Sunday, August 10, 2008

On Memory

Certain abilities, when it comes to music, might seem almost magical, especially to those who appreciate and covet them.

Perfect pitch, for one.

I don't have the best ear. But with years of training and excruciating effort, my relative pitch became almost... ok. I did well enough in my ear training classes, but that had very little to do with my ear, and almost everything to do with my understanding of music theory - because theory is something readily memorized and learned.

The typical exercise in my ear-training classes was this: our professor would play a short (no more than 8 measures) piece with four distinct lines. For my benefit (since I was the only person in the class without perfect pitch), he would tell us the key that it was in. And then our assignment would be write it all down. He'd play on the piano it four times, ostensibly so that we could focus on listening to each line at a time.

For my classmates, this was the easiest thing in the world. They didn't need to be told what key it was in. They KNEW all the pitches. It was as if someone had just read a short sentence to them in their native language and they jotted it down.

For me, it was as if someone read something in a language I had just started learning. Some of the words I recognized, but many, I didn't. But while my vocabulary was awful, I understood the grammatical rules. So I'd piece it together by what I knew of the grammar... For example, in Japanese, sentences are anchored by the verbs, so I knew that the end of every phrase was most likely a verb. I knew where the adjectives should sit in relation to the nouns. If I heard the word "if," then I knew to use the subjunctive form of the verb. I usually understood enough of the words, here and there, to figure out the meaning of the sentence. So what I produced was grammatically correct, contextually correct, but generally not a perfect transcription. And it would always take me the entirety of the hour-long class to work my way through the assignment - in contrast to my classmates who spent 45 minutes chatting with each other and looking at me fondly because it was due to my slowness that they got their free time.

But what my classmates could do - that always astonished me. As if suddenly they could suddenly sprout wings and fly.

So I tried to understand it. I did enough testing to learn that "perfect" pitch is not always equally perfect. A few of my classmates were extraordinary, they heard and recognized the pitches in car horns, in taps on a wall, in the clinking of glasses, and I tested and verified this independently. Others were limited to overtly musical notes. Others still were limited to the range of notes produced by the instrument(s) they played.

And I questioned them about WHEN they "discovered" their perfect pitch.

And this is what I realized: perfect pitch is memory. They REMEMBER the pitch in a sound and as soon as they learned to associate that particular pitch with middle C, for example, then they KNEW it, and could REMEMBER. It's the same kind of memory that allows the rest of us to recognize a voice. It's not different in kind, only degree.

But while perfect pitch is intimately intertwined with memory, it needs an association, to put it into context. Which I suppose all memory does.

Like perfect pitch, and related to perfect pitch (although not necessarily requiring it), is the ability to play something by ear.

"Playing it by ear" is advice that I both give and receive from time to time. Problem is, I'm horrible at it.

What does it mean, exactly, to play something by ear? Well, at the simplest level, to play without the written sheet music. It requires confidence, knowledge, memory, imagination. I'm not talking about listening to a piece once and then flawlessly replicating it. I'm talking about starting to play something, perhaps with only the beginning of a chord progression, or a snippet of a melody, where you don't know how it will develop, whether it will modulate into a different key, or how it will end. That requires a certain flexibility and a willingness to let things develop at its own pace, its own rhythm, its own melody and harmony.

For most of my life, my preference for and skill in following a plan has generally worked for me, except, of course, when it completely didn't. And so the thought of playing ANYTHING by ear, is more than a little distasteful and even frightening.

But I tell myself, that just as perfect pitch is really just a manifestation of better memory, not different memory, playing it by ear represents greater uncertainty, not a new, absolute uncertainty.

And that sometimes, when the outcome is important to you, you can't try to control it.

Now that's not a novel sentiment. The cliches are plentiful. But rather than quote from Sting's "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free," I'll look to Bach. Because while Bach is famous for the mathematical precision of his work, it is easy to forget that back in the day, Bach was known as a world class improviser. He was the Charlie Parker, the Miles Davis of the 18th Century. It's just that his in-the-moment improvisations have been meticulously transcribed, allowing the rest of us try to recreate at least the playing of it. Of course, codifying that kind of magic diminishes it.  And I know I spent much of this post discussing that it isn't actually magic.  But when it's done right, doesn't it seem to be?  Especially when you remember how it all started, and most especially, when you know you can't ever fully recreate it. 


Susanna Seoul Searching said...

I remebered how you mentioned a couple of times that you usued to play piano when you were younger. This is a bit like Tiger Woods spent a bit of time with a golfclub...
You awe me!( is that grammaticly correct???)

C-Belle said...

My darling susanna seoul searching! If only I could speak/write a second language with the ease with which you wield English and the 18 other languages you've learned in addition to your native tongue!

(And listening to me play the piano now would, unfortunately, be FAR from awe-inspiring. But come visit me in NYC and I'll play for you and make you vodka drinks with slices of Meyer Lemon in them!)