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.