Monday, April 19, 2010

Accurate Ears and Intuition

Sandy tells the story of how, when she was little, her uncle would play a game of asking the kids to "sing an A" or "what is an F-sharp?" Sandy has perfect pitch, and she could never figure out what the "game" was; somebody asks you to sing a B-flat and you do; so what's the trick?

When I was in school and the music teacher would have us listen to a concert piece, she would point out, "Do you hear what the oboe is doing in this section?" or "Aren't the violins beautiful here!" I didn't get it. I could hear music, but I couldn't hear individual instruments. Of course, I was the kid who drove my 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers batty when they tried to teach me to spell pen and pin, or are and our. "Can't you HEAR the difference?" Nope. Sure couldn't. (By the way, now that I'm grown up, I can hear the difference in the words, and I usually can recognize the trumpets and the cellos and the flutes in a recording of a symphony.)

When Gary was repairing the deck, there was almost nothing I could do to help during the day while he was at work. He had a picture in his head of what needed to be done, and he worked methodically at bringing that picture to life. But to explain the steps to me? Couldn't do it. He didn't have it all figured out; he just had something in his mind that he was making come about. Paul would do the same thing with Lego castles. They have a mechanical-spatial intelligence that I don't have.

People on the autism spectrum don't read faces well. They don't pick up on social clues so as to know what other people are thinking and feeling, or what's motivating the other guy. Then there are others of us who are pretty darn perceptive when it comes to noticing other people's feelings or motivations. When asked to explain how I know what somebody's thinking, I can't do it. But that doesn't mean I don't know -- just like Gary knew what he was doing with the deck but couldn't say why, just like Sandy can pull an on-key pitch out of thin air when other people can't even match a pitch as they're hearing it.

When other people can't see something that is obvious to me, sometimes I try to convince myself that I don't know what I know. After all, I can't explain why I know. I can't prove it. Other people don't see it. So am I nuts to perceive things that other don't perceive? Or is this just like when a 9-yr-old can't hear the difference between pen and pin? Some people detect things that others do not; some people have intelligences that are not as well developed in others.


  1. So what does it mean that I have perfect pitch and can hear the difference between pen and pin, but I can't easily discriminate between the individual instruments in a band or orchestra? (Hubby often asks me if I heard this or that in a piece of music and invariably I didn't and I have to work really hard to be able to pick it out of the mix.)

    Interestingly enough, I CAN hear the individual parts in a choir. Weird.

  2. I think it has something to do with experience, Cheryl. My perfect pitch works best with piano (grew up listening to mom giving piano lessons) and flute (my main instrument, so I know intimately the timbre of individual notes). People's voices can throw me off quickly because of the unfamiliar timbre.

    Do you play a band or orchestra instrument, or have you only been a choral and piano person?

    Interesting post, Susan. I love the connections you make between things.

  3. Sandra, I don't play any other instruments, so you may have something there. My perfect pitch is also much more reliable on piano. But I also wonder if there is something innate in the way people hear. In college I was a whiz-bang at melodic dictation, but struggled with harmonic dictation. I hear horizontally, not vertically. The more layers there are, the more trouble I have zeroing in on just one.