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.