Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like

I was at a party last week, and a fellow dinner guest asked me what having perfect pitch was actually like. They wanted to know if it was just knowing what an ‘A’ was – and whether it could be learned. They were musical and seemed genuinely interested – so I decided for once to give them the full, no-holds-barred explanation. It’s complicated, and I get asked this a lot, hence this post.

Yes, having perfect pitch includes knowing whether something is an A or an A flat – that’s also the case for excellent relative pitch which is something that can be learned with time and effort. But for me perfect or absolute pitch is more than that.

With the caveat that this is my personal experience, and it might be different for fellow sufferers/carriers, this is how it feels for me to be a composer with perfect pitch.

Train from Gothenburg to Stockholm is in B Major – the trees outside are beautiful. Composing on the train is a wonderful experience. I love the sound of the train and how it interacts with the landscapes. Trees and lakes and the sea are generally in major keys so it feels uplifting and inspiring to me! This music was recorded in two takes – first the strings, then the piano sound.

 

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back – on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords – or perhaps compose a variation on that melody – develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

 

For me perfect pitch is not knowing notes, it’s about living in a world where everyone resonates, every thing has music. Everything and everyone weaves together a fantastic audio symphony that I have no choice but to absorb. For me if there isn’t music somewhere, I’ll add it in. Say someone is walking along a station platform, I almost unconsciously compose a tune fitting into their footsteps – it’ll generally be in the same key as the resonance of the station. While I hear a piece of music I generally imagine a counter-melody to complement the existing melody everyone else hears. It was only on talking to my friend Jonathan in Boston that I found out these things are not typical.

It’s odd – though I’m a composer by nature, I also love encoding the melodies and harmonies I hear in music for other people to appreciate, for example – the sound of a sunrise – or the beautiful noise of an aeroplane at 33,000 feet in D major.

I recently live-composed some classical music for each of my friend’s children at a naming ceremony. They had very different personalities and I captured them each in a short musical piece recorded for posterity. It never fails to amaze me how many people agree with my musical perception of someone – even someone young! There must be something I pick up on that is there, intrinsically, inside everyone.

When I taste things, I also hear music, mainly chords – sugar and desserts almost always in major key and chocolate and coffee are particularly complex sounds, with overtones and harmonics. I love broccoli and cauliflower which are a cycle of fifths. Sushi tastes like power chords on an acoustic guitar. Lemon meringue pie is a concoction of A major chords and inversions, 7ths and minors. I’ve ‘played’ tastes to a bunch of very gifted musicians who agreed with my interpretation of doughnuts, eggs and the like. I love delicious food mainly because of the pleasurable sounds it generates for me. Roller coaster rides also kick my synaesthesia into overdrive, oh, the harmonies and melodies of weightlessness and acceleration, I’d love to live-compose in variable weight conditions like that!

For me every single piece of life is flooded with sound – so much so that I didn’t realise for many years that this is not the case for everyone.

Auditory is most certainly my main sense.

 

Finally a few other strange characteristics that may or may not be attributable to perfect pitch – listed below in case any fellow perfect-pitchers would like to add their comments!

Picking up a language is easy – once you hear which notes people associate with particular things, it’s generally just a question of working out which scale they are using. My grammar is almost always terrible but I’ll pick up vocabulary words quickly. Optimism and the desire to communicate take over once I’ve decoded where words begin and end. For me, a laugh is almost always in a major key – crying is almost always in a minor key, regardless of language.

Other traits!

  • difficulty recognising people visually – especially if I meet them again out of the original context. I can however (given enough of a sample) recognise people by gait or voice.
  • hardly ever get motion sickness
  • great sense of direction
  • rather clumsy if I’m not paying attention
  • ultra-high scoring spatial awareness and pattern recognition skills – but also incredibly unobservant in everyday situations
  • I’m rather good at opening locks!

Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into the condition. It’s clear to me now that we all encode the world differently – and in my case very intensively and musically. Though I feel surprisingly vulnerable sharing these thoughts with the wider world, it’s also a pleasure to finally explain what it’s like to have perfect pitch.

 

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CD!! CD!!! CD!!!!

Wow, I can’t believe it! I’m holding in my hands my FIRST grown-up looking CD!  Here it is:
I am soooooo excited

I am soooooo excited

This CD “wot I wrote” has 4 meditation tracks on it, I think the style is formally described as “new-age” or “extremely chilled”.  Each track has been composed, produced, and mastered in my lovely new studio!_

I’ve also uploaded a sample of the tracks on to myspace – if anyone knows a sexier way to get an MP3 file to talk to wordpress, please let me know, I’m still relatively new to all this blogging lark, and quite happy to benefit from someone else’s experience and/or knowledge.

Actually, there’s another, deeper, reason I’m really excited by this, because it’s only a small (some might say very small) step on the musical ladder in the big scheme of things.  I think this CD (and showing it to you in public) symbolises an acceptance of the musical part of me, which for a long time (and for very complicated reasons) I rejected for a while. I think there is also a big helping of nerves involved in actually going for it, creating a product and placing it in the market place.  What’s very odd to me is that I’m quite comfortable standing on stage / on TV chatting to a bunch of people I don’t know, but this blog post makes me feel incredibly strange, vulnerable and exposed.
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Oh well.  Too late for that now.  The next step is for me to put the envelope with 5 CDs in the post to CDbaby, who will then hold the copies for purchase, and convert tracks to MP3 for digital download.
inside the Jewel Case

inside the Jewel Case

...and the back

...and the back

… right, I’ve been brave.  Now to self-medicate with chocolate and tea.

From Jack To Mac: A song is born

Having just emerged from my self-imposed cocoon of composition, it’s now time to confess yet another addiction I have appeared to pick up in the world of technology. I’ve just submitted my first ever youtube clip – I’ve been on before, but never uploaded myself (that sounds so Matrix…)

So here it is, the youtube clip: installation, composition and production from the point of arrival at my doorstep. The chaps at Absolute Music were as good as their word, and happily the Mac Pro arrived with Logic 8 Studio fully installed, and the sound card already configured. Some might wonder where the challenge was, and I say it’s enough to know how to do it, and much more satisfying to just get down and write -what a pleasure that was!

(Rss Viewers/Can’t see the Vid? please click here for the link)

I made this by taking photos at every stage of installation, from opening the boxes yesterday right up to the upload a few hours ago – one of the most revealing pics is the look on my face just before I open up twitter on the browser to blog the instant happiness I felt at that point – you can see the complete contentment I’m feeling at having a system I’ve pretty much dreamt about for many moons. I only slept 4 hours last night, dreaming of Mac.
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My last system, although state-of-the-art in 2002, was just not fast enough – the tech got in the way of composition, and the computer couldn’t keep up with the kind of processing power demanded of it. It’s so wonderful to be able to play with this every day – after some difficult times in the last few years, I can’t begin to describe how it feels to realize such a dream that felt so far away for so long.
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Or, as I put it [much more concisely] on twitter, “Woohoo!”

Geek Chic: Dream Machine on its way!

Happy Days! I have ordered a seriously ridiculous music studio which is currently in the post – it’s been a good few years since I’ve upgraded my then-state-of-the-art steam- and pedal-powered music computer, so I can’t wait for my Mac Pro, stuffed with Logic 8 to play with. I’m going to be in a pleasurable compositional vortex once this baby arrives, so it’s now a race to get everything else sorted in advance of my delivery! My first system was at the time, a top specced PC system, however my friend and LBC Radio host Anthony Davis would be delighted to see I’ve gone over to the dark side.
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I must confess, it seems like I should have bitten the bullet a long time ago and bought my dream system, but I think part of it is having enough faith to put your money where your mouse is, which is what I’ve just done – incredibly frightening, but necessary. Thinking about it, the other part of it was not spending on anything frivolous for a year to save up enough dosh. I’ll keep you posted on the spec, as the nice people at absolute music in the UK are hopefully taking pics of the machine as they are customising it, so I can post the piccies here.