Posted on March 21, 2009 by Steve

Most everyone likes music, which leaves neurologists like Oliver Sacks perplexed. The enjoyment of music doesn't obviously confer any survival or health benefits, at least not like other popular activities such as sports, dining, the pursuit of wealth, or social interaction. One theory is that something about music simply appeals to whatever it is that makes us intelligent beings. So much the better.

For some, however, music can be maddening. Dr. Sacks describes some extreme cases of people suffering from "earworms" -- unending repetitions of a song or jingle. Others, especially those who have moved to extremely quiet environments, may be disturbed by musical hallucinations. Then there are those who suffer from tinnitus, the perceived ringing or buzzing in the ears that can drown out sounds in the real world. Beethoven suffered tinnitus before losing all hearing, and Schumann was tormented by "a single, 'terrible' note, an A, which played ceaselessly day and night, with unbearable intensity" at the end of his life.

Sacks also discusses absolute (or "perfect") pitch, the ability by which some people can recognize and name a tone, such as B-flat, without using any external reference. This rare trait occurs more frequently among those exposed widely to music as children and to speakers of tonal languages. It can be an advantage to musicians, but can also make them uncomfortable hearing familiar pieces which have been transposed to a different key.

An interesting question is why all of us don't have absolute pitch. To someone capable of naming any note, the inability to do so seems bizarre. One such person, Diana Deutsch, puts it this way:
Suppose you showed someone a red object and asked him to name the color. And suppose he answered, "I can recognize the color, and I can discriminate it from other colors, but I just can't name it." Then you juxtaposed a blue object and named its color, and he responded, "OK, since the second color is blue, the first one must be red." ... When I hear a musical note and identify its pitch, much more happens than simply placing its pitch on a point (or in a region) along a continuum. Suppose I hear an F-sharp sounded on the piano. I obtain sense of familiarity for "F-sharpness" -- like the sense one gets when one recognizes a familiar face.

In this second edition, Sacks has added a few chapter postscripts and many footnotes. These tiny asides are often annoying in books, but they're also frequently the source of the best material. This book was no exception; here's an example:
The tritone -- an augmented fourth (or, in jazz parlance, a flatted fifth) -- is a difficult interval to sing and has often been regarded as having an ugly, uncanny, or even diabolical quality. Its use was forbidden in early ecclesiastical music, and early theorists called it diabolus in musica ("the devil in music"). But Tartini used it, for this very reason, in his Devil's Trill Sonata for violin. (And, as Steve Salemson reminds me, "Leonard Bernstein used the 'devil in music' most effectively and repeatedly in his song "Maria" from West Side Story.)"

Though the raw tritone sounds so harsh, it is easily filled out with another tritone to form a dimished seventh chord. And this, the Oxford Companion to Music notes, "has a luscious effect.... The chord is indeed the most Protean in all harmony. In England the nickname has been given it of 'The Clapham Junction of Harmony' -- from a railway station in London where so many lines join that once arrived there one can take a train for almost anywhere else." (p. 132)

The most poignant case described in the book is undoubtably that of Clive Wearing, who was stricken with severe amnesia after a brain infection, and now suffers from what has been called "Memento Syndrome." Unable to form new memories or recognize most people around him, he spent years in confusion, relieved only by visits from his wife, whom he greets as if for the first time in ages every time he sees her. After some time, his wife was astounded to discover that, not only could he still read and perform music, but he completely returned to his calm, relaxed former self when engaged in musical performance. The Radiolab episode on "Memory and Forgetting" includes dialog with Dr. Sacks and recorded excerpts from a documentary on Wearing. Sacks also told Wearing's story quite well for the New Yorker.

While I remain as ignorant of music theory as ever, I have a new appreciation for the richness music brings to life. I even started listening to the CDs that have been sitting neglected on the shelf for years, and may even get around to reviewing some one of these days.
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Posted by RWH | March 22, 2009 | 20:34:47

Wait, you mean most people can identify a note's pitch when given another note for reference? How bizarre. That would help me not at all. I can't really distinguish that ability from having perfect pitch - it does seems odd to me that someone would have the former without the latter, although I'm coming from the opposite end of the ability spectrum.

The other part of Diana Deutsch's explanation, however, I don't find compelling at all. Suppose instead of red she showed someone a celadon object, or an object of color RGB (235, 200, 200), or #FF01DD. This seems more like what someone without perfect pitch experiences - or at least what I experience - when trying to identify pitch.

Posted by RWH | March 22, 2009 | 20:35:24

P.S. Your new skin is decent, but it lacks a login on the front page. I happen to be awesome enough to login anyway, but if you have other members you may want to edit the skin to provide such capability.

Posted by Steve | March 24, 2009 | 09:09:49

Perhaps it would be better to say that with a modicum of training, a typical person could learn to identify musical intervals.

You can approximately sing the do-re-mi, scale, right? If I played a note and told you it was "do," couldn't you then hum a "mi"? Similarly, if I played a note and told you it was a "do" and then played a higher note, couldn't you hum the scale to yourself and say which note matched it in pitch?

Naming a tint as "celadon" requires some training in colors that most of us don't have. But you could still recognize it as a light green, even if you don't know the technical name. If you didn't have "absolute tint," you could only say that it's different from other colors, but not that it's reddish, greenish, or bluish.

Posted by Steve | March 24, 2009 | 09:13:52

This skin seems a little buggy. I don't see how you managed to leave a comment on this item at all, since it seems to lack the link that other items have. I have to clean up the default links and add one in for member login.

Posted by Tony | March 24, 2009 | 10:36:56

For RWH: Relative pitch (the ability to name a note after hearing another note that is known) is indeed different from perfect pitch. Steve's explanation is more or less on, though another flavor also exists -- being able to recognize and name intervals. When someone plays two notes, you can say "That's a major third." That is a form of relative pitch. If you had it, you would be able to say "major third" regardless of whether the two notes played were C and E or F# and A#. This form can be learned, though it requires a lot of ear training.

One of the many reasons the tritone is fascinating is because its frequency value is exactly in the middle of the octave, i.e. if you start with A=440Hz (what the modern orchestra tunes to), then its octave is A`=880Hz (440x2 = 880). Its tritone, E-flat, will be 660 Hz. Such mathematical precision, yet so maligned through most of the history of music :) Someone might want to check me on the numbers.

Posted by RWH | March 24, 2009 | 10:41:07

You can approximately sing the do-re-mi, scale, right? If I played a note and told you it was "do," couldn't you then hum a "mi"? Similarly, if I played a note and told you it was a "do" and then played a higher note, couldn't you hum the scale to yourself and say which note matched it in pitch?

I could no more do that than I could toss myself over my house. Seriously.

Posted by RWH | March 24, 2009 | 10:51:35

Expanding a little, sure I can sing do-re-mi-..., but the chances that I end up an octave from where I began are slim and none - and Slim went back to Texas. And if you play me an A, and then another A at some multiple of the frequency I would be very unlikely to recognize them as the same note. I could recognize that one was higher than the other, but no more than that.

So giving me a "do" would still leave me completely adrift - if you then asked me to hum a "mi" I could hum a higher note but how much higher would be a matter of pure chance.

Posted by Tony | March 24, 2009 | 10:53:51

I wasn't even close, apparently. E-flat above A440 is 622.25Hz, in equal temperament at least. The half-way point is E, the perfect fifth, which makes a lot of sense in terms of consonance (an exact ratio ought to sound good, right?), but not in terms of intervals. You would think that since you have exactly six half-steps between A and E-flat, and exactly six between E-flat and A', it ought to be in the middle...

Posted by Tony | March 24, 2009 | 10:55:29

I am sure Oliver Sacks discusses tone-deafness as well... :-O

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