Thursday, September 17, 2009

Perfect Pitch, Dissonance and Tonality

Adam contemplates the piano. 

WNYC’s Radio Lab has made quite a few episodes about music that have really intrigued me.  As a classically trained musician, my ears always perk up when I hear stories that are intricately related to how my brain is wired.

In the episode Musical Language, they discussed both perfect pitch and dissonance.  They learned that in cultures that use intonation in their speech (tone languages), such as Chinese, the occurrence of perfect pitch in the population was much higher.  They recorded a woman saying a specific Chinese word one day and again several months later.  Both recordings of the word had exactly the same pitch.  Kids who were trained for pitch in these cultures had a perfect pitch rate of 76%!  Scientific American's 60 Second Science also reported this for the quick and dirty listen/read.  Coming from a Chinese home, I guess it wasn't too far-fetched that I would have perfect pitch, even though I rarely spoke it myself.  My kids don't have the benefit of having Chinese spoken at home, but I'm still hopeful to pass down the perfect pitch.  I've also heard stories of people "training" their children by having them play the same note every time they passed the piano starting when they are very young.  Adam certainly knows when he plays a wrong note when he's not looking, but he doesn't always realize when he accidentally starts on the wrong note.  I'm still hoping!

In this Radio Lab episode, they also discussed the riotous premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  When it premiered in 1913, it was so foreign to the ears of the audience, that they actually started to riot in the concert hall.  The audience was so overloaded by the foreign sounds of dissonance, that their brains shifted into psychotic behavior.  With the signature Radio Lab sound effects, it sounded like you were there in the audience hearing their brains going berserk with the subsequent riotous build and uproar.  A year later, the audience's ears adjusted to the new sounds and Stravinsky was then lauded with standing ovations.  I actually got to witness this behavior first hand once.  I was taking a course in 20th Century music with my beloved John Harbison who was telling us of a similar riot that occurred with another composer, which may have been Alban Berg.  He said that the audience reacted violently and some of them even became sick.  We listened to the piece and suddenly, one of the female students in the front row started to interrupt and spout out that this music was utterly vile.  Normally, this girl was a quiet, level-headed student, but she had suddenly transformed in front of our eyes!  I looked around and shrugged my shoulders with the other students.  Sure, it sounded awful, but vile?  She was going on as if it were a scourge on humanity!  Harbison was intrigued and started to ask her why she felt this way.  She continued to be agitated and threatened to leave the classroom.  He backed down, giving the rest of us a knowing look and went on with another composer.  Dissonant psychosis in action!

Since I have never embraced atonal music myself (with the exception of John Cage, who despite the strange nature of his music, can sometimes be quite tonal), I’ll add two more cents on tonal music and pitch.  The color of a piece depends greatly on the key, regardless if you have perfect pitch to identify the key.  A piece in C# minor will have more tension than a piece in F minor.  Conversely, a piece in D♭ major will sound more soothing than a piece in G major.  Even though C# and D♭ are technically the same note (at least on the piano, but not necessarily on other instruments), pieces written in those keys can have a completely different atmosphere.  Perhaps the composer sets the tone of a piece depending on the key.  Or perhaps the key really affects the tone of a piece.  But changes in timbre are not just “felt” by musicians, they can be felt by audiences at large.  With more listening, the sense of hearing can be tuned to hear differences in pitch and timbre, much as a wine taster’s sense of taste can be enhanced to evaluate its complexity and character.  And remember, perfect pitch can be a curse too!

Bonus video (watch if you dare)…  Adam looks so serene in the photo above, but in reality, if he hears an imperfection or note of dissonance, he goes haywire.  Practicing the piano with him goes from the rush of creating beautiful music together to utter chaos in a split second.  And no, he is not “performing” for the video.  This happens on a daily basis.

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