Sunday, 18 January 2015

Hitting the right note

When I was younger I was held back from rock stardom by two facts: I'm tone deaf and could never get to grips with the guitar. Otherwise I was a natural.

From time to time, I've returned to the guitar and tried to master a few tunes by watching online masterclasses. I've even had some real life lessons.

But I'm too much of a play by numbers musician, if I dare to use the word musician.

I once attended a singing class advertised as for people who are tone deaf. The instructor said that people who think they are tone deaf usually had an undermining experience before the age of 10 that put them off singing. Everyone could remember theirs.

I used to love singing in school lessons. One day I was off ill. When I returned, one of my friends told me the teacher had said how much better the class was because I was away. This is one of the images pinned to the smudged, stuck together pages of the mental calendar of my youth.

The instructor at my later class aimed to teach us the note recognition skills we would have naturally developed if we hadn't given up trying due to thoughtless - or cruel - teachers, friends or family.

One of the most effective, was standing face to face with a partner and singing a continuous note to be matched by the other. You could feel the resonance when you got it right, even if it was not always obvious whether to pitch up or pitch down.

I did try to persuade my girlfriend and later wife to do this exercise with me, but I think she feared losing me to belated rock stardom and so my dreams have languished.

That is, until now, with the help of two apps.

This process of remembering has taught me how memories can be held on to by repetition. So perhaps the same is true of notes and hitting them.

I was looking for an app to play Middle C as a starting point, so I could learn to recognise it and to match it with my own voice. There are various apps that play a note when you press a button, or the same not repeatedly in a loop. Others play a sequence of notes for you to pick out on a keyboard and repeat. I wanted something that would play continuously into my ear, even as I slept so it would become hardwired into my synapses.

In the end, I found it was not a music app. I needed, but a oscillator. The following one has the advantage of playing in the background. Others I investigated switch off if the app is not on the screen. (I have no involvement with any of the apps. and no financial or other gain from recommending it - see my advertising policy).

Oscillator is by Kymatica (Jonatan Liljedahl) and is available in the Apple App Store. Here is a screenshot with it set to frequency 261.60 Hz, which is Middle C (or C4).

With this playing in my ear, I try to capture the sound. Automatically I find I visualise the tone being at a particular height in my head. Higher pitches are higher in my head (perhaps because they are more nasal) and deeper ones lower, towards my throat and chest. Middle C is about the level of my palate.

With the noise in my ear, I try to hit the note with a hum. I don't have much sense of my own voice on those occasions I am singing along to something to even know if I am in tune. With the sound reverberating round my skull from the oscillator, I can match my hum to it.

I am using another app to test how well I have captured the tone in my memory. This is Hit the Note! by Visions Encoded Inc. Available in the Apple App Store. It randomly displays the notes in an octave. At the moment, I just tap the screen until it comes to C and hum or sing 'C' at the frequency that vibrates at the level of my palate to try to light the green light.

I aim to strengthen the correlation between the sound I hear, my recognition of it and how I reproduce it with my own voice. I want to learn to do what I should have learned by 10 years old: hear a note and sing it.

I hope the skill from one note will transfer to others and that I will only have to repeat this process with other notes. If I can programme this as a reference, it will give me absolute pitch - hitting a note without hearing it or a related one first - which is a rarer skill.

All the same, I do need to develop an ear for intervals. There are lots of apps to help with this. At the moment I am using Perfect Pitch Practice by Xilva. Available in the Apple App Store. This plays random notes from various octaves, the easiest levels being based on C4 (Middle C).

My memory tag for today is embarking on this new journey of discovery.

Before too long I intend to buy a keyboard so I can try once again to learn to play music.

And maybe become a rock star.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


I have realised that in this process of remembering every day that passes, older memories are easier to recall.

This makes perfect sense. I have been reviewing the earliest images pinned to my mental calendar as memory tags at least once per month for over three years.

As I've noticed before, the past week presents me with the greatest problems. My active memory creates noise with many recollections from those days and it is only with time that I settle on the key images, and possibly a theme for successive days, to pin down.

I don't know if I will ever reach the magical state of true hyperthymesia, where my brain serves up memories without the memory tricks I have developed to stop these memory tags from fading away.

However, I believe my review process will be sustainable for some years to come. So far I have not lost a day of the past three plus years.

The revelation that older memories become easier to recall through repetition takes away some of the apprehension that blanks will, at some point, start to appear.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Spatial awareness

Spatial awareness is key to how I remember every day that passes.

The images I select to capture the events and details of the day I want to remember are pinned to my mental calendar. I visualise this as traditional month-per-view pages laid out in front of the number of the year. On my calendar, the week ends on Sunday.

When I want to remember a particular day, I orientate myself on this calendar. It may take a moment or two to work out the day of a week to step onto the correct square. Sometimes surrounding dates come more immediately to mind and provide an anchor.

Moving towards the numbers of the year, leads to the earlier months. The year to the left is the preceding year.

I use full-date tagging for images, saying the day, month and year when I think of it. Yet, sometimes in a review, I have to reflect on the theme of the year - or the month in that year - to confirm the image belongs there.

I mention this now because closing 2014 has changed the layout. It is no longer the active year, open with possibility behind me and to the right. It is now sandwiched between 2013 and 2015, unchangeable.

New shapes and connections are becoming apparent. Particularly as every day now has a partner in 2014. Although that year is over, it is still weaving its way into my story.

Monday, 5 January 2015


I have barely left the house for two weeks as my wife and I look after my sick mother-in-law. She broke her leg and needs constant care.

The routine has been the same: providing care, eating, writing, exercising (see my prison regime), sleeping, with a very subdued Christmas and New Year being all that has broken the monotony.

Yet these days are not so monotonous to allow them to merge into one as would have happened before I began this process of remembering every day that passes. There are periods in the past where I have just one or two memories that represent a period that could be weeks or months. Sometimes I find it impossible to remember how long.

But these two weeks are made up of separate days and there is something in each of them to form the images pinned to my mental calendar. It may be the first time the nurse arrived to help provide care. Or the day I discussed soccer with one of my brothers-in-laws, who is mad on the sport (with that tag, I remember when he visited). Or when I first began my exercise regime. Or when my mother-in-law first sat at the dining table. Christmas and New Year are, of course, easy.

Yesterday, my image is watching a television programme with my wife, a delayed viewing of a Christmas special. It captures the day and will remind me of this much-needed moment of relaxation.

I won't remember every time I have lifted my mother-in-law into her wheelchair, but I will have rich memories of these monotonous days that help to measure their passing.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Running on the spot

When I stay at my mother-in-law's house, I am pretty much confined to it.

It is in a built-up area and my in-laws are against me going out for runs around the neighbourhood.

So I've gone from running 20 - 40 km per week to zero.

After I week, I was feeling imprisoned. Which prompted me to have a quick look on the internet for exercise regimes when in prison.

I haven't adopted any, but just reading that it is possible to stay fit and strong living in a cell set me on my way.

I now look forward to the opportunity to do exercises on my arms and stomach and some leg muscles that I have long thought I should do. Cross training is encouraged to develop strength that helps with running, but isn't necessarily developed by running.

I also realised I needed to get my heart racing to clear out the cobwebs. To begin with I tried steps for 20 minutes, which did the job, but brought on a twinge to the knee I injured last April (my memory tag for 23 April 2014).

Instead, I've introduced running on the spot. Which is surprisingly like running around the block, except I go nowhere, it is sweatier and I land much more on the front of my foot.

In fact, it turns out to be a good way to study my gait without worrying that I might veer into the road or the hedge. Plus my knee is now fine.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Closing 2014

I've already described what a shock it was to see the end of 2014 looming, when the year still seems so fresh.

I had the same feeling when 2013 came to an end. I conduct a detailed review of the past 6 months of images pinned to my mental calendar, so it takes that long to fully step from one year into the next.

Now I do have a foothold on my mental calendar for 2015 here, it feels like the door to 2014 has closed, even as I conduct my reviews.

I am very conscious that year in the calendar is full.

It struck me today, with a slight feeling of regret, that it will be a rare event for me now to run through the sequential images from January 2014, say. Sometimes I would do so during the year for that month and others that had dropped out of the 6 month window.

Partly, it was nice to reflect on what had happened. Partly, it was to make sure the images were secure.

Now that year has to fare for itself in my memory as I move on.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Month end 2

The transition to 1st January worked very well with my brand new refresh method.

This week I changed how I refresh the images pinned to the past three plus years of my mental calendar. I still feel the need to actively recall these images once per month to stop them fading.

The new technique is to run through consecutive days over the course of two days. So on 31 December, I recalled the images for the 31st and 1st of each month for 2011 and 2012. Then on 1 January I recalled the images for 31st and 1st of each month for 2013 and 2014.

This is much more manageable than recalling just the same day (e.g. 31st) for the whole period. I often recalled surrounding days to orientate myself, so two days per month takes no more time than one day per month, but I now spread the review over two days. Which means I've completed it while getting up and ready in the morning, rather than having to find some extra free mental time during the day.

There is another benefit.

Not all months have 31 days, or even 30 days. So the reviews at month's end would not run so smoothly. It is much easier with this new approach as for all but February, I have an image for one day at least.