ooa ay e eai i auae.

I wish I had perfect pitch (otherwise known as absolute pitch).  I really do.  I know it wouldn’t be the magic cure-all for making me a musical genius, but … I also hold tight to the delusion that it would be a big step.

In the course of researching my sought-after ability, I stumbled across Chris Aruffo’s website devoted to the topic.  His research section is particularly fascinating.  I’ve been reading it and am continually amazed by the insights found there.  One in particular has had my mind grapes spinning for the past couple days.

Turns out, consonants in language carry the meaning of a statement, whereas vowels carry the emotion.  Take, for instance, the title of this post.  Could you by any chance intuit the meaning of those words?  Perhaps this will be easier:

Cnsnnts crr th mnng n lngg.

Who knows, maybe you didn’t get either of those.  But odds are you got a better idea from the second example than the first.  The sentence in question is: “Consonants carry the meaning in language.”

How is this relevant to music?  Well, Aruffo tells us that he was driving one day, trying to say a sentence with only vowels, when he realized he was singing!  (The September 2, 2002 entry)  He then hypothesized that, for each of the twelve pitches in Western music, there is a corresponding vowel sound.  To test that, he recorded himself whispering each vowel sound onto his computer and then (the next day) cut and pasted them together to make a song.  And it worked!

Curious, I did the same thing.  Aruffo encourages you to, so I thought, What the hell, I have an afternoon.  I recorded this (you might need to turn your volume up; it is whispering after all):

(Note: I’m having trouble getting the file to play because the stupid Chinesenet is blocking every single web storage site in existence.  I was able to upload the file to my old blog and linking it here, but I can’t actually see my old blog because China blocks it (hence, why I moved), which means the file gets blocked when the player tries to retrieve it.  I’m leaving it thus in the hopes that anyone outside of China can hear it.  Please let me know if you can.)

Did you hear it?  It’s a very famous song that you have, no doubt, heard many times before.  I recorded it and recognized it instantly, but, of course, I knew what I was listening for.  I played my first recording for Christina, but she couldn’t guess it.  I told her what it was, she listened to it again, and she still couldn’t hear it.  Deflated, I listened to it again (and again—it’s only eight seconds long after all) and wondered if the tempo had anything to do with it (my initial recording played quite a bit faster than the actual tempo of the song).  So I cut and pasted it together again, spaced out to its actual speed and played it for her again.  She could hear it that time, but, then, she knew what to listen for.

The above recording is my revised attempt.  If you listen to it, please leave a comment and tell me if you can identify the song.  I want to know how much of this is just psychological.

One caveat: Aruffo later realized that the vowel-pitch correspondence only really works relatively.  That is, the vowel-pitches sound “right” relative to each other for each individual person, but not absolutely.  So if you whisper an “ay” sound (as in “bake”) and then double-check it on a piano, it might not sound exactly like an F#, but it will fill the F# “slot” relative to all your other whispers.  That said, Aruffo has tested each vowel at each voiced pitch and he has found that only that pitch’s corresponding vowel resonates at that pitch in a natural way.  So thinking of different pitches as distinct as linguistic vowels might not lead to instant absolute pitch, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’ll repeat what Aruffo claims:  I did not whisper the vowels with a pitch in mind.  I did not test the pitch and then whisper that into the recording.  I merely read the vowels that Aruffo assigned to each note into a microphone as I would naturally whisper them, and they naturally fell into those pitch slots.

Fun Fact: Turns out many animals are born with perfect pitch.  Wolves, for instance, use pitch modulations in their howls to identify and locate each other, as well as modulating their pitch-howls in a chorus to fool nearby neighbors as to how many members are in their pack.  However—and here’s the kicker—they have no sense of relative pitch.  That is, they can’t tell if one pitch is “lower” or “higher” than another.  They just sound different.

I dunno … that blows my mind.  The same thing is reported by people who naturally have/acquire absolute pitch.  They can’t put tones together; they can’t, in effect, hear “music” the same way we mere mortals do.  They hear a sequence of different notes.  One person Aruffo talked to, who has absolute pitch, described this as how he experiences harmony, remarking that calling a chord sounds, to him, like just three notes played at the same time and that calling that a chord is like calling four quarters a dollar.

That sounds trivial, like just a game of semantics, but if you take a second to think about it, he’s describing a fundamentally different experience of music.  He knows intellectually that two or more notes played simultaneously is a chord, but he really only experiences the notes.  You’re telling him he has a dollar but he only sees the four quarters.

That wigs me out!  Most people in the world have a degree of relative pitch, ranging from vague to perfect, because, evolutionarily, that’s the more complex (and humanly relevant) skill.  If you walk over to a piano and play middle C and then the D next to it, the D sounds “higher” or “brighter” or “happier” than the C.  Furthermore, if you follow that by the next E, then play D again, the D sounds different, a little “sadder,” a little “lower,” because it is, relative to the E.  A person with absolute pitch doesn’t experience that; they simply hear a sequence of three unrelated and different notes.

So why do I want that?  Well, the ultimate goal is to integrate the perfect absolute and relative pitches together, so when I hear a piece of music I instantly hear and know each note and the relationships between them.  That’s Mozart territory.  Absolute pitch is a step towards that.  I believe it’s possible, given my recent readings.  Aruffo has even met someone who taught himself perfect pitch by listening to musical pitches as though they were linguistic vowels.  That, along with quite a bit of other information, convinces me that obtaining perfect absolute and relative pitch is not a pipe dream.  Just really difficult.

This is the kind of shit that makes my heart go a-flutter….


5 thoughts on “ooa ay e eai i auae.

  1. This reminds me of an episode of RadioLab that I heard earlier this year:

    They talked about the fact that Chinese people seem to have a much higher percentage of people with perfect pitch, and that may be explained by their language being tonal. That means either they are genetically pre-disposed to have perfect pitch because it’s useful to them or it is something that can be learned early on. It was a fascinating episode. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it

    • Hey, thanks for the link! I’ve downloaded the episode but haven’t gotten a chance to listen to it yet. I’m especially excited to hear what they have to say about the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Part of me thinks it’s sad that people don’t riot over ballets anymore….

  2. Craziness, I love it. Your recording was a bit on the creepy side, but I did recognize the song. Do I know the name of it? No….but that’s not your fault. Travis will confirm that I’m *horrible* with names (people, places, titles, the more useful things to know). “Heart and Soul” pops into my head, but that may not be right!

    • Ha ha ha, nope, not “Heart and Soul.” I’m at least glad posting the song worked. And, he he he, I have to agree with you that there is a certain serial-killer-calling-you-from-inside-the-house quality to whispering vowels like that. I should have mentioned that I had to pause for thirty seconds between takes to stop myself from laughing.

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