Incorrect judgment of perceived tones.

Originally published in Archiv für die Gesamte Psychologie, 66, 467-500.

Hermann Triepel, Breslau.

As I recently read Johannes von Kries' Who Is Musical?, it reminded me of a childhood experience I remember from the last century, during the eighties, and my report of that experience may be of some interest here.  My father, who was not a musician by profession but was nonetheless highly musical, frequently named tones or key signatures as a semitone too high.  So he'd recognize E-flat as an E, B-flat as A; presumably because when he heard E-flat and A they evoked in his mind the sounds of E and B-flat.  I only occasionally noticed this peculiar behavior, and for obvious reasons I did not pursue the matter, let alone examine it systematically.

I assumed then, and I would continue to imagine, that the reason for my father's errors lay in the fact that he lived in Paris for many years (1850-1865), without much travel, and therefore heard and played a great deal of music on Parisian instruments.  As you know, French tuning is somewhat lower than German, and one might think that the ear of this German had completely adapted itself to Parisian tuning over time; so German sounds must seem to be too high, and are recognized and named accordingly.

I recall an additional circumstance which may also have contributed.  My father, probably at the very start of his Parisian residency, ordered a piano from the French firm Boucher.  He naturally grew fond of the instrument and brought it with him to Germany, maintaining its French tuning, and this is the instrument I was most familiar with as a child.  In the eighties, a German grand piano was brought into the house, and both instruments were set up in neighboring rooms; even to my little-practiced ear the difference in their tuning was extraordinarily obvious.  Incidentally, I should mention that by this time my father could no longer read sheet music because of vision problems.

Psychologically, these observations could be described in the following way.  As a result of his long-time involvement with music in the French tuning, my father had formed and fixed in his central nervous system the names of the pitches as tuned to that structure.  When listening to German music, with its higher tuning, each tone played would evoke the name of a lower tone.  The psychic (and somatic) basis of his judgments are probably a continuous thing, extending over the entire range of perceptible tones.  In the judgment of tones, specific places along this spectrum are excited, and that excitement leads to the development of a concept for each tone, which leads to the perception of an intermittent scale of tones.  A psychological scale is further familiarized according to the temperament with which the piano was manufactured.

One could believe, perhaps, that the situation I've described is nothing other than deficient absolute hearing.  But this is not so easily concluded.  I do not rely on my father's strong musicality as evidence, because my judgment in that case could not be adequately objective; rather, I would emphasize that the deviations of judgment were always in the same direction.  The tones were only ever heard in a higher tuning, and never lower.  If his absolute pitch ability were lacking, the pitches should have been heard as variations from the "center" of the actual tone, both higher and lower.

Arguing against my view, one might object that the difference in name was consistently a semitone, while the difference between French and German tunings is very slight and amounts to approximately a comma (81:80 = 1.0125).  For concert A, German tuning is 440Hz, while French is 435; the ratio of these numbers is 88:87, or 1.0115.  Such an interval may be detectible by a musical ear, but it is recognizably not as large as a semitone (16:15 = 1.0666).  This circumstance probably requires a new perspective to allow its interpretation.

Perhaps it is possible to explain the observed absolute shift as habituation of certain divisions of the octave, that is, into twelve discrete semitones.  It seems probable that my father, hearing a German-tuned E-flat, might have initially received an impression of the E-flat pitch (because each pitch possesses its characteristic chroma) but, because of the influence of Parisian tuning, compounded by the fact that the piano's temperament was not quite in accordance with the modern quarter-tone scale, it seems reasonable that he would place a slightly-too-high pitch into the next higher category, therefore naming "E-flat" as "E".

I don't remember if, over time, my father's hearing readjusted itself.  I am not familiar with any other case in which a person's naming of tones always deviated in the same direction, and if there are plausible reasons for it other than those factors I have described here, I confess I don't know what those reasons could be.  It would have to be determined through deliberate experimentation, despite obvious difficulties, whether long-term exposure to specific tunings causes recognition and identification of tones to be channeled into specific categories.  If this were shown to be the case, one might speak of absolute pitch being influenced by tuning-- but it would not be correct to say that absolute pitch was caused by tuning, because the ability to perceive pitches cannot be dependent on any instrument's disposition.