Absolute hearing and the character of tones and keys [1].

Originally published in Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft, 8, 267-70.

Albert Wellek, Wien.

Translated by Christopher Aruffo

Editor's note:  For discussion of the question of pitch character, we refer to the earlier publication of Albert Wellik.

Point 1.  We regard white as the color of joy; the Chinese regard it as the color of mourning.  One may feel green to be the color of hope; another for fertility and growth.  Nevertheless, green remains green and white white and both are clearly very different from each other in nature.  The fact that this cannot be specified, in words or formulas, in a way that everyone will find clear and satisfying, is based on the nature of sensory perception, which are entirely internal experiences and cannot be further assigned or defined.  For green, no matter how many times one approaches it, there is only one consistent way to describe it:  just green.  As A major is, again and again, just A major.  For those who have never experienced it, words and definitions cannot mediate the experience.  The feeling of pitch, just as with a color or harmonic sensation, may hardly be interpreted in words except in very relative terms.  Goethe tried it in his way with chromatics; every one of us, in every way, will be of a different opinion.  Have the colors, therefore, no "character"?  And could one find any kind of feeling which could be defined as "generally accepted"?  The beautiful and sublime feelings are a substrate of the art.

Point 2.  The nature of a masterpiece is changed when it is transposed in any way; however, this fact does not destroy the the spirit or the shape of the piece's inherent meaning.  But this does not mean that no substantial change has taken place.

The manifold, mainly historical fluctuations of standard tuning are in the main symptoms of the upheaving tides of change that musical feeling and hearing are subjected to in the course of the times.  Beyond these, there continue to be eloquent proofs for the tremendous capacity of the human ear to adaptation, reinterpretation, and adjustment which Hermann Stephani (unfairly attacked by Dr. Ungers) recently provided in his illuminating paper "Grundfragen des Musikhörens" [basic questions of musical hearing].  According to this very worthy source, a pitch can be categorized up to the span of a quarter-tone (on both sides), and this is the reason why a pitch may retain its nature and character despite substantial fluctuation of its basic frequency.  This categorical perception might have developed for the sake of establishing the semitonal units of musical sound which we use today.  The particular size of the deviation is not something which the ear is born to, but is developed individually; our hearing naturally attends only to the literal evaluation of sound, but the harmonic listening capacity which Stephani values as musical ability seeks to overcome this resistance.  Should it not succeed, then the effect of strange timbres will be extremely disturbing to the musician.

From my own experience [2]  I can report that in England I succeeded in overcoming the initial literal tendency of the ear, and acclimatized myself rather quickly (perhaps under the influence of the changed environment).  However, I still found even recently that the difference between a somewhat exaggerated standard tuning tone and a reference tone, the the course of an isolated evening of listening to chamber music, could cause me the most embarrassing uncertainty.  because my ear, which might have been wrongly adjusted by habituation to pianos tuned slightly low, recognized entire movements around a half-tone higher than was written and thus found them very strange throughout.  With attention and deliberate will, I was able to reinterpret the sound into the correct and appropriate situation.

Dr. Ungers' closing sentence I would like to rephrase as follows:  "A pitch produces its physical frequency, and coincidentally produces music."  The pitch-- this is the fundamental misunderstanding-- is a psychological fact, not a physical one, although it is bound to the frequency.  That is (as Keyserling has said), the facts create the meaning.  So acoustically, the same piano tone may be known psychologically in music as two completely different identities, i.e. "C-sharp" and "D-flat", whose different identities are thereby actually created.  (According to Stephani there are no fewer than 9 different meanings which the pitch may carry, without changing its physical condition in the least, in moderately tempered systems.)  The "name" of a pitch is hardly "coincidental" or inconsequential; nor is its "exact" physical position.  Because the name and the printed note indicate the standard which the artist wishes to be communicated, and in each particular instance of its presentation that standard will be reinterpreted for listening pleasure.

Naturally, older musical works, which were not bound to any standard tuning, will fall into the gaps of experience.  They will probably remain unresolved mysteries, and would probably prove unsolvable if one should attempt to analyze it psychologically as we experience music today.  A totally different kind of musical listening is difficult to imagine; transposition to our current systems could certainly give only misleading evidence, because we undoubtedly would not be able to ask the historical musicians how they constructed their tunings and intervals.

Ungers maintains that tones and pitches do not have a "characteristic", i.e. no peculiar character which differentiates them from each other, and further states that they have no special characteristics except the purely physical:  that there is no such thing as "tone color".  Thusly, his statement (that one pitch is just like another) is equivalent to that of the color-blind who asserts that "color" is mere fancy and superstition; where others may talk about "yellow" and "blue", the color-blind person ascribes only a small difference in brightness.

The comparison applies in further detail.  Purely physically, the colors (as well as the tones) are not anything more than oscillations of different length and frequency, and the enormous character difference between the colors (most of them very well-known) as mental impressions arises from the qualitative differences, not the quantitative ones.  The comparison only flounders in terms of the actual perceived figures.  But although color blindness is the exception, absolute hearing as the sense for the "colors" of the tones is relatively rare.  It is often said to be non-existent by those who speak of it derogatorily (and who do not have it themselves).  They explain that the superlative term "absolute" as used in "absolute hearing" is impossible, that there could be no such thing as a perfect ear.  But the term and the ability of "absolute" hearing may be expressed in many different levels of range, uniformity, and accuracy.  One person, for example, may not recognize any piano tones but will be perfectly at home on an organ.  There are many people who can freely and easily recognize a pitch on this or that instrument but cannot correctly recall any single pitch upon demand.  Thus we are told, repeatedly, that great musicians such as Wagner could not have had absolute hearing.  This conclusion only follows from defining "absolute hearing" as the topmost pinnacle of the ability; because these great composers must have had at least a deeper internal sense for the individual tones and their character.  This much is clear; how else would they have become masters of the tones?  From Wagner in particular we have even his own confession:  that the idea for his Rheingold-Motivs came to him in a dream, in which he believed he heard a noise like an E-flat major triad (what more evidence could you want?).  And furthermore: in many cases like these, the listeners were able to make perceptual judgments in situations where an exact and accurate classification of the perception would not be possible!  Nevertheless, an unclear perception is not actually available to be clearly analyzed and identified; this is not an example of perception but apperception.

Absolute hearing is not merely a desirable utility of the memory.  On the contrary, it means a certain wealth, a certain enhancement of the subconscious feeling of music.  This more or less clear-sighted sense for the "tone color" is naturally completely independent of the finer differences of the tone qualities to which Dr. Ungers very appropriately referred.  On an old piano I often perceived, in a hearing C-major chord, a strong sense of B-major, thus hearing a "color" which is played a correctly tuned piano not with three white tones, but with two black and a white.

One who is not restrained by a misguided empiricism [3] will recognize at least a subconscious relationship to the individuality of the specific tones of our system, even if this cannot be put into words.  There may nonetheless be a certain difference whose presence is not generally detected.  Some feature may be too fine and tender in its effects for everyone to be able to notice it; however, to someone unendowed with the ability to detect such a feature, the feature would seem not to exist at all!

A form of absolute hearing, e.g. the visual type of musician, can be found in color hearing (and tone seeing); in the consciousness of the color listener, the quality becomes-- which we normally call "tone color" only figuratively-- inextricably linked and fixed to a visual color concept.  But there are hardly any two color listeners in the world who would agree in their parallels between colors and tones.  Does this also discount the certain general validity of a "tone color" feature?  Our entire visual notation is based, from the characters themselves to the grand-staff system, on the contribution of many (particularly ancient) instruments; a majority of our music-theory nomenclature is based on musical concepts that are thousands of years old; so for the tone painting itself (in the literal intellect), the optical painting of sound, e.g. Magic Fire Music, one could say:  who would understand it not?  Dr. Unger mentions the upward pull of the sharp signs and the sinking feeling of the flats; is not also the sense of seeing tone generally accepted by everyone?  Perhaps not in the strictest sense, a la color listening (although there is much more sensory interpretation than can be imagined), everyone has some understanding for color hearing.  It would be extremely doubtful that someone could entirely negate such a feature and relegate it to the realm of "musical superstition".  Even the simplest schoolboy logic and psychology would recognize the internal evidence of subjective perception as an elementary truth to be accepted.

Thus if particular people-- and certainly, the better musicians!-- claim that they feel unique qualities and "characters" of tones:  on what grounds could anyone possibly argue against them?

Accompanying the indisputable fact of absolute hearing is, just as indisputable, the unique character of pitch.

[1]  A reply to Dr. Max Ungers' essay in the February issue (p. 81) of this magazine.  It is somewhat shameful that men who want to be serious music researchers would respond to lengthy debate, which I provided in last November's issue (p. 618) as a long list of reasons, by dismissing the debate in a single sentence and for no good reason, using recent physical developments which were proven to be irrelevant with regard to the piano, and merely by repeating what had already been stated at the beginning of the debate and has finally been disproved.

[2]  "... it shows itself to have much humor/as an instructive example."

[3]  There were those who, after the war, wanted to adopt a purely "rationalistic attitude".  With the war, positivism went bankrupt after a long supremacy and made for a more literal world.  In science, the contrast is apparent: if someone refers to the frequency vibration as the quantity which defines music, and not the quality which creates it, then this may be a "rational" opinion but is a drastically simplistic and irrational mistake.  Such a scientist may thus demonstrate themselves to be a good physicist, but a bad psychologist.