The Other I

January 14, 2014

My musical blind spot

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

Earlier this month I read a blog post by pianomusicman who discussed a you-tube of Mahler’s 1st Symphony that he thought was without equal.

So I listened to it.

I listened to it carefully and attentively.

And I was reminded again about a musical blind spot that I’ve never read any research about, but which I know is real.

I have perfect pitch, and my music teacher in high school told me my musical abilities were way above average – that my understanding of the nuances of rhythm and chords was excellent.  What she didn’t know, and what I didn’t discover until years later is that there is a “blind spot” in my musical memory.  When I hear a piece of music, I know whether I have heard it before.  I recognize it, and know how it is going to develop.  But I am almost completely unable to identify it.  If the melody has words, I might be able to figure it out.  But that’s cheating anyway.  Even worse, if I hear the same melody in different contexts, I  don’t recognize that they are the same.

I didn’t know this in my youth, because  the record or CD or musical page I was playing always included the composer.  So I had no idea that if I weren’t told, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a familiar Beethoven or Mozart.  I can tell the difference between Stravinsky and Bach, or between Vivaldi and the Beetles because the structures of their music are so different. (or at least they are to me).   But I would have to guess between Vivaldi’s Spring and Summer.  And hundreds of other classical and popular pieces of music.

So in some very profound way I’m an idiot when it comes to music.  In relation to music, I’m rather like a color-blind painter.

And yet, I understand music in some profound way.  It has taught me things that I do not understand through any other medium.  Only poetry comes close.

I wonder if there’s a partial disconnect between the two halves of my brain.  Perhaps it keeps my analyzing right brain from jumping in and “explaining” before the other half of my brain has a chance to simply absorb the experience itself.

Whatever the reason, the paradox is that my problem might just be the reason why music call tell me things I don’t know in any other way.

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  1. Fascinating. And perfect pitch. I can’t tell one note from another without reference to the keyboard. But I can spot a composer’s work even if I’ve never heard it before, from his characteristic style (it’s amazing how limited the “tropes” are that even the greatest composers have at their disposal; they’re forever repeating themselves).

    I still don’t quite understand where you differ from most people,though, except maybe where you can’t identify a piece of music, which happens to everybody sometimes. But, perfect pitch!

    On that topic, you might be amused by this. A broadcaster for the New York Mets baseball team, after first excusing himself as a kind of “freak” (real jocks don’t know from real music), said, during a game, that he happened to have perfect pitch, and apparently he couldn’t resist telling us that the umpire who always made his loud and dramatic Strike! call (it sounds more like Eeeooow!) in B was doing so for some reason that day in B-flat. I was impressed, as I am by anyone with perfect pitch.

    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — January 16, 2014 @ 2:36 am | Reply

    • I think we are comparing blind spots. Something which as a cognitive psychologist I find utterly intriguing. You seem to think perfect pitch is enviable. It’s never seemed like that big a deal to me. But I can’t even imagine what it must to like to spot a composer’s work from a characteristic style. Not being able to do that is what, above all, makes me feel musically deaf. Yet I obviously hear something that seems almost transcendent. Fascinating, isn’t it?

      Comment by Terry Sissons — January 16, 2014 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

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