Perfect Pitch, Hospitality, and Straw Men
Watching a person that has perfect or absolute pitch (AP) is like watching a magician making things seemingly appear out of thin air. There’s a bit of beauty to it and a bit of bravado as they pick notes off as if they are old friends. It is typically thought that the ability to remember pitches is genetic, which is why most people do not have this particular skill. But it is also something that comes with training, because the names of notes is something external to the actual pitches AP folks are hearing. Knowing this, researchers at Stanford University set out to find if AP was actually a natural skill or if it was in fact something trained. They invited students around their school to come in to their lab – in this case it was a recording studio – gave them a list of popular songs that had only one well known recording and asked them to sing one of them. What the researchers found was that most of their subjects, who were not trained singers, could sing these songs at nearly identical pitches (and tempos) to the recording. The researcher’s conclusion was that most people have something close to AP, but have not been trained to identify notes by names.1
In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker attempts to prove that the developmental theory of the blank slate is (mostly) a false narrative. Along the way he also takes on the theory of the noble savage, and the theory of the ghost in the machine, but mostly he is focused on the theory of the blank slate. His argument is that much of our innate personality is built into our genetic sequences and as such we are not born with a so called blank slate, but rather one with a good deal of writing on it already. Pinker believes that these three concepts are kept alive, since proper science proves them wrong (or so he thinks) because of the twin vices of politics and religion. He goes about attempting to prove his point using a series of artfully crafted straw-men. His argument pattern for each goes something like
- Science proves this thing
- Religion and/or politics says a stereotype of the thing
- Because of 1 this other questionable thing is true
- If you do not agree with 3 then it is because of 2 and you do not believe in science
It is an argument pattern built for the age of the internet where comparisons to Hitler and Mao are prevalent and nuanced argument is want to be found.2
All of life is filled with nuance and if you are unable (or unwilling) to see it then you are set to make yourself look like a fool. As the researchers above discovered, AP only exists if you have been trained in a particular set of naming conventions for pitches. Similarly, it is difficult to say that most people have AP in spite of the fact that they can sing their favorite songs in relatively close to the same pitch. And yet, both groups are able to recall pitches. Pinker is partially right, there is a lot that we carry with us in our genes, but there is also a lot that we write on the metaphorical slate. For example, being hospitable is unnatural. Humanity seeks to protect itself first and help only when it is profitable, necessary, and/or safe. And yet people continue to open their doors for people in need. Derrida argued that hospitality is always unconditional, but it is the conditions humanity has placed on hospitality that makes it difficult.3 I believe those conditions are largely natural and based in safety and security. Simply because that is what is written on our slate does not mean we cannot overwrite it. Humanity has continued to overwrite its slate and provide acts of goodness and hospitality. And humanity will continue to overwrite its slate as long as it has the continued goal of making progress.
1 Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, (Penguin:New York, New York), 153.
2 H. Allen Orr, “Darwinian Storytelling”, The New York Review of Books, Feb. 27, 2003, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2003/02/27/darwinian-storytelling/
3 Anne Duforemantelle, “Hospitality – Under Compassion and Violence”, in The Conditions of Hospitality: Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics on the Threshold of the Possible, ed. Thomas Claviez, (Fordham Univeristy Press: New York), 14.
13 responses to “Perfect Pitch, Hospitality, and Straw Men”
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Fascinating stuff about perfect pitch Sean, and great tie in to your research!
Thanks Jacob. Trying with all my might to tie all of this together.
Sean, thank you for clearly delineating Pinker’s argument pattern and this…”All of life is filled with nuance and if you are unable (or unwilling) to see it then you are set to make yourself look like a fool.” So true. All the arguments can seem like adventures in missing the point without this understanding.
Hospitality is a tangible expression of the beautiful message of the gospel which is the ability to overwrite a slate.
Thank you Tammy. The lack of nuance in a lot of writing these days is a constant frustration for me. These are important topics, but rather than honestly exploring them these authors have chosen to write polemics that don’t particularly add to the discussion.
Sean, as I’m reading this, I’m watching the Chaka Khan special on PBS. Although she may have messed up the national anthem, she sure can sing her own songs! I mention this because I have loved music all my life but don’t believe I can sing and even my 23& me says I am more likely not to have AP! LOL… But the funny thing is musicians always ask if I can sing, and tell me I can because they can hear it in my voice when I talk. In other words, I agree with you! I guess all that’s left is to take some lessons. Wish me luck!
The interesting about the AP thing is that it doesn’t say anything about being a good singer. All it means is that you hit the right pitches, whether or not the quality of those pitches are any good is an entirely separate proposition. Best of luck with the music lessons.
Sean – I really appreciated your outline of Pinker’s argumentation and found it very helpful. And I have been bothered by how often Pinker and Peterson get to Mao, Stalin and Hitler if you are on the other side of their position. Nuance and humility does seem to be in short supply. I believe, like you, that humans have the capacity to rewrite and hospitality is proof of that.
Thanks Andrea. Pinker and Peterson’s argument style is very much like what I’ve seen a hundred times on internet message boards. It’s too bad that they’ve used their considerable intellects for straw man arguments rather than really engaging in the nuance of the topics they’re exploring
Great post Sean, I could not help realising that I could be an AP if only I got some training, well I did not get that opportunity but my young 13 year old son is great at music and many musical instruments. I almost sure he is very close if not an AP.
I liked the way you connected the AP with the idea of a Blank Slate. We should be intentional at overwriting the blank slate with the right values and without apology.
I agree Wallace. Intentionality is what is necessary or just about anything will be written on our slate.
Thank you, Sean, for this post and I love the part that you say, Humanity continues to overwrite the slate with newly learned ideas. Does that mean one is born with a blank slate or what is inborn can be overwritten? According to Pinker, nobody is born with a blank slate. He is countering previous philosophers’ theorist of the blank slate.
John, what I’m saying is that the slate probably isn’t blank, but that doesn’t mean we can’t erase things and rewrite out slate.
You are the most thoughtful and nuanced in your analysis and argument construction. Besides that, you always utilize cool illustrations. Pinker was OK, but I like your take much better. I think you should get published and we just read your research!