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.

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