Brainworms and perfect pitch

I thought I’d read everything by Oliver Sacks but he is prolific and I’d fallen behind. So I had to catch up with Musicophilia before I proceed to The Mind’s Eye. One of the themes of Musicophilia is brainworms: catchy tunes that you can’t get out of your head. Another kind of brainworm, for me, is the phrase or quotation that sticks in my head after I finish a book. My Musicophilia brainworm is a quote from Diane Deutsch about perfect pitch, which is another major theme of the book:

To give you a sense of how strange a lack of absolute pitch appears to those of us who have it, take color naming as an analogy. Suppose you showed someone a red object and asked him to name the color. And suppose he answered: “I can recognize the color, and I can discriminate it from other colors, but I just can’t name it.” Then you juxtaposed a blue object and named its color, and he responded, “OK, since the second color is blue, the first one must be red.” I believe that most people would find this process rather bizarre. Yet from the perspective of someone with absolute pitch this is precisely how most people name pitches — they evaluate the relationship between the pitch to be named and another pitch whose name they already know.

When I hear a musical note and identify its pitch, much more happens than simply placing its pitch on a point (or in a region) along a continuum. Suppose I hear an F-sharp sounded on the piano. I obtain a strong sense of familiarity for “F-sharpness” — like the sense one gets when one recognizes a familiar face. The pitch is bundled in with other attributes of the note — its timber (very importantly), its loudness, and so on. I believe that, at least for some people with absolute pitch, notes are perceived and remembered in a way that is far more concrete than for those who do not possess this faculty.

I don’t have perfect pitch but I’m starting to wonder if I have something like it in the realm of networked information systems. This week’s essay in my Why and how series, entitled Heds, deks, and ledes, is a case in point. The essay recalls chapter 4 of Practical Internet Groupware, which I wrote over a decade ago, and have reformulated in various ways since. To me the principles are so evident that it’s hard to understand why I had to write them down in the first place, never mind continue to restate them over the years. But I do so because I keep realizing that the “F-sharpness” I perceive is not evident to most people. The qualities of this kind of “F-sharpness” include these awarenesses:

  • of the layered structure of a package of information

  • of which layers are active in different network contexts

  • of how layers interconnect

  • of how to compose each layer to maximize its visibility and connectivity

I’ve always believed that these are teachable principles, and I’m striving more than ever to find ways to teach them. But what if they aren’t? What if this kind of “F-sharpness” is wired into my brain in a way it can’t be in most brains? It would be a disappointment but also a relief to realize that what I’m trying to teach might not be broadly teachable. I’m still stuck with the brainworm, though.

8 Comments

  1. People without perfect pitch can develop excellent relative pitch (using solfege, for example) and can become very good musicians. And while they may lack some intrinsic understanding of pitch, this doesn’t prevent them from performing with other musicians.

    1. Indeed, Sacks points out that perfect pitch can be a handicap. For example, a tune that sounds OK to most of us in any key can sound wrong, to somebody with perfect pitch, if transposed from its home key.

  2. One thing that’s helped me understand the “F-sharpness” of thought processes better is Jungian personality theory and its extension into the Myers Briggs personality type framework. For example, as an ENTP, my dominant mental function is extraverted intuition. It’s very easy for me to see patterns in the outside world, and to connect the dots. But things that are intuitively obvious to me are not at all that way for others. I can teach principles and approaches, but I can’t expect everyone to “get” everything in the same way that I do, make the same inferences, realize the same implications, or even agree that those inferences and implications are necessarily as valuable as I think they are!

    And of course the converse is true — there are things that other types get very naturally that are elusive for me to grasp.

    I’ve had a lot of eye opening moments as I’ve studied personality theory, about *why* and *how* people are good at some things and lousy at others.

  3. I never know how to answer on those tests. It always seems to be:

    Extraverted vs introverted?

    Thinking vs feeling?

    For me the answer is always both, at different times, it depends.

    Granting, of course, that people vary in their strengths and weaknesses, there are certain fundamentals that we believe we must try to teach everyone.

    I would like to think that certain patterns in the realm of information and communications are among those teachable fundamentals.

    I would hate to think that the ability to perceive those patterns is as rare as perfect pitch.

    1. I currently believe that the Meyers-Briggs type of categorization of people works in one of two ways. (And maybe both at the same time.)

      1) Perhaps it is not I or E as a binary choice. Perhaps it is a continuum from far left to far right. Somewhere to the left is “I” and somewhere to the right is “E”. If you fall far enough to the right, you answer the questions in a way that you get marked as “E”.

      2) Perhaps I and E are just shorthand for a bundle of (binary choice type) personality characteristics. For example, there might be 20 of them. The questions each rates you on maybe 5 characteristics (or some other number of them). If you say Yes to that question you get a 0 on those five. If you say No you get a 1 on those five. When the test is done, average the assigned 0s or 1s. If you are over .5, you get called E. If you are under .5, you get called I.

      Either way, its seems right to most people when they describe the characteristics of that type of person. That is because most people are not close to the middle point, equidistant from both I and E. The few people who are close to the middle point don’t get the tests.

      Its a theory…

  4. The aspects of information layers that you describe above are all about *abstraction*, particularly the last one:

    + how to compose each layer to maximize its visibility and connectivity

    Even if you can explain best practices of layer design/composition to a number of people, there will be a subset who immediately catch on to what you are saying, since their minds have a natural affinity for abstract concepts and holistic thinking. Whereas others who prefer more concrete, linear ways of thinking may have to invest a lot of mental energy (even if they have the technical capability) to follow along.

    I’ve experienced this many times in my career where I’ve wanted people not just to understand what I designed, but *why*. Why did I solve the problem at this level of abstraction, instead of somewhere lower or higher? And related topics.

    What I find is that some people immediately catch on to this discussion and can follow these design principles when integrating with the system. Whereas other people (again, even with ample subject-matter knowledge) don’t, and it’s a herculean task to communicate these things to them.

    While I’m always looking to be a better communicator, part of that for me is also recognizing those situations where it’s an unrealistic expectation on my part, and not stressing about that. Just some thoughts for what they are worth :-)

  5. “recognizing those situations where it’s an unrealistic expectation on my part … and not stressing about that.”

    That’s good advice!

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