Studio to program EDM music, and he’s been setting tempos for so long, that he can hear them.

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