Parlour trick

A few days ago I wrote about ear-worms, as an example of photographic (or “eidetic”) memory, and said there’s another kind as well.  I don’t mean to limit things by saying there’s one other kind, when there may be more than one. But I know of one other at least, namely “absolute pitch”.  I have always been a bit uncomfortable with that name, as I don’t believe in absolutes.  I am especially uncomfortable about it, speaking as someone who thinks he has absolute pitch.

As I speak of this phenomenon, I want to take a stab at putting it in historical context.  We occasionally get indirect evidence of how people might have been different in another time:

  • Julian Jaynes hypothesized that moderns think differently than ancients in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
  • Is it also possible that we listen and understand differently in the 21st Century? It’s an especially poignant consideration when we encounter producers considering whether they should allow audiences to use social media, tweeting & facebooking during performances: in other words, at a time when moderns seem to exhibit an ever shrinking attention span.
  • When recorded music is ubiquitous it seems reasonable to ask how our processing of music might be different from the time before recordings.  How well do we hear, compared to a time when the only recordings were piano rolls mechanically reproducing a performance..? Should we expect that “absolute pitch” would be more or less common nowadays?  I’ll speak about that in a moment.

First, let me offer my first-person account.  It’s introspective psychology, as I am not sitting down with anyone to verify what I’m saying.  Still I expect as I run into acquaintances in the GTA over the next little while that I’ll be challenged to put up or shut up on this one.

I feel very comfortable after having quickly googled, and seen two links immediately proposing the same thing I want to say: that it’s not really absolute.


Even so, it’s at least a reliable parlour trick.  Recalling that “eidetic memory” is a kind of photographic trace that stays in the head, if we recall a tune or a note, it may indeed lead us to a pitch.  In fact it works quite nicely.  Some notes are stronger than others.

What do I hear?  I suppose whatever I want to hear.  It depends what I seek to recall.  I rely upon certain tunes that have found a permanent home in my psyche for certain pitches.

  • “G-flat”, a note one hears rarely, is one I conjure using the opening phrase of “Oh paradiso” (“Oh paradis” if sung in the original French).  It’s reliable because of where it sits in my voice, sliding up to a B-flat.  If i am too high it won’t be a B-flat, although hahaha, i will indeed be flat: flat on my face! But I also hear Chopin’s black-key Étude and “Oh terra addio” from Aida, which also arpeggiates to that same B-flat in short order. If it’s to float out properly it has to be in the right place.  I applaud Verdi, whenever i think of this, a passage designed for singers exhausted by a full evening’s singing.
  • When I was younger –spending all my time accompanying my brother—“G” used to mean “Andiam. Incomin- cia- te!” …being the closing phrase of the Pagliacci Prologue.  Nowadays it’s the opening chord of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.
  • “A-flat”?  When I was young it was always the first part of the Grand March in Aida, and the high note Tonio sang in the aforementioned Prologue:
    “al pari di voi spiriamo l’aere!”
    But lately it’s more likely to be Beethoven’s sonata #31, or possibly the first and last note of Parsifal.
  • “A”? Most solid has been that powerful chord beginning Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, although if you’re a regular concert-goer you may have a recollection of an oboe playing a solo “A” to tune up the orchestra.  Can you hear it? Surely you can.  It’s the most commonly played ‘tune’ in the world.  Either way: you’ve got your “A”.
  • “B-flat”? it’s sometimes the fast part of the Queen of the Night’s first aria. I’ve been listening to it since I was a little boy, still one of the most scintillating pieces I know.  When I think about it, I also hear the majestic intro to the aria. And the middle section of the Magic Flute overture.  And –as mentioned—there are those floated B-flats I aim for in the Meyerbeer and Verdi, cited opposite the first bullet above.
  • “B” is a funny one. Again, like G-flat, it’s not a note that gets played tons and tons.  I can hear the lovely slow movement of the Emperor concerto, that figures so prominently in the Immortal Beloved soundtrack.  It’s there in the G chord I mentioned from the 4th Concerto.  I feel much more confident in notes happily connected to notes I hear a lot such as…
  • “C”. Yes this is literally a note central to my life. I used to hear the opening chord of Die Meistersinger, whether orchestrated or in Glenn Gould’s transcription.  But nowadays I am more likely to connect it to Beethoven’s sonata in C, a fanciful name I gave to the three piano sonatas + a set of variations all exploring the key of C.  The tinkly closing passages of Op 2 #3, the Waldstein’s coda, the last variation in op 111, and the last of the Diabelli variations are as inter-connected as if Beethoven were a painter looking again at the face of a well-known friend.  It’s no fluke that Weber comes to this chord for the redemption motif in Der Freischütz, revisited by Wagner in the brilliance of the mountain top at the end of Siegfried.  I wonder what they felt in making this concrete allusion.
  • I call it D-flat, not C-sharp, and I don’t claim they’re the same thing, even if –on a piano—that’s what some would say.  I can hear the C-sharp if I think of Debussy’s flute, the first tender note of the “Prelude to the afternoon of a faun”, or Chopin’s third Scherzo; but I prefer to find the note via Chopin’s second scherzo (it begins darkly in B-flat minor, but moves to brilliant passages in D-flat).  D-flat is how the Ring cycle ends, and is a key note in the last phrase of Parsifal as well.  I am less confident of its sharp incarnation.
  • “D” or “C”? which is more important? I am not sure, although this year, particularly once I started playing Beethoven sonatas, it was C.  But overall I think I’ve been inclined to call D the most important note of all. It started with Don Giovanni, (and pardon the pun, isn’t it funny that conversely, Don Giovanni starts with a “D”? musically and otherwise, it’s a chicken-and-egg kind of situation), that chord you can hear in your head when you begin Miloš Forman’s Amadeus followed immediately by F Murray Abraham’s plaintive scream “Mozart!”   Or did it start with Figaro?  And then there’s Mozart’s Requiem.  We can’t forget the 20th piano concerto, and that’s still just Mozart.  Beethoven and Mahler seem to love D as well, both making a big deal of it (Beethoven on Symphonies #2 and 9, Mahler on Symphonies #1 & 9)
  • E-Flat is another central note.  I used to know it from the hammer-blows opening the Eroica Sympony of Beethoven, although I am less certain of this now that I have multiple recordings, some in modern pitch, some using the slightly older pitch of historically informed performance.  I am more confident of the opening to Das Rheingold, the big climactic passages in the Prologue to Götterämmerung and the opening of Schumann’s Third Symphony.  When I think of it I can also hear Ein Heldenleben, a work that has often felt like Strauss’s gloss upon the heroism of Beethoven and Wagner.  Did Wagner see himself emulating Beethoven?  I have to wonder what was in their heads as they composed, what echoes of the earlier works that each one hoped we would hear.
  • “E” is another oddity, not quite as common as the few notes clustered at the centre of the keyboard.  Does familiarity breed contempt? Not on a keyboard, I’d say. Familiarity breeds intelligibility, fame, importance.  E is not quite so favoured. I think of the slow movement of the 4th piano concerto of Beethoven, or Wotan’s Farewell in Die Walküre.  Chopin is helpful, with his 1st piano concerto and 4th Scherzo; did he like the key? i wonder.
  • “F” is again central, related to other important works.  I can hear the powerful motto opening Fidelio, the steps into the countryside opening Beethoven’s sixth symphony and the hymn at its conclusion.  And “Oh Isis und Osiris”, particularly that F to which it descends at its finish also.

Do we hear better now? I’m inclined to think so, considering that our young musicians achieve levels of mastery unreached by anyone two centuries ago.  I’ve alluded before to an article in NYTimes asserting that virtuosos are a dime a dozen nowadays.  Perhaps the kind of hearing I describe would be a prodigious feat were it reported in 1800. But now? We’re not absolute. We have to cope with two competing tunings, throwing us off, nevermind the vicissitudes of actual performances.

We’re fortunate.  I can pull so many magnificent recordings from youtube, let alone what I can purchase.  My hearing should be good, right?  In Mozart’s time E-flat heroism hadn’t even been invented yet.  All that music continues to rattle around in my head, and millions of other heads too.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Parlour trick

  1. Pingback: Martin Geck: Beethoven’s Symphonies | barczablog

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