Music is Language. Part Three.

Due to a recent confusion I had about “perfect pitch” (also known as absolute pitch), I looked it up and found that it means being able to “identify the letter-name of a sounded note.” I play a note, you tell me what it was.

Of course, if you don’t know the letter names, then I guess it’s perfect pitch if you at least recognize the same tones each time you hear them.

According to an article on the American Psychological Association’s Web site, only one in 10,000 Americans can do that.

Americans can tell the relationship between tones, but can’t say whether a given one is exactly the same as another one heard some time ago. Except those with perfect pitch.

But the article goes on to suggest that maybe most babies are born with absolute pitch. If they speak a tonal language (like Mandarin), where the pitch can alter a word’s definition, those babies grow up retaining the ability. (This idea is supported by research discussed in the article.)

If they speak a language where the pitch is only important in relation to the rest of the sentence (are you asking a question or making a statement?), then most people lose the ability.

I’ve posted before, and before that, my belief that music is literally related to language and communication, so this comes as more data to make me feel smart. More and more, I think that music and talking are two sides of the same coin.

One weird thing about the article threw me off, but I think it’s the writer’s fault, not the researchers’:

“Of the Chinese music students, 63 percent named the notes correctly–within a half step–at least 85 percent of the time. Of the American students, only 7 percent met the criteria for absolute pitch.”

Now, is meeting the criteria for absolute pitch the same as, or different from, naming the notes correctly at least 85 percent of the time?

I think this is an example of a writer choosing a terrible time to avoid redundancy by using different language to say the same thing. But I’m not sure. I wish she had just said that of the Americans, “only 7 percent could do so.”

Anyway, train your babies musically at an early age, and maybe they’ll retain their perfect pitch. This won’t help much in life (even if they become musicians), but it might help them learn Mandarin more easily, thereby giving them an edge when the Chinese take over everything.

4 Responses to Music is Language. Part Three.

  1. Kevin May 22, 2008 at 8:28 pm #

    Just to confuse the matter even more, doesn’t the 7 percent figure conflict pretty hard with the 1 in 10,000 figure you quoted from the APA website?

  2. weeklyrob May 22, 2008 at 10:13 pm #

    Well, that’s 7 percent of music students. Still, it does seem high.

  3. Jeffrey May 23, 2008 at 6:14 pm #

    Heh. When we teach writing, we emphasize NOT changing language for just this reason.

    In school, we’re taught that using different language keeps the reader interested.

    But as a regulatory agency, it often causes confusion. If one thing says “cars must …” and another thing says “vehicles must …” you’re left wondering whether they really meant cars again, or all vehicles (motorcycles, scooters, etc.)

  4. weeklyrob May 23, 2008 at 10:56 pm #

    Yup. That’s one of the Great Laws of tech writing.

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