Sunday, August 08, 2010


Back in college, I was majoring in computer science, but I had a broad range of interests so I took enough credits in several other subjects to count as minors (though I didn't claim any of them), including languages, philosophy, math, and music. The first music classes you take at my college were the obligatory 101 class that covered the history of music, and then MUS 119, the introduction to music theory and notation.

On the first day of that class, the teacher told us "and we'll be learning some sight-singing," eliciting a groan from the class. As the teacher expected, since it happens every semester, more than half the class considered themselves people who "can't sing" and in many cases thought of themselves as "tone deaf." He explained that most of the people who thought those things simply hadn't been taught, or taught right. Which makes sense; music class in my elementary school was basically them handing out books with sheet music, not explaining what the sheet music said, and then having us sing. (I always thought that I'd missed when they taught us how to read the staff notation during the year I was skipped ahead, but I was told that they never taught that stuff.)

Sure enough, by the end of the semester, most of the class felt confident that they could sing. They weren't a bunch of Ella Fitzgeralds, mind you, but they were able to carry their own in a chorus. They were also able to identify notes and intervals by ear; perhaps not with the kind of "perfect pitch" ability that lets them tell if a note is a bit off when it's played on its own, but well enough to tell a major third from a perfect fourth.

Near the end of the semester, the teacher took some time to talk to all of us about where we would be going from here in our music studies. He took me aside at one point and said, "You remember how I said almost no one really can't sing or is really tone deaf? Well... you might be one of the few." It sounds mean-spirited when I retell the story, but it really wasn't. He was giving me advice about where to focus my music study -- on composition and theory -- and he was entirely right. I had always had a terrible time with instruments (I could practice a week until I could do one song on the guitar, then try to learn a second one and I'd always lose the first one).

In subsequent classes, we learned to take musical dictation by identifying notes, chords, and intervals, and separating out the parts of a song, identifying rhythm separate from melody separate from harmony, and writing them all down. I did all right, but I had to work a lot harder at it than most people, and made weird errors. I learned how to identify different intervals and chord progressions, and sometimes I could tell notes, but oddly and inexplicably, sometimes I could tell that two notes were a perfect fifth apart but not which one was higher. Sometimes to take dictation I couldn't figure out each part on its own, I would have to go back and figure out some of the notes not just by how they differed from the previous note but also how the following note differed, and what that meant the intervening note had to be to fit all the rules. Like solving the same puzzle one solves when composing, only I had to do it to tell what not just some but most of the notes in a piece were.

Of course the music program at the university didn't really have a tidy separation for composition from performance. After a certain number of classes, you got to where you had to take a musicianship test to qualify to take the next class, and everything else required that class. The test involved some verifications of understanding of theory, but also practical tests, including one about keeping rhythm (by tapping) and one that involved sight-singing. I knew I wasn't going to do any well in that one, and without it I couldn't pass, but I gave it a game try. I felt sorry for the proctor, who kept trying not to wince visibly, but it showed sometimes. (In hindsight, I would have done a lot better an octave or two lower. No one ever told me that my voice works better in lower registers.)

I never actually got a score on the test. Instead, an advisor talked to me and said, "perhaps you should just stick to composition and theory." And I said, that's what I wanted to do in the first place! So I actually got a waiver that allowed me to take the two-semester series of classes on advanced music theory and composition, which was great. Even then, I ran into some troubles for the oddity of coming to the class from the wrong direction: the teacher tended to assume anyone in it could at least play piano and one other instrument. We actually had a final project that involved creating your own musical system and then performing in it, and I had to get special permission to lug a Commodore 64 to the college and play compositions I'd prepared ahead of time on it.

Music was always an interest or hobby, not ever intended to be a big part of my life. And I was glad to have learned that I lacked the aptitude -- sure, if I poured enough effort into it I could probably become not-wholly-bad at it, but the same effort could make me genuinely good at something else for which I had an actual talent. After college, I didn't do much with music. In hindsight, I probably could have done a lot better at it if I'd focused on rhythm (drumming) since my tone-deafness didn't affect that, and I always had a good sense of it.

When we bought a microphone for Rock Band, it was always intended for the other players, and I'd focus on drums or guitar. But one day, just out of morbid curiosity, since I was home alone, I fired it up and tried out the mic. The first song Rock Band picked was Blitzkrieg Pop by the Ramones -- a song in which there's relatively little actual singing, and most of that is pretty flat and very simple. I got through it without failing out, but my score was pretty bad, down in the 70%-80% range somewhere. I can't remember what the second song was; I think it might have been Creep by Radiohead. It was something I mostly knew through Rock Band. Whatever it was, again, it wasn't exactly challenging, but at least it was singing. I failed out less than a quarter of the way through. Tried a second time and failed out again, even faster. So I figured I'd simply confirmed what I always thought, that my singing voice and the actual notes were rarely within range of one another, and I was just exactly as awful as everyone always said.

Last night, I was fighting with Rock Band trying to get my cheapie Frontman guitars to work with any version (the USB drivers haven't worked for many PS3 firmware versions now, and while there were some klugy workarounds that made them work for a while, not even those help anymore), I accidentally activated the mic (since one of the klugy workarounds involves using the DualShock controllers, which Rock Band associates with the mic) while testing Rock Band Beatles. I was home alone, and frustrated about the guitars, so I decided to kill a few minutes by failing out on a Beatles song, I think maybe Tax Man.

To my surprise, I finished with a 96% and never even got into the red (warning you you're about to fail out). So I kept trying other randomly-chosen songs. I got scores in the high 90s each time. So I tried medium difficulty and still got scores in the 90s. Even in hard mode, I was scoring in the 80s, and it took about ten songs before I failed out on one.

I'm curious and puzzled about this. Are the later Rock Band titles far more forgiving on the singing than the earlier ones? Does my voice far better match John Lennon's voice (for some reason the game never chose me a song sung by anyone else -- another oddity, since the game certainly has them)? Or is it just that, since I know these songs so very, very well, having heard them countless times for my whole life, this somehow transcends my native lack of ability? Or all three -- but even combining all three I would have expected at best I would get a "barely passed" score on some easier songs in easy mode, not high scores on hard songs in hard mode.

I have a very tiny bit of curiosity about whether my voice just isn't as bad as it used to be. Maybe realizing to come down an octave helped more than I think. I'm slightly tempted to ask some innocent bystanders to listen and tell me, but I'm far, far more reluctant to do so, because making someone listen to my terrible singing seems like an unwarranted cruelty. I even feel bad about making Siobhan listen when I sing in the car (though she insists she doesn't mind).

No comments: