Absolute Pitch
TEXT   HOME

How I am improving my absolute pitch

To practice and improve my active pitch I am testing myself each day when I wake up in the morning. The goal is to sing or whistle a consistent musical pitch and then check it against a convenient instrument whose tuning is standardized. Then making an observation of being sharp flat or correct and by how much.

However in my case since I do not have perfect pitch or even absolute pitch by most standards, I am without any sensation of any particular pitch. I know I like certain pitch combinations, but sliding up and down the range it all kind of sounds the same to me.

The ability of either knowing what a note is when I hear it, or being able to produce a specific note with my voice or on an instrument; are things I would consider beneficial. But without that sensation of correctness or what can be called pitch color, all the pitches are kind of black and white to me. Some higher, some lower.

It seems like what I am missing is the sensation of color when I hear a sound, so I have been imagining ways to improve my perception of pitch color.

Since I check myself each morning or at some point in the day, I have developed a habit of mentally rehearsing how to build or formulate my best guess. What I do is with eyes closed, I imagine walking over to the guitar and plucking the test note. Since that does not usually produce much sensation, in my mental picture I pick up the guitar and sit down with it in my lap. I then play harmonics starting with the first string, imagine tuning the second string with the harmonic, all the way to the last string. Then in my mind I play an E chord with open strings, maybe a G chord, or an open D chord with the cheesy suspension. Maybe I imagine moving that D shape around like its Stairway to Heaven. Whatever I spend some time with the guitar in my head and then lastly I put the guitar down and play the high E, remembering to feel the tang of that silly little metal string. Then I whistle this note in the outside world and I open my eyes and pluck the high E string. And guess what? I'm usually right! Now, how in the heck did I do that?

Some days I am a little flat or I am an entire semi tone off. But since doing this habit I have yet to score worse than a semitone. And before I began doing this, I thought I had no additional sensation for pitch than up or down.

But if given the chance to think about it, we can discern that notes are not all equal and that there might be a way to both perceive and understand pitch that is not just a relational vibration to a reference.

One thing to wonder is how pitch recognition may differ if presented with natural or synthetic waveforms. Further, within synthetics to compare sine wave frequency recognition with saw wave recognition.

The question we may ask is what information might be contained in sound that may be considered as 'color'. The discrimination in acoustic phenomenology most convenient when considering sounds produced by resonant systems where more than 50% of the energy is organized in a harmonic power series. The alignment of frequency maxima pointing unambiguously to a tone fundamental. In the loose language of musical science, color or timbre is often equated with everything not the fundamental tone in the sound. Using waveforms to represent these assumptions we can imagine a sine wave to be a tone with effectively no color and a saw wave as possessing the most color, for the same fundamental frequency. As a reminder a sine wave, heard, is only one frequency in a possible series or spectrum while a saw wave is the additive result of all fundamental tone multiples.

A further refinement of our discovery should be made in considering either absolute or relative color. That pitches within a repeating pitch system contain equivalence and that possess color; compared to the color existing between equivalents or octaves. At the beginning we asked if absolute pitch is an inherent sensation for pitch, or whether it is a sensation of vibration interaction or interference with another reference. A single person without a musical instrument might contain an internal reference, somehow, understanding and percieving pitch as a vibration against this standard. Or, they may develop a sensation for absolute pitch that does not require a comparison.

To organize the considerations so far let us create a matrix sin and saw by passive and active testing. Those subjects utilizing tonal comparison as a strategy will emerge differently from any group utilizing instead color. Since we know people with absolute pitch skills exist, we need to determine if this absolute skill comes from comparison to an internal standard or some property about the content. Comparing sin and saw waves would test whether upper harmonics impart information percieved as color, and possibly separate the 2 scenarios of frequency detection through comparison, or frequency reduction through comb filtering.

I suspect the answer is post cochlea, cognitive and comb. I don't think we produce an internal reference of any significant amplitude, but instead utilize noise shaping to extract a global property embedded in the sound. It has been shown in nervous systems that noise is actually critical in a channel to improve communication involving pulses. The cochlea contains both afferent and efferent nerves so this could be a noise source at input, or in near phase. I think there is a role for phase that may be addressed by severing the corpus collosam to seperate hemispheres, but here considering phase of successive monaural events traveling down different path lengths and recombining.

The good news is that we are plastic and we can change. We all have a potential to improve our perception of color and understanding of pitch. I think mental rehearsal is a key aspect to practice new sensations and spread the problem to new parts of the brain. My own attempts to imagine and then produce a tone can only accelerate until there is no more role playing, but a direct association that may impact my musical activities and life.

 

Contact contact@jonathanleonard.com
Revised
10/02/22