Sixth sense

One day in middle school, walking out of the lunchroom down a long, sunny hallway, I saw my father emerge from the band room where he taught instrumental music. He spotted me and pivoted, approaching with another music teacher alongside and holding a thick, green glass Coke bottle in his hand. It was half full.

“Bren,” he said, lifting the bottle. “What’s this note?” He blew across the mouth.

“A-flat” I replied without hesitation.

He turned to his colleague with a smile. “See?” he said. “She has perfect pitch.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I remember feeling special and smart, happy that he was pleased and aware that I had some kind of super spidey sense. As far as I knew as I was growing up, I was the only one.

That might have been true within a small radius, but an estimated one in ten thousand people have so-called perfect pitch, more accurately called absolute pitch, since those who have it can immediately and intuitively tell you the pitch of any note without external reference. The percentage of people with this gift is much higher in countries such as China, where languages are tonal. A study from the University of Rochester suggests that more people in this country, including non-classically trained musicians, may have absolute pitch than is estimated; they simply lack the vocabulary to label notes.

Absolute pitch is not crucial to musicians. Wagner and Schumann didn’t have it, but Mozart did. So does the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director, Christopher Seaman, and so does its concertmaster, Julianna Athayde.

It can be both a blessing and a curse. The downside is I can’t transpose very well; that is, I can’t look at a piece of music and play it or sing it easily in any other key than the one on the page. On the other hand, it’s been extremely useful to me. I sight read pretty well-- that is, I can see a music note on a page and sing it to you or hear it in my head. In my work as a church musician, the ability to pluck tones out of the air saves trips to the piano during choir rehearsals. As a radio producer, it helps me match pieces in the same or related keys. In daily life, it adds another dimension to my experience of the world. There’s music in the hum of the furnace, in the twitter of the phone. Every note has a name and a texture, a feeling. Like blue has “blueness,” the note “C” has “C-ness” that’s different from “F-ness” or “G-ness.” A flutist friend, Nina Assimakopoulos, has the extra gift of synesthesia; she sees colors when she hears notes. But it’s not like that for me. I can only describe notes as having textures.

Musicologist Oliver Sacks writes extensively about absolute pitch in his 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and Brain. I’ve been pouring over it since the day I realized I might be losing it.

Last May, I auditioned for a chorus, and as is the usual practice, the conductor assessing my voice asked me to sight read a piece of music I’d never seen before. He handed me a French art song peppered with sharps and flats or “accidentals,” that is, unexpected notes that add spice and interest to the melody. Normally at that point in an audition I’d be feeling smug.

Instead, I blinked at the sheet like the dyslexic boy hero Percy Jackson staring at English on a chalkboard. It wasn’t making sense. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t feeling the textures of the notes. I had no idea what I was doing. I sang anyway, hollow and uneasy, tripping along and fishing for pitches.

When I got home, I hummed a “C” and went to the piano, only to discover I was half a tone flat. Since then, I’ve been working regaining my bearings by testing myself daily. Sometimes I worry it’s lost forever. Other days, I feel it’s coming back.

The surprising thing to me is how much it suddenly matters. In the whole scope of human suffering, I know it’s trivial to fret about losing my sense of absolute pitch. But it’s a part of who I am, an essential quality.

Sacks describes a mythological valley in the Pacific where all the inhabitants have absolute pitch.  If such a place existed, I think I’d visit in hopes of securing my sixth sense, a language that’s all music.