Saturday, June 16, 2007

Persistence and Pitch

The psychologist Jean Piaget wrote about Persistence-- keeping a
mental image of something when the object is no longer in sight-- as
part of childhood development. As he discussed it, persistence
related to visual stimuli. In my experience as a band director,
persistence can also relate to audible stimuli.

Say, for example, that you play F, G, A, G, F. While you are playing
G and A you do not hear F, but when you return to it, if you are
paying attention, you can readily tell whether the second F you play
is exactly the same pitch as the first one you played. That is
because the mental image of the first F is still fresh in your mind,
and you can make a comparison.

Individuals differ in the amount of "data" that they can keep in
conscious memory. Psychologists tell us that, on average, people can
keep seven items in conscious memory, and that adding one more kicks
the first one out. As with any other characteristic, this can vary
widely between individuals. So, the number of notes that need to be
between the two "F's" in the above example before the perception of
being in tune no longer applies will differ with different listeners.

So what has this got to do with playing in a band? Several things:

1. When you leave a note and return to it, a listener will notice if
they differ in pitch by even a small amount. Just pay attention and
they will match. (Watch for some instrumental techniques later in
another posting.)

2. When you have to "come in" after an extended rest, and you enter
on the same note played by another section or player just before you
begin, you need to match the pitch exactly, or the listener will
notice and characterize you as "playing out of tune" even if you are
actually playing the correct pitch. It is the comparison that can
trick the ear in this situation. The solution is to listen carefully
while waiting to enter and match the pitch of the note before.

3. This one is trickier. When you have a note that repeats, but the
other notes change (you become the "pivot note" in a chord change)
your note has to be "in tune vertically" with the chord. Consider,
for example, that you are playing the note "C" and it repeats in your
part. So you play C, C. The first time you play the chord is C,E,G.
The second time it is Ab,C,Eb. Do you play the same pitch both
times? Surprisingly, no, because the second time you have the "third
of the chord" which needs to be favored slightly sharp to sound in
tune. How do you know if you are in tune with the chord? Simply
this... when you are slightly out of tune you can hear yourself
clearly, but when you are in tune with the chord your sound tends to
disappear in, or blend with the chord. This also can modify what
happens in #2 above. Just paying attention to the sounds around you
can make this happen automatically.

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