Some people have perfect pitch. A person with perfect pitch can hear a note and tell you it’s an F-sharp, or B-flat, or whatever. Generally, I avoid such people, and accountants, at parties.
Many of us have relative pitch. We can sing Doe-Re-Mi in such a way that you’ll recognize it just fine, but our “Doe” might not be the same “Doe” you would have started on.
A few of us are tone deaf and bray like goats, which is fine too because goats are cute.
Relative pitch means you can sing Happy Birthday in such a way that other people recognize it. You may find yourself straining halfway through the song because the person who started with “Haaaaaaappy…” picked a note way higher than you expected, but who knew?
The guy with perfect pitch, that’s who. He’ll immediately want to stop the song and start everybody over again on the proper note, but of course he’s never the guy to start the song in the first place.
Happy Birthday was written in the key of G, which means it starts on a D note.* People with perfect pitch can sing a D note on command without first running to a piano. That sounds like a lovely gift to have, but the flip side is that every time someone sings Happy Birthday in the wrong key, which is to say pretty much every time, it sounds wrong to these poor saps. Out of jealousy I would hate people with perfect pitch, except that God has already cursed them for me.
I’ve played guitar since I was a kid, and I can tune one fast. It’ll sound great too, unless you play it next to another guitar. Mine might be a whole note lower or higher, because although the strings have the proper intervals relative to each other, the overall pitch of the instrument as a whole was off in the first place.
To get around this shortcoming, I have various strategies:
- Tune in front of someone with perfect pitch, and keep adjusting until they stop wincing.
- Pick up a phone. Almost all dial tones are an F. Match an F on my guitar to it, and tune the other strings to match.
- Tuning fork. I use one all the time because they’re fun. When you hit a tuning fork, it barely makes a sound. But touch the ball end to the wood of the guitar and the whole instrument will come alive with the note for you. A friend showed me that you can also press the end of a ringing tuning fork to a tooth, which causes your whole skull to resonate a perfect A-440. Nobody else can hear a thing. I learned that in junior high, along with all the other weird body function tricks.
Sure, I could use an electronic tuner, but that’s for pussies.
Like my relative pitch, I have relative map skills. I can read and understand a map perfectly well. I will always turn right if I am supposed to turn right, but I may turn north when I’m supposed to be facing south because I do not have a perfect sense of which way to point the map in the first place.
Worse, I have a very strong sense of direction matched by a confidently backward sense of where everything is. This was the fault of my 4th grade teacher. When we learned map skills, the top of every map pointed north, but my desk was facing south. As I learned the names and locations of every state in the U.S., I was facing the wrong way. Ask me to point north, and I’ll point north. Ask me which way is California, and I’ll point to New York.
Experts say language is best learned before age three. Map skills are best learned by age nine, after which they become cast in bone. As a result I am doomed to forever see the world upside down.
Right now I’m looking out my window at Farnam Street, and I know I’m looking east. I know that beyond a few hills and a river lies Iowa, because I’ve been there. Then maybe Chicago. But after that my brain starts adding Wyoming, Utah and Oregon. I’ve been to those states too, but I flew there, and flying is like riding an elevator: the door closes, and when it opens again you find yourself magically someplace else, with no real appreciation of how you got there.
The only solution I have is to point to where I think something is, hold that position, and rotate myself 180 degrees. It’s like I have perfect un-pitch.
Another solution might be to do what the pioneers did: cross the United States on foot, step by step, mile by mile, month after month, learning the look and feel of every hill in the whole continent. It worked for Iowa.
I find it’s easier to just be lost, wandering blissfully while I sing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. God only knows in what key.
*Yes, Happy Birthday was “written,” mostly by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. Warner Music Group/Chappell Music owned a copyright through the year 2030. That meant every time you sing Happy Birthday publicly, you legally owed them a royalty. At last report, this was earning Warner $5000 per day. [In September 2015 a Los Angeles judge invalidated the Warner/Chappell copyright. Party-poopers.]