Absolute Pitch research, ear training and more
Now you know what I've been working on off-line for the past few months. The Taneda Method-- We Hear and Play-- is available at last. It has been torturous keeping myself from saying anything about it on-line, but I didn't want to raise any false hopes in case something drastic fell through. But now all the pieces are in place and ready to go!
In these past months, I've been working closely with the Tanedas to revise, refine, and update the books. Under the guidance of a professional editor, we've simplified its structure, and we've added new ideas from the Tanedas' experience of the last 12 years (since the books were originally published). The material is easy to read, easy to understand, and the method is playful and fun for teachers, parents and children.
Over the past week, I've been polishing off Phase 11 more completely. I've added more out-of-copyright full-text articles and summarized a few others which I've only recently acquired. Although Phase 11 is now essentially completed, I will probably continue to add to the research pages as I pursue Phase 12; this new phase will be, as you might expect, a discussion of the issues and principles underlying (and raised by) the Taneda method. I'll probably find myself doing more investigation on infant perception, paired-associate learning, and language development, because these topics are directly relevant and essential to understand.
Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your teachers, tell everyone you know-- the Taneda method has arrived. Welcome to a new world.
What if the geneticists are right?
There are solid facts which support their case. It's a known fact that the infant brain is highly "plastic" and literally creates itself in response to the tasks that it is given. Regardless of whether any ability can be "in-born", if a child is never asked to do something, it's reasonable to presume that they'll fail to develop the necessary neural structures to do that thing. Conversely, it's equally reasonable to speculate that the nascent presence of specific neural structures is what causes absolute pitch to "activate" in the presence of musical input-- and it is our genetic heritage which dictates that these structures be present (or absent). Perhaps, then, it is a genetic ability. I would insist that every piece of existing absolute-pitch "genetics" research is suspect, because the researchers willfully ignore environmental factors in order to draw support from the data, but the premise of the research is not unsound. It is possible. And until it has been methodically and scientifically demonstrated that any and every child can learn absolute pitch, it will continue to be possible.
I am no longer asking if absolute pitch can be taught to children. I know it can. But the question remains-- can it be taught to adults? Can adults learn absolute pitch?
If geneticists are right, it's too late for adults. We've known since 1899 that any adult can learn to remember, recognize, and recall musical tones, but there is no proof anywhere of any adult ever gaining absolute pitch as an adult-- not in commercial laboratories, not in conservatories, not at "leading universities", not anywhere. You may have heard anecdotal "success stories", but these of course have two major flaws: first, the misconception that tone recognition is in fact absolute pitch ability, and second, the implication that it was the method rather than the subject which was responsible for success. If one person succeeds, and twenty fail, it's a logical fallacy to point to the one success and say "hey, the method works!" You have to assume that there was some pre-existing condition in the one successful subject. The method is only a catalyst, not a cause. The ability was not learned, it was activated. The geneticists win the point.
The question about teaching adults is therefore a valid one. Is it too late? What if the widespread ability to learn tone recognition can be explained this way: that the necessary absolute-pitch structures are still present in everyone's brain, and can still function in adulthood-- however, it's too late for them to develop, so they will never actually be able to accomplish anything but a weak approximation of the true ability of absolute pitch. The brain has fixed itself into the wrong place.
This past weekend forced me to think about this. Following the intensive voice workshop, I became so involved in my latest project that I forgot to eat or sleep for a week or so, which suddenly resulted in severe teichopsia-- a "shimmering wall" which, like a neon afterimage, imposed itself across my entire field of vision and blotted out everything behind it. In other words: for five hours, I went blind. My vision did return, but only gradually, from the center outward. I was (relatively) delighted when I realized that I had gained tunnel vision; following that, the thick haze over my peripheral vision gradually crumbled toward the edges of sight. At every stage, I evaluated my improvement by finding some unfamiliar book and attempting to read it out loud. The incredible thing about this process was that I knew what I should be able to do-- and I simply couldn't do it.
The first stage was the hardest, because I couldn't read at all. From the start I could still see around this shimmering "wall", so I could still recognize my surroundings and navigate without assistance; but I couldn't look through the wall. No matter how I shifted my eyes, I could only see one or two letters at a time as they skimmed the edges of the wall. Anything I looked at directly would dissolve into a shower of multicolored light. I grabbed an unfamiliar book, and I could make sense of it by careful scrutiny; but as I pieced together each word, I was constantly disoriented from having to shift my eyes to find each new letter. I very quickly became frustrated from the effort of trying to build a sentence instead of just reading it, and I put down the book.
As my sight gradually returned, I kept testing my reading skill to see how it compared to normal. If you've been reading the other parts of my site you know that "normal", for me, is unusual; I can pick up a piece of text I've never seen before and instantly read it with full involvement and interpretation. From this experience, I now know that my reading ability is wholly dependent on peripheral vision. Although I was, progressively, able to see words, sentence fragments, lines, and paragraphs, it was shocking to only be able to read that much at a time. I don't think I'll ever forget one particular instance. I took my eyes off the page, and began speaking a sentence, but halfway through the sentence I suddenly discovered there was nothing in my mind to follow the word I'd just spoken. It was simply... blank. Then, I looked back at the page and had no idea where I had been reading. When I finally located the sentence fragment (which wasn't easy), I was further amazed to learn that I the last word I had spoken was the wrong word-- amazed, because I hadn't even been aware of it. I had no context for the fragment to tell me.
I suspect that this must be how most people read. Someone recently told me that most speed-reading courses essentially encourage their students to "read ahead", and I was already aware of an audition workshop in Los Angeles which does the same-- I understand now that these courses are trying to get people to read the way that I do normally. You may have seen all the summaries I've written for Phase 11; I've done most of that summarizing by what these courses would define as speed reading-- glancing quickly at each page to get the sense and meaning of it, and only reading closely when I wanted more detail. In those teichoptic hours, I fought away the fearful certainty that if my vision did not return, I would be entirely unable to read that way again.
And that's when I discovered my sympathy for the genetics argument. I know how to "speed read"; I've been doing it for years, and as far as I knew it was the only way to read. I know perfectly well what I am supposed to be able to do, and exactly how to do it. But without my peripheral vision-- without the biological structure whose use has been neurologically developed-- there's no power on earth that would enable me to do it.
The question, then, is clear: is there something permanently missing from the non-absolute brain? Even if any child's mind can be developed to have absolute pitch, is it possible that unless this development is accomplished in the "critical period", the necessary development can never occur? The results achieved by traditional tone-identification methods bear resemblance to that study that Pinker referenced; people were easily trained to identify non-English vowels, but they were unable to recognize those same vowels when heard in language, even after a year of training.
The answer is not quite so clear. No one has observed anything physically missing from the non-absolute brain. A person with absolute pitch has an unusually large left planum temporale, as well as an unusually large right planum parietale, but all people have a left planum temporale and a right planum parietale-- just in different proportions. This implies one of two possibilities: either a person must have this extra size on the left to learn absolute pitch, or the extra size just means a super-normal capacity for a normal ability.
Obviously, I favor the latter view. I compare this process to learning foreign languages and foreign accents-- which can be extremely hard or ridiculously easy, all depending on the method. This is true of many things, including acting, but I refer to language and accents specifically because they are reputed to have "critical periods" for learning. I know for a fact that it is not difficult to acquire a second language in adulthood-- if you dedicate yourself to learning it through communication, instead of by rote. Rote-learning is, unfortunately, the standard method of language education, which I suspect has led to the perpetuation of the difficulty myth. And although I've read authoritative sources which state that it's "impossible" or "unlikely" that an adult can learn to speak a foreign language without an accent after a certain critical age, I have learned in the past year that this too is a methodical issue.
A person may speak with an accent because they learned the language by reading. I took French back in high school, and soon learned that if I wanted to have a French accent, all I had to do was look at a page of English text and speak it according to rules of French pronunciation. On the flip side, I was perpetually frustrated by my classmate John, who insisted on pronouncing every French word as though it were English (he always said "il" as the Americanized "ihl" instead of the French "eel", no matter how many times he was corrected). So in some cases, a foreign accent is acquired because a person produces the new language according to the rules of their native language-- but this isn't because their brains were incapable of speaking without an accent. Rather, because of the book learning, they were trained to have the accent.
But this doesn't explain why, when you say a sentence to a foreign speaker, they'll say it right back to you with an accent. This effect is, I suspect, what makes scientists believe that an accent cannot be avoided after a certain age-- but what people seem to misunderstand is what I've learned only in the past few months. An accent or a dialect of any kind has very little to do with the sounds you are thinking. It has everything to do with the way you use your mouth and tongue. I've previously described what happened when I was dialect-coaching You Never Can Tell last semester, trying to get Southern American speakers (from Georgia) to speak with British accents; this past month at the Lessac voice workshop, I had the opportunity to observe and talk with a German woman as she attempted to speak in highly prescriptive American speech patterns.
The best example to emerge from our interaction was the word "that". During one small session, I closed my eyes and began quietly mimicking her speech sounds, and from this I discovered that she was speaking with her mouth in a certain configuration. She kept the tip of her tongue right behind her upper teeth, and the opening at the back of her throat remained narrow and unchanging. I found that if I kept the tip of my tongue there, and didn't allow the back of my throat to open, I could think the word "that" but my mouth would say it as "det". You can try it yourself, now, and you'll find that it's true-- as long as you maintain that physical configuration, you simply cannot say "that". (If you try it now and find yourself able to say "that", then you're not maintaining the German tongue usage. This example is offered just so you can demonstrate it to yourself.)
Which is to say that there's nothing, psychologically, which prevents a person from learning a language without an accent-- but there is typically something physiologically which locks them into speaking with a specific accent, and once that is explicitly recognized and trained then the person can speak with a different accent, regardless of their age. But most dialect coaching focuses on vowel and consonant substitutions, ignoring mouth usage, so most people believe that accent acquisition (or elimination) is difficult or impossible. But it's easy when you do it the right way. There is no "critical period" for accent acquisition, and it is largely this observation which makes me believe in the possibility that absolute pitch may also be acquired beyond a critical period-- if the correct skill is being taught.
This still leaves at least one question which can't yet be answered. Even if someone can be trained to have true absolute pitch perception (as opposed to tone identification), can that be applied to their experience of music? Or will their brains already have locked into a certain method of interpreting music which can't be altered?
In this, too, I am optimistic. I recently read Thompson's 2003 doctoral dissertation (Phase 11 isn't actually over in the sense that I'm going to continue to find relevant research) in which she attempted to categorize all the methods by which musicians recognized pitches. When she was interviewing undergraduates, she came up with six methods which appeared to be exhaustive-- but once she began speaking to professional musicians, she discovered that there was an additional strategy that the undergraduates did not use. Namely, while the undergraduates focused either on global characteristics (like contour and tonality) or individual events (like intervals and chords), the professional musicians were able to remember and recognize "chunks" of music and identify pitches from their positions within those chunks. Because none of the undergraduates-- whose brains were well past any supposed critical period of development-- evidenced the "chunking" strategy, it seems probable that the professional musicians developed their "chunking" comprehension as adults, which suggests that the brain remains open to new musical learning on the holistic structural level even into adulthood. Of course, it's equally possible that a pre-existing "chunking" ability is what enabled the professional musicians to become professionals, but I'm electing to speculate that if that were so then at least one of Thompson's undergraduate sample would have possessed the ability.
Nonetheless, the geneticists could be right. Without peripheral vision, I could never "learn" to speed-read. If I'm wrong in my analogies to language-- and the brain structures which support absolute pitch are indeed entirely absent from the adult mind-- then no one will be able to "learn" absolute pitch. But we don't know that for sure yet because (I maintain) the wrong methods have been used. There's some irony, of course, in recognizing that if a truly new method still fails, that won't prove that absolute pitch can't be learned, because it could still mean the need for another method that's altogether different-- but that just means that until we know differently, we'll keep trying.
After my last article, some of you may have been wondering what could have been so all-fired important that it was worth going blind over-- well, this is it.
Ear Training Companion users: E-mail me to receive your upgrade.
As with We Hear and Play, it's been torturous making myself avoid saying anything about this new system, but with good cause-- because this is in fact a brand new method, never been done before, I was waiting to release it until the patent application was filed. That's right: Absolute Pitch Blaster is patent pending.
The other reason I was waiting was to make sure that it actually does what it's theoretically supposed to do. And, if the experience of the playtesters (much thanks to all!) and myself is any indication, it does.
All the playtesters are better musicians than I am, so they're all further ahead than I am. Most of them are already working with other pitches while I'm still on C. This doesn't surprise me. In fact, it reminds me of Rush's study of that other absolute-pitch method, but there's one critical difference which I intend to make myself the example of. In Rush's study, he discovered that one's existing musical ability was highly correlated with one's ability to proceed in that course. I'm anticipating that, with Absolute Pitch Blaster, one's existing musical ability will be highly correlated with the speed at which one proceeds in the course. In Absolute Pitch Blaster, I'm expecting that anyone should, with persistence, be able to go as far as they want.
Peter and Brian have been playtesting for a couple months now. Although I only finished the Absolute Pitch Blaster game program this month, I had previously written "Absolute Pitcher"-- same method, but a less interesting game. I accidentally sent Absolute Pitcher to a few people (if you've got ETC 3.3, look under the game menu and you'll see it there) who naturally demanded to know how to use it. Then they persisted in playing it, despite the clunky game play, because they were actually getting results. Unfortunately, a lot of what was written to me about their experience was lost to my hard drive crash earlier in the year; I want to encourage everyone to start using the forum so our shared wisdom doesn't have to be filtered through me.
So, between We Hear and Play and Absolute Pitch Blaster, Phase 12 is "let's start learning it", and I'll keep everyone apprised of my own progress in the game. My top rank is currently Warrior 1st Class, after 105 waves of aliens. I notice with some interest that, like Interval Loader, progress is incremental but consistent. When I play Interval Loader, if I start from Level 1, then I get a new high score every single time I play. Without fail. Bar none. Each time I play I get just a little bit further than I had before-- and it's so easy that I wonder how I ever could've been stuck on those earlier levels!
If you're an Ear Training Companion user, e-mail me for your upgrade. If you haven't tried it yet, download the demo. Absolute Pitch Blaster has arrived.
Top Rank: Captain, 4th Class (C-pitch)
I'm noticing something about the Absolute Pitch Blaster (henceforth referred to as APB) gameplay... and that is how with each new game it resets to the beginning of the rank. The rankings are mathematical, not pedagogical; there are six ranks, so there are six equal divisions for each pitch. Although I noticed something about that when transitioning from Cadet to Warrior, today I've understood how that strategy impacts game play.
The fundamental structure of any game-- no matter what the game-- dictates that you can only proceed as far as your skill allows. If you want to proceed further, you have to get better at it. APB, I'm excited to confirm, will not let you get any further than you can handle; like Interval Loader, the earlier levels get easier and easier until you can pass them handily, and then you become naturally confused by the new sounds at the higher levels. This is very useful when you're still working within the same rank-- if you flub it at Cadet 1st Class, you go back to Cadet 4th class and work your way through the easy stuff again (making it even easier). But in my next-to-last game I was able to reach Captain 4th Class and no further... meaning that now it starts me at the level I can't get past yet! I already worked through this problem once when I went from Cadet to Warrior, but it's more pronounced at this stage. It doesn't affect the method at all-- as with Cadet to Warrior, if I accept the frustration of getting whomped as soon as I start a new game, I can just keep playing until it becomes easy, and thus proceed to higher levels-- but I would rather not be frustrated! So that's one change that's coming. I'll also be adding more stuff to Chordfall; there's a thread in the forum if you want to make suggestions. I also think I may expand Interval Loader a bit. (and this is why upgrades will always be free.)
In the process, I'm thrilled and intrigued to experience part of what the theory predicted (and what the game is designed to overcome). My adult mind is automatically picking up all possible cues to identify the pitch. Toward the end of the Warrior rank, APB makes a simple change: it starts presenting the target pitch in the middle tone of an arpeggio instead of only the first or last. I was surprised more than once by this change, because my mind had already unconsciously accepted a tone's attack or decay as part of the "pitch"; but as I kept at it, my mind (also automatically) shaved off those other characteristics and let me hear the pitch inside of middle tones as well, and I was able to progress further to Captain.
In other news, I'm getting ready to teach next semester, and I'm pleased that I'll again be teaching two sections of acting. Last semester was phenomenal; in the process of exploring, we all learned a heck of a lot. In some respects that makes me a little concerned, because if last semester we all traveled together from point X to point Y, will I be able to successfully backtrack to point X and lead everyone to point Y? Or will I find myself at point Y and inadvertently leave everyone behind? This isn't an invalid concern; with this website, for example, a person has to be at least somewhat familiar with the high points of the last three years of work in order for what I'm saying now to make the most sense. That's my greatest worry. But my greatest regret is that, last semester, I didn't take the time to keep any record of the things we discovered, so the knowledge we gained is locked up in my head and our shared experience. Last semester, I think everyone was taken aback by the high quality of our accomplishment (myself included). If it wasn't a fluke, and it is the method which is responsible for our success, and we can make it happen again, I owe it to the program (and to anyone who wants to learn or teach acting) to describe and lay out what can be done within the restrictions of the "classroom" schedule.
So I've started a page about acting. Nothing pretty, just words. I hope this page will fulfill the double function of tracking my experiences in the classroom and also helping to illustrate the tremendous overlap between acting performance and absolute pitch research-- an overlap which I have, until now, largely kept to myself. I'll have to take it one piece at a time, though, so as not to overwhelm myself with everything I've been thinking and observing over the past two years here at the school!
Top Rank: Captain, 2nd Class (C-pitch)
Absolute Pitch Blaster uses a thing which I've called "Melody Words." Melody Words are an integral part of the APB process. Thanks to the C-pitch melody word, I'm able to recall a middle C instantly and without fail any time I want-- yes, including when I've just woken up in the morning. I had assumed that other systems were using melodies in the same way that I was, and so I was quite surprised to discover that this was not the case. Now I understand why they're referred to as "melody triggers" elsewhere.
As "melody triggers", it seems, you're supposed to take a melody whose first tone is the pitch you want to identify; then, when you hear that pitch, it "triggers" the associated melody in your head, and you can identify the pitch.
In APB, you take a melody whose first tone is the pitch you want to recall; then, when you produce that pitch, you can check yourself by mentally comparing it to the melody.
The distinction is so subtle and yet so critical. Melody Words are meant to be used to learn pitches in the same way that I learned the German vowels, which is the same way any schoolchild learns their A-B-Cs. B is, indeed, for Baby, and the C-pitch is for the Mozart melody.
If you're using melody "triggers" instead, the mental process would be something like this:
hear tone -> trigger melody -> identify pitch
but if you're using Melody Words,
hear tone -> unsure which pitch -> recall Melody Word -> match chroma -> identify pitch
- or -
produce tone -> mentally check versus Melody Word.
Over and over again (in all kinds of teaching and learning) I remember Fletcher's condemnation of "vicious little tricks." Learning a tricky shortcut takes less time than true learning, but if you learn the shortcut you're stuck with it-- and when the trick fails you're completely lost. The Melody Word verification process has five steps instead of three, but down the road the Melody Word drops out of the picture-- so then, after some time, when you compare the process of a trigger melody versus a Melody Word, you get
hear tone -> trigger melody -> identify pitch (trigger melody)
hear tone -> identify pitch (Melody Word)
This is because a Melody Word is not used to identify a pitch, and a Melody Word is not used to recall a pitch. The Melody Word is a tool to help you mentally verify, without a musical instrument, that you are producing the specific pitch that you want to recall. If you use melodies as "triggers", you are relying on an outside stimulus to trigger a mental process; so without that outside stimulus, no mental process occurs. Melody Words, on the other hand, are a mental process that is consciously activated, and which exist in your mind independently of the external sound.
So to be entirely specific: don't expect the pitch sounds in APB to "trigger" a melody. Instead, use the Melody Word to help you solidify your mental image of each target pitch, so that you can recall each pitch with confidence. At the higher levels, when you're actually trying to pick pitches out of melodies, the sounds will be playing too quickly to trigger anything, so a melody trigger would be useless at that point anyway.
(Incidentally: I wrote the change to APB that I mentioned in my last article, so that if you finish at some rank's 4th class, the next game drops you back to the previous rank's 2nd class-- as you can see, that has helped me advance to Captain 2nd Class where I was previously getting walloped by Captain 4th Class. If you want that upgrade, even if you already have v4.0, please let me know.)
Top Rank: Captain, 1st Class (red C)
Playing Absolute Pitch Blaster today I noticed an effect that I hadn't experienced before. After hearing four tones arpeggioed, I contemplated the last tone, and casually noted that it was one semitone lower than C. I guess that makes it a B, I shrugged, and pressed the X key. But then I suddenly realized something funny about how I'd recognized the B. I hadn't perceived the resolving pull of a major 7th (the B didn't "want to be" a C); I hadn't recognized a minor second between the two (neither harmonically nor as "distance"). I didn't mentally start at the C and "move to" the B. The B didn't even seem "lower" than the C. Instead, in hearing the B and mentally comparing it to C, it seemed to me as though the two tones were just placed side by side, like boxes on a shelf. The two tones weren't related to each other; they didn't have any relationship at all, except for how I could quite clearly "see" that they belonged next to each other. Because this effect happened so quickly and automatically, I hardly noticed it until it was already over and I was on to the next tone.
There's a different absolute effect that I occasionally experience when I'm playing Interval Loader. Because I'm on One Note Advanced, sometimes I'll hear the same tone two or three times in a row, but at a different scale degree. It's strange because it's obvious that it's the same tone as before, but somehow I know that it's the new scale degree. I hear both qualities at the same time, but I listen to the chroma and I perceive the scale degree. In either case, it'll be interesting to discover what other effects begin to appear as I continue to play both games.
One effect that appeared early on, which Peter and I discovered almost simultaneously, is that you'll start listening to chords without even thinking about "unlocking" them into separate pitches. There's no effort at all. Brian puts it best by saying that the pitches "jump out" at you-- that's exactly what they do. When you hear any chord, you don't have to figure out how many pitches it has, or which tones are "on top" or "in the middle" or "on the bottom"; if there's a familiar tone in there, anywhere, you hear it, plain as day. If there's a C anywhere in the chord, you hear the "C-ness" of that chord. Presumably, this is the C-pitch chroma standing out from everything around it. This effect is greatly encouraging, because it is an exact parallel to how we hear words. As I've said repeatedly, we do not "unlock" the words we hear in order to spell them. We hear a word as a complete unit; we do not hear the individual sounds unless we are deliberately listening for the individual sounds (and then we lose the meaning of the word). When we're listening to words, the only reason we think we hear the individual phonemes is because we know how each word looks on the printed page and we can infer what letters we're supposed to have heard. Between APB and Chordfall, I can easily imagine how you'd be able to hear a cluster of tones and recognize it as a major seventh chord while simultaneously hearing C, E, G, and B. Or even if you only heard the C and G immediately, by recognizing the chord structure you could probably infer the other pitches, which would "jump out" at you once you knew they were there.
What this might not be able to do is teach you the octave of each sound. I've known off-handedly that absolute listeners are infamous for octave errors, but after Lazy Vegan's report I now know that this factor must not be ignored in training. Let's say you recognize a suspended triad-- but it's in a voicing that's spread out over different octaves? You recognize the structure, and you can hear the chroma of all three tones, but which tone is where? It's possible that cues in the structure itself will allow you to infer the octave placements, but I don't know that, so I've already started tackling the octave problem head-on. Now that APB is in place, I'm revising the other games, and the most significant change so far is that two of the first four games of Interval Loader (One Note, beginner and advanced) now feature multiple octaves. I've reset myself back to the very beginning (Two Note Beginner) because I want to make sure that the games are still playable with multiple octaves, but so far it seems exactly as I expected-- each scale degree remains perceptibly the same, no matter what octave it's played in. And, as exciting as that is, it begs the question... if each sound is the same in every octave, whether you're using absolute or (harmonic) relative pitch, then how can you tell what octave it's in, structure or no structure?
I'll find out if the new Interval Loader experience tells me anything, but I'll also keep something else in mind: octaves may ultimately become a thing of the past. As has now been demonstrated repeatedly, "octaves" are not consistent. Shepard in 1964 conclusively demonstrated that "tone height" and chroma are separate; Ellis in 1876(!) showed how a pitch can seem "higher" and yet still be in the same octave; Griffiths and Patterson's work (2003) implies that there is a theoretically infinite number of "heights" (not just a dozen) for any pitch within the range of musical sound. So in the short term, I'll accept known octave divisions because of convention and the needs of the contemporary musician, but in the longer term I've got my eye on this particular prize: given that "tone height" is a quality that is psychologically and neurologically separate from chroma, and keeping in mind that "high" and "low" are completely arbitrary terms (see November 26 from last year)-- how can a musician be trained to reliably recognize and accurately judge an infinite number of "heights" for any given pitch?
Top Rank: Warrior, 1st Class (red C)
I've been thinking about a question that was asked in the forum. Is it possible to play Absolute Pitch Blaster the wrong way? Is it necessary to have a particular mindset in order to make sure that it works? After the discussion about the potential misuse of melodies and Melody Words, it seemed a legitimate concern. I do hope that everyone will read my explanation of Melody Words and not fall into a trigger trap, and I'll definitely give it further thought-- but after considering the question I have to answer that no, I don't think it's possible to play Absolute Pitch Blaster the wrong way.
That's essentially why I designed these programs as games. Most obviously, if you play a game the wrong way, you lose. I don't have to warn you what not to do. I don't have to advise or caution or instruct or demonstrate; I don't have to protect against bad habits or give any further explanation because if you don't play the game in the way that will lead to greater learning-- that is, according to the rules-- Game Over. The challenge for me as the game designer, of course, is to make sure the rules of the game truly reflect the learning process. (More on this in a moment.)
The other reason that I designed the programs as games is partly why I'm not too concerned about people misusing the Melody Words-- for whatever reason, we human beings have an inherent understanding of gameplay. Once the basic rules are set down, not only do we have a strange compulsion to follow those rules, but we naturally infer other rules and follow them too. Last semester I did an exercise with my students (which I'll describe in greater detail when we do it again) in which, without speaking, they were to help each other line up according to numbers pinned on each other's backs. One student, clearly in distress for having to break the "no talking" rule, came to me to point out that one wall was entirely mirrored, and the curtain in front of it was not completely drawn, so they could see their own numbers! Once she pointed this out, I rushed to the curtain to oblige her; but I'd never said there was anything wrong with knowing your own number. Afterwards it occurred to me that I'd never told anyone that they couldn't just take their own number off their back and look at it-- but nobody did. They understood the implicit rules and followed those rules as strictly as the explicit ones. This is why I don't think the Melody Words are likely to be misused; because the Melody Word is mainly used during the "launch code" phase, after the player has made an error, it seems highly likely people will infer the implicit rule that a Melody Word is to be used as comparison, when you can't get it automatically, rather than to be used at all times as a primary strategy.
It's also significant why this student wanted the curtain closed: she did not want the temptation to "cheat." When we're playing a game, we know that not following the rules will destroy the intended purpose of the game-- that's why we call it cheating. And whether or not we're comfortable with cheating, we know when we're not playing by the rules. As I was designing and playtesting Absolute Pitch Blaster, before I introduced the "launch code", I found that I was almost never using the six blue buttons. Even though I knew, intellectually, that using those six buttons was an essential part of the learning process, it felt wrong and weird to use them... because it felt like cheating! (Fortunately, introducing the launch code solved that problem.) Although I'm sure it's possible to win at Absolute Pitch Blaster by, say, keeping a guitar tuner next to the computer speaker and reading its display, you know that this is cheating-- and you know, without my having to tell you, that this is not how the game is supposed to be played. This example may be a bit extreme, but in short: no, I don't think it's possible to play Absolute Pitch Blaster the wrong way.
But there's also the deeper question: is Absolute Pitch Blaster the right solution? The question is well-framed by the way it was stated in the forum: "I'm just worried about playing it a long time only to realize later that all I've done is firmly ingrain in my mind some sort of crutch that I will have to unlearn later."
This is a critical issue-- not just for Absolute Pitch Blaster, but for any aspect of education. Ever since I read Fletcher's description of "vicious little tricks" I've been keenly aware of the difference between learning "a trick that gives the illusion of knowledge" versus learning the actual knowledge itself. This was a driving factor in designing Absolute Pitch Blaster, and why the rules of the game are deliberately self-explanatory. After my mistake with ETC v2.1, with its colors, trigger words, and vowel listening, I wanted to make sure that Absolute Pitch Blaster provided no crutches.
I think I've succeeded. There should be no crutch to "unlearn" later. APB employs your mind's natural perceptual-learning ability to force you to hear chroma directly. There are no sensory associations, no tricks, no strategies, nothing you have to do, nothing you have to figure out, no method to follow. You just play the game and let it happen.
I've been pleased that my experience so far has seemed to bear this out. For one, I was surprised to find that, as with Interval Loader, I can let my mind wander (and think about other things) before suddenly discovering that I've been playing the game the whole time-- correctly. I don't need to pay attention and figure it out; my mind and body respond automatically when I recognize the sound. Secondly, I've been amused to discover that when I attempt to use psycho-sensory strategies, such as asking myself "does the pitch sound.. roundish?" I do considerably worse than if I just respond. That is, in my experience so far, the game clearly seems to punish me for trying to use a crutch! As I was preparing to write this article tonight, I expected that I would go on about my own experience in greater detail to make the point, but this message from Bret appeared in my inbox, so I'll let him tell you.
"I am just writing to tell you how extremely amazing the AP Blaster is. I have been keeping up with your website and your research and am extremely amazed what you have learned, and what I have learned from your website.
"Your new AP Blaster EASILY blows away all other methods of developing perfect pitch, or even relative pitch. I have been working on developing perfect pitch for about a year with no results. (I am 19, I'm assuming that it IS in fact possible to develop AP after the "Critical Age").
"Anyway, the other day I stumbled into your AP Blaster and decided to download the demo to give it a try. After all, all your research is amazing, and if your software is backed by your research, then I figured that it would be effective. Sure enough, it is. In just a week or less I have experienced AMAZING results. I'm working on the C pitch right now, and still haven't made it past the level of Cadet. (Top Score = 1st class cadet after 51 Waves of Aliens).
"Even with this small amount of time, I have really been able to hear the C pitch in the music that I commonly listen to. Also, I can sing a C at any time of the day (including when I wake up). This is something that a full year of working on other methods could not do.
"I feel that I am actually progressing with your method, rather than just trying to hear things that are impossible to hear (like that the F-Sharp is "Twangy" and such).
"Also, today (after just waking up) I went into my bathroom to brush my teeth. My toothbrush is one of those sonicare "sonic" toothbrush thingys. When you turn it on, it vibrates. For some reason, when I was brushing my teeth I actually listened to the sound the toothbrush was making. It sounded like a C to me somehow. I became excited and took my toothbrush to my piano to check and see if it was really resonating at a C. Sure enough...it was...leaving me stunned. NEVER before had I been able to just hear a random appliance in my house and determine the pitch.
In closing I simply have to say: Thank you for your extreme research on a subject that most people don't even care about. Also, thank you for creating a website with such rich information on AP. And finally, THANK YOU for creating a software program (and a method of developing AP) that actually gives results. Once again, I am simply stunned."
This is what Absolute Pitch Blaster is designed to do. It does not give you a psychological crutch which you can actively apply to "figure out" pitch sounds. Rather, APB changes the way your mind interprets sound input, so that you automatically and unconsciously recognize and identify pitch where you didn't before.
It'd be nice (although implausible) if everyone who used Absolute Pitch Blaster experienced such swift and drastic results, but I'll settle for consistent progress. You might have noticed that I've played many more waves than my last article, and have been demoted to Warrior. The apparently lower ranking is because I expanded the game-- so I'm at the same level as before, but that level is now Warrior 1st Class instead of Captain 1st Class. The sudden jump in wave count is because, having expanded the game, I decided to start over at Cadet, so I breezed my way through a load of aliens to get back to Warrior. Now, each time I start a new game, I don't try to get as far as possible; instead, I plan to play two waves of aliens. If at the end of the second wave I'm finding it very easy, I keep going until the aliens get the better of me and land, but if don't feel like going on I "stop and save" after the second wave (and accept going back to 4th class in the next game).
Now somewhere in all this you might have asked yourself-- well, if it's a mistake to use color associations, why are the aliens color-coded to the pitches? There is an important reason for that, and I'll try to get to that next time.
Top Rank: Warrior, 1st Class (red C)
It's happened again. Repeatedly. And I've been paying more attention to it.
I hear a tone that is not a C, and each time I notice that this not-C pitch is "next to" C. Not higher or lower or minor-second-to. My previous fleeting impression of the tones as boxes on a shelf had been correct; when I've noticed it since then, I've felt like I was literally looking at the two pitches side by side-- the one I'd just heard and the C-tone I was imagining. I could feel myself thinking, well, if this tone were a C, it would be in this spot, but it's in that spot, so it must not be a C. I'm not yet sure what it means, and it doesn't happen every time, but it's not a way I've ever perceived musical tones before.
I also became relieved for another reason. Although I can always recall a middle C, other ETC users have reported automatically becoming able to hear the target pitch outside of the game in melodies and other sounds, and that hadn't happened to me. I wondered if it is because I'm a singer but not (yet) a practicing musician, and was more than a little concerned that perhaps it hadn't happened to me because I'm not a practicing musician. According to the theory, it shouldn't matter-- but I worried.
Then, yesterday morning, I woke up with Electric Light Orchestra's "Sweet Talkin' Woman" running through my head, and I began singing along. After the first stanza of the chorus, I halted. Hadn't I just sung a... I sang the phrase again and, this time, stopped on the "you" of "you've got me running" and sustained it. This is a C! I checked it in my head versus the Melody Word, and then went over to the piano for additional confirmation (although by then I was already certain).
So not only am I no longer worried, I'm quite pleased-- because now we have their evidence of automatically beginning to recognize the pitches that they hear, and I've got evidence of automatically beginning to recognize the pitches that I produce. It's still just the very beginning of the process; they're still only signs in the right direction; but they're decidedly good signs.
Top Rank: Captain, 3rd Class (red C)
The effect I've been mentioning continues to happen. Today, as I was walking away from the summer dance show's dress rehearsal, I was singing a song by the Montanas, and because there was still some traveling distance to my car I decided to find out if any of the notes I was singing was a C. None of them were, but one of them was close; I could tell that it was near a C, but I knew it couldn't be a C. This wasn't because I was directly comparing it to a C in my head; it wasn't even because the note "didn't feel like a C"-- it just seemed like the note was in the wrong place to be a C.
If this is, as it seems to be, a direct result of the method (and not just a quirk), I can speculate why. It may be because AP Blaster starts off mostly with structured tones (triads and sevenths). I wonder if my mind is using the chord structures to build a mental map of the (absolute) chromatic scale. Perhaps when I hear certain melodies or arpeggios, they set up some expectation or fix me to some place, so that I know where I'm going to find the C. It's far, far too early to draw any definite conclusions or make any solid generalizations, but the experience of this effect leads me to breathe one particular sigh of relief.
When I received Bret's comment about hearing the C in his sonic toothbrush, I was pleased, but I was reminded of the advertising "testimonials" that are already out there. Every single commercially available absolute-pitch product (mine included!) has at least one or more instances of someone expressing surprise and amazement with a story that follows this template: "I thought it was [a pitch], but I couldn't believe it, so I checked it against [my instrument]... and wow!! I was right!!" But you can easily imagine that for every one of these stories, there could be fifty or a hundred or a thousand which would sound like this instead: "I thought it was [a pitch], but I couldn't believe it, so I checked it against [my instrument]... and I was wrong."
In other words, this kind of "success story" has a 1 in 12 chance of being nothing more than dumb luck.
So even though I was happy to hear about Bret's experience, the logical flaw taunted me. How could I be sure that this was really an absolute experience, and not just good fortune? Well, with what seems to be happening to my perception, I have some potential criteria to lay down. First, if the pitch you hear is the one you suspect, then you will be 100% certain without the help of an instrument; you should be able to confirm it in your head. Secondly, if the pitch you hear is not the one you're listening for, then not only will you be 100% certain that it isn't the same pitch before you touch an instrument, but you will also have some sense of its place in relation to the other pitch.
Does that last bit sound somewhat odd-- "place in relation"? What does relationship have to do with learning absolute pitch? Well, Shepard tones and Diana Deutsch's pitch circle potently demonstrate that absolute pitches do have categorical relationships to each other. As IronMan Mike (who has absolute pitch) has said, he might confuse C for its neighbors B or C#, but he would never mistake it for a G. As I have said repeatedly, learning absolute pitch is not memorizing individual tone objects; it is developing your awareness of the spectrum of vibratory sound, and forming mental categories along that spectrum. If I hear a B or a D, my absolute skill should tell me that this sound is "next to" a C. What makes it "absolute pitch" instead of "relative pitch", then, is that I don't need to hear a C, or compare the unknown pitch to a C, in order to be certain of its place. And what makes it true absolute listening instead of tone memorization is that even if it is an unknown tone, I'm not totally lost. I know where I am; I just don't have a name for this space.
In this case, the tone seemed to be to the left of C. I recalled a C and recognized it harmonically as a minor third "above" the unknown tone (thanks, Interval Loader!), and thus inferred the unknown tone to be an A. Just to be on the safe side, I checked it on my keyboard at home, which confirmed that I was correct.
I don't know why my mind has decided to interpret pitch categories as spatial "boxes". And why to the left, like a piano? I don't know exactly what I did expect, but (possibly because of Stevens' 1934 studies) I didn't expect to feel as though pitches were left, right, up, down, or in any kind of place at all. Maybe it's a transitional phase; maybe it's something to do with the fact that it's structural listening; maybe it has to do with the fact that our sense of hearing exists to detect motion and a pitch represents an imaginary object that is moving at an unchanging rate of speed. The reason, I do not know. At this point, all I know for certain is that 1) this effect does indeed seem to exist, 2) the occasions of its appearance in my perception seem to be increasing, 3) I seem to be able to consciously and deliberately use this effect, and 4) its existence is a direct result of using AP Blaster.
But it's not yet time to pop the champagne. Not by a long shot. I am fairly confident that the absolute effect I'm talking about will continue to grow, but I gained more perspective last week on the overall process when I was posed this question: What use is reading?
Last Thursday, I attended a barbecue where fate seated me next to a high school teacher who faced an unusual task: developing a curriculum to teach 9th-grade students to read. Because her school is in one of the poorest districts in the county, she didn't have the budget to just buy some out-of-the-box curriculum; she and her fellow faculty needed to invent something home-grown. As she described her situation, I pressed her for more details, and the picture which emerged was fascinating. It became clear that she's trying to teach these young adults to know English the same way that I want to teach adults to know music. Her goals, tasks, and problems are nearly identical to mine. And one of her major hurdles is apathy.
The students complain, what use is reading? What value does it have to anybody? Of course, to those of us who do read-- especially those who read avidly and critically-- the answer is, duh! But to these students, from laboring and nonintellectual families, there's no model of how reading could influence their life; how could they even imagine the powers of expression, insight, and thoughtfulness that can come from knowing how to communicate in written language? To them, language is sound, not squiggles on a page. Why should I bother to read letters, they say. Everyone I know gets by without reading all the time.
Okay now: hands up, all of you who've heard-- or made-- these same arguments about learning to read music. Why bother to read music? Music is sound, not squiggles on a page. Why should I bother to learn absolute pitch, you might say. Everyone I know gets by with relative pitch all the time. The problem inherent in the case, whether for reading or language, is exactly the same. If you haven't experienced it, you can't possibly know its benefits; and if not having it is normal in your culture, it doesn't seem important. It's just not part of your comprehension of the world. But for those who do know, who have the experience, the answer to "why bother" is self-evident. Duh.
As this teacher described her students' attempts at reading, I was amazed at how they paralleled a normal adult's attempts to read music. She said that a student might begin reading a word correctly, but then finish the word with sounds entirely different from what's on the page, and not be aware that they'd made a mistake. Or, she said, a student could read an entire page of text, and make all the correct sounds for all the words, but then they'd look up at the end of it and not have the slightest idea what the words they'd spoken actually meant. Mechanical production without comprehension or interpretation-- how many musical methods unwittingly strive for this as their goal!
What makes it even more interesting is that I finally got hold of the original report featuring those Portuguese illiterates I'm so fond of, and I discovered I'd made an incorrect assumption. Because the Thinking in Sound chapter which mentioned this report was the same one that told me we don't hear medial sounds in words (we only infer them) I wrongly assumed that the Portuguese illiterates were being offered as proof of this specifically. I figured the Portuguese subjects were being asked to do change medial sounds, like pickle to pishle (although in Portuguese). Not so: the subjects were asked to change the first sound of a non-word. The first sound! It seems almost unthinkable that I could approach one of this high school teacher's ninth graders, and say to them "take the imaginary word parble and change the P to a D," and find that they couldn't come up with "darble" to save their life. But if the Portuguese experiment is any indication, then that's exactly what would happen. And if you compare it to music, it doesn't seem so unthinkable; if you produce an arpeggio and ask a musically illiterate person to sing it back, they might be able to match it-- but then tell them to replace the root tone with a different pitch. Of course they'll fail. They have no concept of pitch sound, just as the illiterate Portuguese (or illiterate 9th grader) has no sense of phonemic awareness.
I butted in when the teacher told me how she would help her students learn to read. She began telling me how they would start by teaching the phonemes, then expand that into phonemic blends, then words, and then sentences, paragraphs, etc. She said it so matter-of-factly, so plainly, as though that was so obviously the only way it should be done, that I felt obliged to interrupt. But-- but that's backwards! I inserted. Nobody thinks that way, nobody reads that way, and nobody learns to read that way. When we read, it's to receive an idea, I explained; the idea forms itself into sentences, which are composed of phrases, and those of words-- and phonemic attention is dead last, if it occurs at all. (How else could a friend of mine born in 1971 only realize for the very first time, in 2003, that the name "Beatles" is a pun?) And because language exists to communicate ideas, I explained, and because we actually hear syllabically, phonemes only exist as an artifact of written language. Everything I've researched shows that phonemic awareness is a consequence of literacy, and not the other way around.
Somewhere in the middle of my explanation I realized that I was talking to myself as well. If I'm saying flat-out and unequivocally that teaching phonemic skills will not lead to reading ability, then why should I suppose that teaching absolute pitch will lead to reading ability?
For a moment I feared that absolute pitch should actually be taught as a result of reading music, but that wasn't it. You do need to learn the alphabet independently-- to learn the chromatic scale as itself-- in order to read; plus, brain scans show that phonemic segmentation and semantic interpretation are two completely different tasks. So it should be possible, maybe even desirable, to teach absolute pitch as a separate skill. What the conversation with this teacher seemed to be telling me is that even though absolute pitch skill is a necessary part of true musical literacy, I can't expect reading skills to arise automatically out of learning absolute pitch. And this means, I groaned, that there will need to be an entirely new training component to deal with it.
Truthfully, this isn't at all surprising. I know there's still work to be done. This is exactly why I continue to offer free updates. Although I've been advised from various corners that it would be more profitable to charge for updates, and ETC users have indicated their willingness to pay for updates, I don't think I want to do that. Because I know that I will be making updates, I'd rather that existing ETC users rest easy knowing that they aren't going to have to keep paying and paying as I keep coming up with new ideas (especially if the new ideas prove critical to the training process). But I'm not averse to raising the price to a new user when the program becomes more valuable!
I suspect that a full literacy program will undoubtedly end up growing into something beyond ETC, and that may become a separate package altogether; in the meantime, I'm glad to be reminded of the parallel between language and music literacy because it helps me understand more specifically what more I should expect ETC to do.
A couple things I already knew: as successful as Interval Loader has been, it's occurred to me that I want to integrate the levels so that there's a total intermingling of sound types within the game. Chordfall, too, already has some changes on the docket. I'm also contemplating a new game, a fourth game, for chord progressions (but that's a lower priority right now; it seems a larger task and I don't want to let that run away with me).
But what I'd thought I'd do with AP Blaster has changed. I had thought I would write some bonus levels in which the player would have to replace certain pitches with others; but if that skill is a result of reading ability, that may be more appropriately part of a total literacy module. What I can do is to make sure that ETC really is teaching a written alphabet; which means I want to strengthen the mental connection between the pitch sounds and the graphemes... which means microphone input. People using the Mac version of ETC know that there are already a couple singing games in Interval Loader; as soon as I can figure out how to get Realbasic to accept microphone input on Windows (without immediately sending it to a save-file) I'm going to build it into the games wherever possible (and practical).
In every case, in the games and in the literacy goal, a guiding principle for all my work is the question: how do we do this naturally? In various places on this site, and as will be explored further on the acting page, I think it's essential to train any student to experience causes rather than replicate results. A direct implication of this statement is that every component of a curriculum should be presented the way that our minds and bodies would normally experience it. One very good example came out of my conversation with the high school teacher. She said that when reading, she encourages her students to strike the desk once for every comma they run across, and to hit twice for a period. Although I suppose this might seem like a clever idea, the fact of the matter is that nobody in their right mind ever pounds on tables when they see commas and periods.
To go with this example-- how could learning commas and periods be made more natural? I'll take a page out of Fletcher's book to respond to that one. Fletcher teaches chromatic scales in such a way that the children must discover the need for different sharps and flats (namely, to make sure every line and space is used only once). In this case, it seems to me that, rather than thumping tables, you could create a situation where a student would be forced to discover the need for commas and periods. Perhaps you could have the student write something for you, and you'd read it back to them exactly, so they could complain you'd gotten it wrong and want to fix it. Maybe you could have them tell you a short story and transcribe it, so they can then read it back to you-- by repeating their own ideas with the same inflection and meaning, they'd naturally encounter the psychological purpose of a comma or period. Or who knows what else, just as long as it's actual reading and writing as communication that one would naturally, normally do.
Music has one handicap, though, that isn't suffered by the linguistically illiterate. People who can't read do, nonetheless, know how to talk. They know how to formulate, structure, and convey a linguistic idea. It seems reasonable to assume that that student who can "read" an entire page but not understand it would, at least, be able to comprehend its meaning if it were read back to him by someone else. Not so with music. If reading exists to convey ideas, then reception of that idea is utterly dependent on the capacity to receive that idea. If you can't think in music, if you can't conceive of a musical idea, then how can you possibly learn to read music? How do you teach a non-musician-- or someone with no concept of music-- to have musical ideas, so they can think structurally and holistically? This could require a complete psychological makeover. Maybe teaching absolute pitch skill is just the warm-up. Perhaps this is the real challenge.
Top Rank: Captain, 2nd Class (red C)
If you've been playing Absolute Pitch Blaster, even if it's only the demo, let me encourage you to please write in the forum about anything you notice. I'll keep reporting my own experience on the main page here, but I'm not a practicing instrumentalist, and so my progress is comparatively slow. Some people have casually mentioned that they've already reached G, D, A-- even E!-- and it'd be great if you could talk a little bit about what's happening to your perception (or maybe-- gulp!-- what's not happening). It would be extremely helpful even if you just drop in occasionally to mention how many wave-flags you've got and what pitch you're on. If some day I manage to organize a formal study on this process, it'd be very useful to have a sense of how long it takes musicians of different skill levels to progress through the game, both so I could account for it in my hypothesis and so I could interpret results more accurately.
I've had one person ask me if, having achieved 2nd or 1st class in a rank, it wasn't a bit harsh to drop all the way back to 4th. Wouldn't it be possible to save the game so you wouldn't have to start again, he asked? My answer is definite: no and no. It should not be possible to save the game; anyone who's ever saved a game knows that you can back up a save-file and totally avoid the in-game penalties for messing up. And it doesn't really feel like cheating, either, because you can tell yourself "Well, I made it this far before, so I'm just starting where I left off." In Interval Loader, I know that I make the best progress by starting from Level 1 every time. It's not possible to start from the very beginning in every game of APB, but it is essential to "drop all the way back" in rank so you can replay and reinforce that group of sound types. You might notice that my high rank is still Captain, 2nd Class, as it was in the last article-- but having made it that far, in each subsequent game last week I kept struggling (often unsuccessfully) just to avoid being dropped back to Warrior. Now, I zip through 4th and 3rd class quite easily, and only get confused when I hit the 2nd-class interval sounds. Or, to put it another way: don't worry if you don't advance rapidly into new ranks. Instead, pay attention and you'll notice how the earlier levels gradually keep getting easier and easier as you repeat them.
Speaking of easy-vs-hard, someone posted a comment that made me wonder about a common assumption. Everyone seems to tacitly agree that it's somehow more impressive to demonstrate absolute ability when you've "just woken up in the morning." Until this post, I had unthinkingly imagined so too-- but now that I think about it, wouldn't it be significantly easier to demonstrate absolute ability in the morning, when your mind and body are fresh and uncluttered with the sounds and stresses of a normal day?
Top Rank: Captain, 2nd Class (red C)
In Absolute Pitch Blaster, my most consistent error is when I think I hear the target pitch. When the C-pitch appears, my mind and body respond with a kind of "a-ha!" impulse which lets me know that the C is there-- no thinking involved. If I start thinking about it, I get blown up.
I always feel that little shock of recognition when I hear C. If I don't feel it, I'll often think-- this pitch sounds sort of like a C; maybe I don't recognize it because it's in a new context-- and answer yes, and get blown up. Or I'll listen to a sound and I'll recognize a C, but I won't have consciously heard a C; so I think "I must have imagined it" and answer no and get blown up. It is true that I have to learn to hear a C all over again in each new context, so sometimes I simply don't hear it. But when I do hear it, that mental switch flips and I know I've heard it. My mistakes happen when I think I've heard it. This is why the Melody Word is available during the launch-code sequence. Sometimes when there are no C's in the launch code (or only one) I get disoriented, and I reorient to a pitch that isn't C (usually because that non-C pitch appears in more than two of the blue-button sounds). If I play the Melody Word and revisit those sounds, though, it's obviously not C.
It occurred to me that some people might experience this same disorientation and think that they were somehow failing because they didn't "remember" the C. But at the beginning of the game, there are no other categories except C, so it's only natural that you'd have to keep reminding yourself of what a C sounds like. In fact, you need to keep reminding yourself, because the initial goal is not to learn a pitch. The initial goal is to learn how to detect pitch chroma. Although the Melody Word does make it possible to recall a C, you mustn't rely on being able to recall a C. You've got to compare all the different C's to each other directly. If you only hear them separately, your mind will continue to think of them as different. If you only ever compare each C to the Melody Word, you'll only ever be able recognize C in comparison to the Melody Word. Someone asked me if the launch code was really an important part of the game; in truth, it's the most important part. That's the only time when the game forces you to listen to the target pitch side by side with itself in different contexts. You only start learning pitches once APB starts adding more pitches besides C. Then your mind can begin recognizing each pitch as not the others and be better able to remember which is which.
I'm still on C alone, so I frequently lose track of the C, but I seem to have developed a few consistent strategies for putting myself back on track. Most often I'll use the blue buttons or I'll recall the Melody Word. I'm more intrigued by sounds that don't have a C, though, because the first thing I do is perform a quick mental check for the notes around C. This is easiest in a structured sound like a chord (harmonic or arpeggioed); I can somehow sense that the tones are "surrounding" where C should be, and I can feel the emptiness of the slot which would have a C in it. But sometimes in a random grouping I can also recognize that a pitch is "next to" C and thus feel the empty space where there is no C.
Top Rank: Captain, 2nd Class (red C)
Absolute pitch is not the ability to identify and recall tones.
How could it be? Since 1899, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that people can be trained to identify and recall tones, and yet not one of these trained people-- not one!-- has claimed that their pitch recognition ability has been anything more than... well, an ability to identify and recall tones. Unquestionably, those who have undergone "absolute pitch training" have found new layers in their perception of musical sound; but case after case and subject after subject reports that their absolute ear training has had little to no impact on their overall musicianship. Admittedly, being able to identify and recall tones and to hear more information within a musical mass is pretty cool, and most people who do the training discover that it does add to their appreciation of music. But is this absolute pitch? Regardless of how well a pitch-trained adult names individual notes, do they evidence the same musical powers as someone with absolute pitch? No. They do not. My conversation with the high-school reading teacher forced me to think about it, and Larry has now also said it quite succinctly: "If perfect pitch is ONLY about identifying single pitches with some internal measuring instrument, then it’s of no use to any one but a piano tuner."
Identifying and recalling tones appears to be the mere root of the full ability. The name-and-recall function is, I would think, seized on by those wishing to define "absolute pitch" because it is the most obvious and the most visible skill which can be quantitatively measured. Naming and recalling tones is the only thing that an absolute listener can do that a non-absolute listener can't do in some way. But the absolute listener is also an absolute producer. Their approach to musicianship and musical production-- starting from before they're old enough to know-- is shaped, formed, and dictated by their absolute awareness. Through a lifetime of development, they hear music differently, think about it differently, remember it differently, and produce it differently. But this can't be measured, and can hardly be observed; it's all psychological, all internal, all subjective. The only thing we can know for sure is that people with absolute pitch can name notes with 98% accuracy.
We do know that the brain structure of an absolute listener is different from normal-- the left side is larger-- but we don't know why. The abnormally large area of the brain is one which processes language; and, because it activates in a note-naming task, scientists have speculated that its activity is "attaching linguistic labels" to tones. I suspect (and have already said) that it's equally likely that this area is processing music holistically in an absolute manner... whatever that manner might be.
Because of my own linguistic experiences, I believe that I'm not just speaking theoretically. I know for a fact that because of my preschool training, I not only read and perceive English in a way that's different from normal, but I also feel the language differently; I can't teach someone that. I have learned the "absolute sound" of the German vowels ö, ä, and ü, but that didn't teach me German. I might pick vowels out of German speech all day long, but I wouldn't have any idea what the speech meant, or even where each word started and ended.
In both of these examples, the response is the same: learn to read. I can't teach someone to feel the same mental jolt that I do when I see a misused apostrophe, but if a person spends enough time reading they will teach themselves. And, as a direct parallel to absolute-pitch training, I have to know the German vowels if I want to learn the language, but knowing the vowel sounds won't do me a lick of good until I actually do learn the language and know which words those vowels will appear in. Unless I have read the word "geschäftlich", and know what it looks like on the page, I will probably always hear it (and mispronounce it) as "gescheftlich." But once I have read the word, each time I hear it I'll automatically know all its phonemes without bothering to mentally "unlock" that word.
This perspective has made my last couple games of APB somewhat easier, because I've realized that I don't actually need to hear a C in order to recognize it. You might remember that our mind can't resolve independent sounds that are nearer to each other then 450ms; we hear the sound as one unit and infer its components. So occasionally I'll hear a sequence of random tones and I'll recognize that one of them is a C, but I'll have no idea which one it was (third? fourth?). But that's normal. In a fast-moving melody, I wouldn't know which tone it was unless I knew how to "spell" the entire sequence. Additionally, I sometimes recognize certain intervals as having the C-quality without hearing an actual C-tone "inside" the interval. We do this every day in language without realizing it; the name "Paul" is as good an example as any other word, because when you hear "Paul" you know you're hearing all four sounds when in fact you're perceiving only one sound.
I think that absolute pitch is full musical literacy. I suspect that absolute pitch ability is the "phonemic awareness" of music, with at least as many levels and at least as much variation. And, as I've implied before, I imagine that the way to translate Absolute Pitch Blaster's chroma-identification skill into full absolute listening is through additional training-- literacy training. I am reasonably convinced that in order for an adult to achieve absolute pitch ability, it is not enough to learn how to identify and recall tones; it is not even enough to learn how to recognize and recall tone chroma. To achieve total absolute pitch, and to become able to think absolutely, an adult must learn to read.
Top Rank: Captain, 3rd Class (red C)
Someone in the forum just asked how this Absolute Pitch Blaster thing is supposed to work, anyway. My immediate reaction was surprise-- hadn't he read the website?-- but then it occurred to me that, although the development of APB's principles are scattered all around the website, and although I planned from the start to use Phase 12 to explain the method, I hadn't yet written an article for the specific purpose of describing How It Works. So here it is.
Absolute listeners identify a pitch by its "chroma"; therefore, the key to absolute listening is pitch chroma. Chroma, vaguely described, is what a pitch sounds like. We've known since the 1900s that chroma is the absolute quality of a musical pitch, and every absolute-pitch training method since the 1960s has attempted to train students to hear pitch chroma. But to teach anything, you've got to be able to define it. Otherwise you can only give hints and suggestions, and hope that something clicks-- but then if something does click, there's no way to know what actually clicked!** Chroma is a subjective, psychological quality, and that's the main problem: nobody has ever been able to determine exactly what "chroma" is. Until now.
I have a definition of chroma. I see chroma as the psychological interpretation of a pitch frequency, and this knowledge is the core of the APB training method. Because of this definition, APB can ignore all the psychological touchy-feely sensory-awareness garbage, and solve the problem directly, by teaching you to recognize pitch frequency. (That's why APB is patent pending.) Nobody knows what "chroma" is, psychologically-- but we know exactly what a "spectral frequency" is, so APB can use established principles of perceptual learning to make you hear it. Equally important, we know what a spectral frequency isn't, so it's possible to know what APB should not teach.
So that's what it does. Now how does it work?
Here's what I wrote on the new software page, in case you hadn't seen it yet:
Here are three shapes that all have one thing in common.
How long does it take you to see what it is?
You didn't even have to know what you were looking for-- your mind found it automatically.
It's so easy, you may have thought this was a trick question. But it's not. This is how your brain works.
And once you see that absolute feature, then you can recognize it no matter where it appears.
This is the principle of perceptual differentiation, and it's how APB teaches your mind to hear spectral frequency.
Spectral frequency is only one characteristic of a sound. Even a seemingly simple sound like a single tone is composed of multiple characteristics like duration, volume, and intensity, and musical tones are additionally surrounded by timbres and overtones and harmonies, and all of these are bundled together into our mind's normal comprehension of "pitch". APB works by placing a pitch into increasingly complex situations so that, bit by bit, your mind strips away everything that isn't chroma.
Here's a more complete visual analogue to the APB process.
This picture contains the "target."
(Notice that, at this point, you have no idea what the "target" actually is.)
The "target" is in all of these pictures. Can you find it?
By now you should have a pretty clear idea of what the target is, so that when you see this image you can spot the target easily.
Also, when you were trying to figure out what the "target" was, you probably compared the new images to each other, yes? If you didn't just limit yourself to the original image, you would've found the process even easier. This is a natural learning impulse, and it is the purpose of the blue buttons in APB.
I can use the same pictures to illustrate traditional note-naming methods. By "traditional methods" I mean any method which requires you to identify pitches by name.
Here's how it works:
This is a "C". Memorize this image.
Here are more images. Please identify the "C" whenever you see it.
1. 2. 3.
4. 5. 6. 7.
If you successfully memorized the "C", you could easily recognize and identify #2 and #6. But all these images are "C"!
You'd never learn to identify the other ones as "C", because they obviously don't look like the original image. You might hesitantly select #5 because it's sort of like the memorized image, but the better you memorized "C" the less likely you'd be to pick #5.
This is why someone can learn identify and recall musical tones extremely well, using traditional "perfect pitch" training, but then find that ability to be musically useless. When you memorize tones you are not learning to hear pitch; in fact, from that training you never learn which of a tone's many characteristics is the actual pitch. (I wrote a bit more about this in the forum.) This is why Absolute Pitch Blaster never asks you to identify tones, and never asks you to name pitches. Trying to name pitches only encourages tone memorization, and tone memorization is counterproductive to learning absolute pitch.
Were you wondering why, in this example, I didn't just show the actual target as the "C" to be memorized? That's because a pitch frequency only exists inside of a musical sound. A pitch never appears by itself; it always appears together with other tonal characteristics. You can't separate it; even a sine wave has duration and amplitude (at the very least).
Absolute pitch education should enable you to recognize, recall, and identify any pitch, at any time, in any context, under any reasonable conditions. APB makes this possible by training your mind to isolate spectral frequency. Last Saturday, I was traveling with my laptop, and I needed to kill some time at the airport, so I decided to play a game of APB. The moment I began, I was reminded that I was in a very noisy airport-- conversations and public announcements, cell phones going off, the "airport channel" blaring from six different speakers, air blowing through the open gate doors, feet clomping, suitcases dragging-- the sheer amount of noise was incredible... and it had no effect whatsoever on my game. I didn't have to shut out or screen out any of the other noises; the C-pitch was simply one characteristic of the total sound input my ears were receiving.
I discovered yesterday that this is why I can't add spoken voice or natural sound effects to APB. Non-musical sounds have too many audible pitch frequencies in them. As I was listening to my bathroom vent fan last week I noticed that I could mentally resolve its white noise into two different and distinctly identifiable pitches, but when I listened to either pitch the other one disappeared. A couple months ago, I was riding on a bus with a very loud click in its engine; I couldn't ignore the click so I decided to make myself listen for words in the sound. I was amused that, even though the sound didn't change, I could make it say either "yummy" or "yucky" depending on what I expected to hear. Although it'd be great to add more complexity to APB, non-musical sounds are just too complex. I do continue to add levels of complexity, though; you'll notice that my rank has gone down to Captain 3rd class. That's because I added more sound types, so the rank that was Captain 1st class has recalculated to Captain 3rd class. But moving on...
APB should also help you to remember the pitch sounds. The Melody Words are an important tool for this (I have already written an explanation of Melody Words), but perceptual differentiation should also help you to form categories along the spectrum of musical sound. While training the first pitch in APB (possibly the first few pitches), you will lose track of the target pitch sound and have to constantly remind yourself of it. You should not expect to be able to remember it. Pitches, like phonemes, represent "mere otherness"; with the exception of Melody Word-aided recall, you should not expect to be able to consistently remember and recognize a pitch sound outside of APB until you have experience with multiple pitches. Then, you'll be able to say to yourself "it's not this one, but that one." This is due to perceptual differentiation; once you're able to hear and recognize chroma, your mind will automatically start comparing the chroma to each other so you can tell them apart.
That's the capsule summary of the method, then. If you have any comment on this explanation I'd be pleased to hear it.
After my last article, someone suggested that maybe I was being "too philosophical" about the holistic absolute pitch concept. Although I realize that speculative thought isn't as immediately helpful as is scientific research, I believe it is important to imagine the probable effects of absolute pitch perception so that I can continue to expand ETC. I don't want people merely to learn absolute pitch; I want them to use it to their full advantage. Because absolute pitch is so rare, there are no methods I know of (besides Fletcher's) designed to teach music by incorporating absolute skill. I need to understand how absolute pitch affects musicianship so I can develop training materials to encourage the same effects, and right now neither the science nor the method exists. So I have to be "philosophical" about it.
I see this happening in theater all the time; the best example is "energy". Trained actors know that they need energy, and can usually recognize when they have got it; but they don't know where it came from, they don't know what caused it, they don't know how to create it, and they don't know what will destroy it, because they don't know what it is. Most of the time, actors and directors believe that energy is a side effect of other things-- how you feel that day, or an audience's reactions-- so they perform as they rehearsed, and blindly hope that the energy appears. Sometimes people do try to teach energy; last semester my movement instructor asked us to play a game of tag, and once we'd worn ourselves out she triumphantly told us we should perform with that much energy. But this is only a trick; we get a sense of "energy" but we haven't learned what it is. When I tried the same thing with my students, one of them immediately asked "but... how do we do this when we're not playing tag?" At the time, I didn't have an answer; but once I defined energy, I was able to create some exercises to teach it. This past week, in less than ten minutes, I was able to teach my dad exactly what "energy" is and how to work with it (and believe me, he's no actor).
Top Rank: Warrior, 3rd class (blue G)
Why hasn't anyone learned absolute pitch before now?
I've just finished translating Otto Abraham's 1901 publication, "Absolute Tone Consciousness"-- and like so many other publications from a hundred years ago, what he writes about is still so relevant that it might as well have been written last week. This article continues to pop up in the references section of modern publications (as recently as Miyazaki's 2004 summary of literature) but that might be for no other reason than it exists and is 87 pages long. Has anyone actually read this thing? When I took another look at the references in Petran's 1932 paper, I was surprised to see that most of the relevant research is in German language. There appears to have been a small explosion of German interest in absolute pitch in the early part of the century and I wonder if, after English became the dominant language, those who looked back at these publications didn't actually know their content. Maybe they were happy to accept a brief second-hand quip which added another line to their bibliography. But even that didn't happen very often; to assemble my Phase 11 research pages I scoured every reference section of every paper I read, and Petran still gave me fifteen German-language articles (and one French) which had not been used by anyone else. I'm currently in the process of retrieving as many of these as I can find. It's possible that those papers will give me even more worthwhile information... all of it, apparently, lost to the English-speaking world. Maybe if we'd had that information more easily accessible, we wouldn't have been stuck in the same place for so long.
Or not. Maybe we wouldn't have made any progress anyway. Miyazaki's 2004 paper ("How well do we understand absolute pitch?") suggests that
...most of the early studies primarily focused on such aspects of [absolute pitch] is a rare ability or attempted to demonstrate its learnability from the standpoint of the nature-nurture controversy. Apparently, there has been little attempt to study [absolute pitch] from the psychophysical or cognitive viewpoint.
Whatever viewpoint you might select-- psychophysical, cognitive, linguistic, developmental, etc-- I'd say Miyazaki has the right question. How well do we understand absolute pitch? Do we even know what it is? If you don't understand a thing then you can't do anything with it. A flawed premise leads to a flawed hypothesis, and a flawed hypothesis leads to a failed experiment. It reminds me of that old story about the future archaeologists, who unearthed a car and concluded that it was a special kind of radio receiver. If these proverbial scientists tried to recreate their radio device, they could very easily leave off the irrelevant wheels.
In short, absolute pitch doesn't get learned because the wrong skills are being taught, and even the right tools have the wrong effect. When people learn that the Tanedas use colored dots on the piano keyboard, they usually remember toy keyboards like this one:
and, like the Taneda piano books, these toys also tend to have have sheet music with colored notes.
These kinds of toys have been around for generations (in kindergarten, I had a xylophone with colored bars), and in all those years they don't seem to have caused anyone to learn absolute pitch. What makes the difference?
I could go on for quite a while about the various reasons this particular toy won't teach absolute pitch-- I've had four months to think about it while I've been writing about acting-- and in future writings I may do exactly that, but for the moment I'll point out that a big part of the answer is right there in the sheet music. Don't look at the notes; look at the symbols below the notes. You might not know Dutch, but I would be extremely surprised if it were not true that
1. You knew that these symbols represented specific sounds.
2. You can say those sounds out loud, either as syllables or as letters.
3. You are certain that these sounds "mean something" (even if you can't understand what).
None of these statements are expected to be true of the musical notes. But the statements would be true for someone with absolute pitch, and I think the third statement is the most important of all. And these three statements are, to be sure, just the tip of the iceberg. You might consider the parallel case-- take a child who does not know Chinese, and give them a toy typewriter that "speaks" Chinese characters along with your spare copy of The Art of War. What do you think would happen?
Music is a language. Most musical training treats it as a mechanical activity. That's why it doesn't get learned.
Top Rank: Warrior, 3rd class (blue G)
I've surprised myself by taking some extra time to translate some of the early German articles (and one French)-- and they have failed to surprise me by continuing to be quite contemporary. Although I still have a few that I could potentially translate, it seems that I've hit the big ones (Revesz, von Kries, and Abraham) and the others will probably be tabled because they all seem to follow the same basic pattern.
The pattern is both amusing and intensely aggravating. It's essentially this:
1. Scientist publishes direct observations and data, plus analysis of the data.
2. Respondent offers condescending rebuttal, using only opinion and analogy.
3. Scientist expresses disbelief, refutes rebuttal, and reiterates position.
I inadvertently discovered the pattern when I learned that Otto Abraham had written a second paper in 1907, following an identically-titled 1906 article in the same journal by a different author (Auerbach). I translated the Auerbach article, expecting it to be some kind of follow-up experiment, and got this instead. I then translated Abraham's response to discover, as I had hoped, a point-by-point smackdown of Auerbach's article.
I inferred this process to be a pattern when I encountered repeated examples of the #3 type (the defensive scientists). Until reading them, I didn't know that the various #2 types of articles existed, and I probably won't bother to find them for the same reason they hadn't been referenced anywhere in the first place; as Auerbach's writing readily demonstrates, they possess no scientific value. I can be thoroughly content with knowing that they exist and that certain analogical points were made in them (the ones subsequently refuted by the scientists).
Of course, on the one hand, the whole mess is strong evidence against using analogy or simile when trying to mount an argument. Auerbach must have thought his blueprint-elevation analogy very clever, but Abraham shredded it with logical reasoning. If you intend to prove or disprove anything, use the data. An analogy can only be used as a method of giving an uninformed outsider conceptual access to otherwise incomprehensible ideas; it cannot provide factual insight into an unknown thing. The scientists expressed their frustration at the arrogance shown in these scientifically-worthless responses:
[A]bsolute tone consciousness is much too complex an issue to condescendingly dismiss with a satirical analogy. (Abraham)
I would like to note at the start that Professor Reimann did not engage with my philosophies, rather, his conclusions and criticism are drawn from some rather vaguely formulated remarks. I could only infer that he does not agree with my views; why he claimed his disagreements were in opposition to my work is still not clear to me. (Révész)
It would be extremely doubtful that someone could entirely negate such a feature [as chroma] 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? (Wellik)
And yet they did argue. They do argue. What I find most remarkable about the entire situation-- then and now-- is that so many people have such strong personal feelings about the issue that they will not merely ignore the available data, but violently reject it (for no valid reason!) as erroneous, irrelevant, or worse. I still remember the vicious, condescending attack I received from the music school's singing teacher when I mentioned that I was investigating methods of teaching adults. I still remember my astonishment and dismay when a parent here at the theater school waved away my offer to teach her four-year-old daughter with We Hear and Play: "Her father has absolute pitch," she informed me, "so we want to wait and see if she'll get it." I don't understand these responses; I don't understand why people cling to their perspective like the dog in the manger and actively attempt to destroy contradictory evidence. All I can really do is try to leave them be in their own worlds.
And I will persist in my efforts, despite any detractors who may force themselves upon me, because I also remember the response of the music-theater department's accompanist, last year, before I had Absolute Pitch Blaster at the ready. She immediately wanted to know whether she could use We Hear and Play with her two daughters, and was terribly disappointed that at ages 10 and 13 they were too old for the process. She has absolute pitch, and I have heard her do some amazing things at the piano. She knows what they're missing.
I think I know what they're missing, too, even though I can't yet directly experience it... and this is why I'm currently thinking about how to expand and integrate the Ear Training Companion. Eric has posted in the forum what I think is the best available description of the ETC ear-training method:
In a way, then, this project is a very cleverly constructed long-term experiment that hypothesizes AP learning might be possible.
and so I have been considering, what does the data tell us so far? Thanks to the responses I have personally received and those I have seen in the forum, combined with my own experiences, I can say that APB has successfully demonstrated the following results, which traditional methods have also shown in the past:
- People who train to recognize and identify tones will get better at it.
- Rapidity of progress is a function of existing musical ability.
- The benefits gained by the training are a function of existing musical ability.
These are important results, because they show the system to be at least as successful as traditional methods-- but that which was the critical unknown, and the reason for the patent application, also now seems to have been successfully demonstrated:
- A completely naive listener can be trained to hear and recognize pitch chroma directly.
That last word is the critical issue and had been the X-factor. Historically, every training method for adults has relied exclusively on indirect criteria: "feeling" the pitch, color analysis, visual imagery, vowel sounds, sensorimotor memory, familiar associations, etc., but none of these sensations play any part of absolute pitch perception. Kries explained in 1892 (no, that's not a typo, it's really 1892): "It must therefore be held, first and foremost, that it is fundamentally correct to say that the identification of tones is not occurring through comparison with a tone held in memory, independent of the particular tone to be judged, or from a mental image based on a certain pitch," and when Auerbach, in 1906, suggested the analogy of a person possessing "absolute altitude" by sensing factors such as air pressure, Abraham blasted the idea: "Actual absolute tone consciousness is, as I proved in a specific chapter of my work, completely independent of all indirect criteria."
The evidence has been before us for over a century; but, lacking the psychological studies, even Abraham failed to draw the obvious conclusion: a training method must be designed to teach direct perception of chroma. The ETC method seems to accomplish this. Furthermore, the demonstrated fact that people with musical ability progress faster and achieve more substantial results also indicates that this type of chroma perception is musically relevant.
Additionally, ETC has shown that people with no musical ability can be easily trained to hear chroma. In Rush's 1989 study of a popular training method which used indirect criteria, the researcher found that musical skill was not the determining factor in rapidity of progress; it was the determining factor in ability to progress. The subjects with greater musical talent were the ones who found themselves able to participate and continue the absolute training. Although it's still too early to determine whether continued work with ETC will cause musically inexperienced players to eventually hit an intractable barrier (my own slow progress could yet be a function of the methodical structure rather than my own competence, and I am nonetheless continuing to make progress), I have seen firsthand how ETC makes chroma accessible to the musically naive.
Where I can't hear lyrics in songs (my stepfather claims the same malady), my mother can't hear music beneath lyrics. Her doctorate is in linguistics, and she is so completely oriented to linguistic sound that when she goes to the opera, she hears and interprets the words but misses the music completely. Over the holiday she decided to give Absolute Pitch Blaster a try. Initially, of course, she relied completely on the blue buttons, and when the first intervals appeared she had to compare many times to be certain-- but within half an hour she had started to make her first judgments based on actually detecting the correct pitch instead of comparing to the blue buttons. And I had said nothing to coach her. I had merely pointed out the mechanics of the game.
But this is not enough. I have to admit that only someone with a vested interest (or a pathological one) would have the patience and diligence to work through 535 waves of little aliens without advancing any further than the second pitch (G). Part of the answer will be, I think, to revise the way in which pitches are presented (now that I am capable of hearing chroma, I want more than just two pitches to work with!) but the more important aspect is to even the field in terms of what the experienced musician brings to the ETC training. Absolute Pitch Blaster, as it is now, trains anyone how to hear chroma-- but it doesn't yet train what a musician will already know: where to look for it, and what to do with it.
What to do with it is fairly simply stated, if yet totally unimplemented. I need to write program modules for reading and writing. That's one thing.
Where to look for it is considerably more complex and involved. In addition to the raw data which I've cited that demonstrates how syllables are heard and phonemes inferred, there is apparently a new psychological perspective called sensory phenomenology that's gaining steam. I'd encourage you to follow the link and introduce yourself to the topic, which is quite fascinating-- stated in brief, this paper claims that we don't actually "see" things, but that our visual experience is a mental construction of learned expectations based on partial available sensory data. Of course, based on the potency of imagined images that I have been able to demonstrate in my acting classes, I'm easily convinced that our reality is almost entirely a mental construct; but even if you don't buy in quite as thoroughly as I would, the fundamental points of this paper may be transferred from visual perception to auditory perception.
This writer's data shows how we can look directly at an image, knowing that we're trying to see it, and still fail to see it 40% of the time. But once we know what we're looking for it's impossible to miss. Most of us have probably had the same kind of experience with lyrics; I recently listened to Rihanna's "Pon de Replay" dozens of times, trying and failing to understand a certain line (I can hear lyrics if I force myself to maintain an active attention); it was no better than gibberish. But as soon as I found the lyrics on-line, the song transformed itself, and I found it was impossible to convince myself that I was not clearly hearing the words "won't you turn the music up." And that, in turn, helped me interpret other parts of the song (that I hadn't read) which had previously seemed garbled.
I must bring structural hearing into play. ETC has to increase the listener's knowledge of what they are hearing. If I hear an arpeggioed C-major seventh chord, then I'll know that the fourth tone is going to be B; perhaps I might even anticipate hearing it from the first three tones and, when it occurs, merely indicate that my expectation has been confirmed. I have little doubt that this kind of expectation-inference is what makes the musically experienced players advance so much more effectively in absolute-pitch training. As much as I appreciate Interval Loader, and as much potential as I think Chordfall may have, they must be integrated into comprehensive structural training. Somehow. This isn't going to happen overnight. But my goal is to create a training tool that will work for anyone and everyone, regardless of prior musical experience, so by golly this is where it's got to go. (And as I've mentioned, this is why updates will continue to be free.)
In the process, I'm sure I will need to change the way many people think about their own musical ability. My mother, for example, despite her linguistic bent, is not entirely unmusical; she enjoys listening to music and even loves to sing it, shamelessly, despite the fact that her singing is notoriously and consistently off-key. She usually goes off within just a few notes. Over this holiday I had the opportunity to observe her attempts at singing, and then when she asked me how her singing would change with absolute pitch I told her: "I suspect that the reason you sing off-key now is because, even if you do have a clear mental image of the song, you think of the song as going 'up' and 'down' instead of as a series of notes. So when you reproduce a melody by singing, you don't think of it as the highly specific 'this note followed by that note followed by this note' but as the general actions of 'going up' and 'going down'. Since this is generally unmeasurable, you'll inevitably shoot past, or fall short, and go off-key." A moment later-- I forget whether I prompted her or if there was some other reason-- she sang a melody and I was surprised to hear her sing every note of an entire four-bar verse with perfect accuracy. I asked her if she had noticed her mental strategy; she told me that that time, she had sung it note by note instead of "up" and "down". I asked her if she knew that she'd sung it exactly correct. She said no, she hadn't been certain, but she was intrigued to know that she had succeeded.
You can get quite a lot done when you assume that the subject is always competent. Barring any physiological abnormality, the method's always to blame.
I've been using an imagination exercise to develop a theatrical performance; I call it a "mind excursion". I listen to verbal suggestions with my eyes closed, and I respond by describing the images I see. Using this process, I'm creating false memories which correspond to the events and images described by my monologues, and the memories thus created are not only richly detailed but undeniably real. That is, I refer to these inventions and explorations as false memories, but there's nothing false about them. I've seen these things, I've been to these places, I've experienced these events. Despite my knowing, intellectually, that these are imaginary events, the illusion is immersive and total. It's fascinating, mesmerizing, and a little addicting, and lately I've been wondering-- why does it work?
It's especially curious that there are those for whom it does not work. I happen to know that my father and my movement instructor see nothing when they close their eyes, but they can imagine sounds and smells and can be encouraged to experience an imaginary scene from sensory cues of that nature. One of my castmates, however, has discovered that he seems to have no direct sensory imagery at all. He tried to imagine visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and taste sensations and came up with nothing. I speculated that maybe he had a memory for kinesthetic images, so I asked him to hit my hand and then try to imagine having done so. He couldn't. He remembered hitting my hand, but couldn't bring a specific image to mind.
He definitely imagines something. His mind is not devoid of images. At lunch this afternoon, he mentioned that he used to be able to run through his house with his eyes shut (provided someone hadn't moved a chair to an unexpected location), and as he described it to me he "looked" at the path he would run and mapped it out by gesturing with his hands as he spoke. I asked him, what was he doing right now, if he wasn't seeing this path? He had no explanation to offer me. I wonder if what he's experiencing is, somehow, inexplicable.
I believe that the answers can be explained, at least theoretically, by sensory phenomenology. If I understand the concept from this publication, none of us actually perceive the world directly. The old diagram of the inverted image on the retina, which seemed so simple and plausible, now seems to be a quaint and outdated theory, similar perhaps to the mapping of taste sensations to four or five broad sections of the tongue.
I've recently been able to explain the premise of the imagination exercise by using this example (quoted from the page at the other end of that link):
Perhaps you've played the children's game in which someone puts a household object like a cork, or a potato, or a harmonica into a bag, and you put your hand into the bag and try to figure out what the object is. At first you feel this or that texture on the tips of your fingers. You have no idea what the object is. But suddenly you have a kind of "Aha" experience. Suddenly you feel you're no longer touching bits of texture on the ends of your fingers, but you're holding a whole object: it's a harmonica. And it's ALL there at once, even though you're in fact only touching a few parts of it. It's not just that you know it's a whole harmonica, you actually feel it's a whole harmonica.
This simple example demonstrates how actively our imaginations participate in creating our actual reality. It should be immediately obvious, therefore, that we are aggressively doing exactly this in every moment of our waking life. We're extremely well-practiced at it-- it's so completely effortless that we haven't the slightest idea that we're even doing it at all.
Which means that when we close our eyes and commit to an imaginary reality, our minds will automatically "fill in" all the missing sensory information with perfect ease. I've done this exercise with friends and students; not only are they able to respond to my most fantastic suggestions, but in their first encounter with the exercise they often acknowledge with some surprise that a thing definitely did not exist until I made the suggestion ("where's the nearest streetlight?") but as soon as they looked for it, there it was ("well, now that you mention it, it's ten feet away, on the left").
The exercise therefore can begin from nothing and warp to anything. If you have the mere suggestion of "I'm looking at a red wagon", but you don't have the sensory input to justify the statement, your mind can create the basic concept for you. Then you can ask yourself about the details: what color are the wheels? and your mind, recognizing that a wagon has wheels and those wheels are likely of some color, obligingly invents them and assigns them to be some color. Look at one of the wheels-- is it rusty? How many screws are holding the wheel in place? Further suggestions can directly contradict what seems to be there, provided that the overriden detail has not been established; that is, if you visually confirm all four wheels before receiving the suggestion of "which wheel is bent?" you'll probably answer "none of them", but if you only looked at one of the wheels you may suddenly find that one of the other three is indeed bent where it hadn't been before. You'll find your imagination will give you answers even to nonsensical suggestions: which wheel is edible? What does the left rear wheel say to you? You can press that button to make it grow wings, can't you! The suggestions don't have to be logical, and they can be physically impossible. The only criterion is that they must be conceivable.
In short: the imagination exercise involves attending to concepts. Given a concept, we may infer and subsequently imagine any aspect or detail of that concept, whether it be mundane (a telephone) or fantastic (leaping to the moon). Although sensory imagery appears to be the most common, obvious, and potent method of unconscious inference, the process seems to be a deductive one, which would explain why my castmate can still imagine and remember despite having no apparent sense memory. I asked him to close his eyes and point to all the objects in the room, which he could easily do. When I spun him around, he was able to use the available cues from the room-- light, temperature, sound reflections-- to orient himself and again indicate the objects' locations. He processes and uses sensory input to create an imaginary scene (with his eyes closed, everything in the room is imaginary), even though the sensory input itself does not remain in his memory. I hope to have the opportunity to explore this further with him, and discover if he can invent aspects of the scene which did not previously exist-- for example, can he close his eyes, imagine that a chair has been moved into some part of the room, and point to it?-- but his ability to create an imaginary scene without apparent sense memory suggests that he has constructed a mental image of the concept of the furnished room.
From my recent experience, it seems that one's ability to remember an image is a direct function of one's ability to conceive it. I'm currently taking a stage combat class, and I've been having terrible difficulty. One of the ongoing assignments is to write a specific record of the day's activities-- literally, an action-to-action list of everything we attempted and accomplished-- and I find that, at the conclusion of the two-hour session, the only thing I can recall (and not very clearly, either) is the activity we'd just finished. There is no time in class to write anything down, but I thought I could solve the problem by jotting a brief reminder in each transitional moment; but the first day I tried that, I looked at my notes to see "long form parries" and realized that not only did I remember nothing about this, I had no memory of even doing it. I seem to have solved the problem by sitting down with my classmate after class and letting him remind me of everything we did (in a curious twist, this is the same castmate I've just talked about, who has no sensory memory)-- but two sessions ago, we spent the first hour doing exercises and drills and the second hour practicing our scenes. Reflecting on that session, I discovered that the first hour is almost a complete blank, but the second hour I recall in vivid detail. The most likely explanation is that I understand the complex concept of "an acting scene" so thoroughly that my mind knows exactly what details I should be looking for, and when I look for them in my memory store, there they are. With the movement drills, I have no concept of what I'm supposed to remember, so I can't remember anything without explicit guidance toward those stored images.
It logically follows that memorization is best accomplished by facilitating concept formation. This is not a new idea to me; it's exactly what I aim for in the educative process. In stage combat, remembering one exercise became easy when it was redefined from a combat-drill concept ("block, check, respond") into a logical series of actions which I understood ("disarm, push away, attack"). The Ear Training Companion forces your brain to form an objective concept of "pitch", and once conceived it can be easily remembered. Just a few minutes ago I received this message which, judging by my own experience and users' reports, seems to be a typical Absolute Pitch Blaster result:
I spent the past few years on and off trying to learn perfect pitch, mostly with [another method]. I progressed fairly well through [that method], but the results were nothing to write home about. After spending about 45 minutes with the demo of APB last night I was able to aurally recall a "C" all day today.
An important implication of this perspective determines the direction of my continuing research. If it is true that Absolute Pitch Blaster teaches its listeners to form a concept of "pitch" which is identical to that of musicians who have absolute pitch, then the necessary further step is to assess how absolute listeners conceive of musical structures (intervals, chords, etc) and create a system that forces your brain to formulate those concepts as well. As I've said, this is what Interval Loader and Chordfall will ultimately become.
And the imagination exercise raises a question which I believe will help lead to this result: how do you attend to a musical concept?
I can reasonably speculate that a musical concept exists without its associated sensory imagery. My castmate's mental experience of concept formation seems to suggest it, and I also realized that this separation is probably what allows abstract statements. The concept of "wonderful" can be transmitted and comprehended without any overt sensory imagery (although chances are you've already attached some images to the concept without realizing it). In either case, it seems probable that musical sound is produced to describe the pre-existing musical concept, just as linguistic sound is produced to describe the pre-existing linguistic concept; therefore, it seems probable that a musical concept exists in a non-temporal form that can be deliberately and leisurely examined at any level of detail-- perhaps even in a non-linear manner. The strongest piece of anecdotal evidence I have to support this speculation is an interview by Commodore 64 music designer Rob Hubbard. He was asked about the lead guitar solos in his electronic compositions: did he play them on a real guitar and then program the result into the computer? His response: "No, it was all done in the code."
There are a number of different ways to explore this concept. For starters, there's the simple business of "say the same thing, but don't use any of the same words." In language this could mean
I have a blue shoe on my left foot.
There is a navy-colored sneaker enclosing my non-right pedal appendage.
One is obviously more efficient, but they both clearly say the same thing. If you apply the same trick to a musical statement, what do you end up with?
More importantly, though, I'm interested in what happens when you attend to musical imagery as specifically as these mind excursions I've been doing. If I start, for example, with a telephone, I can tell you that this phone is black, and rotary, with a little white knob light to the lower right of the dial (for when the phone is on hold); the bottom plate is a brownish metal, with an X-pattern across it and four little holes by each of the four little rubber legs; there is a grey cord which goes to the wall, and the wall is painted greeen, and the phone jack is a single jack with a circle around it which is about two feet above the floor... and so on, and so on. The more I attend to the image, the more it develops, either outward (to an object's surroundings) or inward (to the detail of the object) or abstractly (memories and relationships associated with the object). Furthermore, I can explore with more than just my visual sense; I can pick up the phone receiver and feel it to be surprisingly heavy; I can listen to the dial tone or make the phone ring; I can slide my fingers along the smooth cool cord, generating some frictive heat and picking up a little dust; I can even put the cord in my mouth and taste the plastic. Are there other senses besides hearing that can explore a musical idea?
What happens if you try it-- if you relax and close your eyes and attend to some musical idea? I would expect a composer to have better success at this than a non-composer, because I would presume a composer would be more likely to know how to conceive of a musical idea. On the other hand, we all do have mental images of songs and musical sound, and perhaps that is enough to make the attempt. I remember quite clearly being in a half-awake state, one evening, and perceiving what I believed to be a classical composition as though it were a non-temporal, three-dimensional latticework of points; whether or not it was that, it was not a visual image but a structural one, and I have persistently wondered if this is what it feels like to think in absolute sound (I asked a musician with absolute pitch about it, and he said that my description did indeed match his understanding of music-- however, we obviously could not confirm that the actual experience was the same). I don't know if what you discover can be put into words, but if you find that you can do this then it'd be interesting to know what you've discovered.