Thursday, March 22, 2007

On Language, Pitch, and "Ear Training"

When I was a young thing, playing Little Red Ridinghood in a community theatre production of Sondheim's Into the Woods, I had to make an entrance and start singing without any real setup or introduction. Thus, I had to know my starting pitch before I began.

The first few times were a little hairy.

"Is there nothing that can help me in the orchestra?" I asked.


Then I had an inspiration. "Play the pitch for me."

The note was played.

"Thanks; I've got it."

I had always thought until that day that "perfect" pitch was something one had or didn't have, like a photographic memory. But I was able to memorize that particular tone and carry it with me through the rest of the rehearsal and performance process.

Once I had the first tone solidified, it became a matter of intervals until I could pull "from the air" any note in the chromatic scale.

I don't claim now to have "perfect pitch," because when I hear a note I have to think about it for just a second (unlike my college roommate who could hear a tone cluster and instantly rattle off its individual components). But -- if you give me a minute -- I've got near-perfect accuracy.

Why am I telling y'all about this? Because I read this article in the NY Times yesterday detailing how music and "ear training" can help a person learn a language.

The article (by Eric Nagourney) explains that people who study music have an easier time coping with the pitch gradiations in spoken Chinese. Chinese, unlike English, uses pitch to delineate meaning. The same syllables spoken through different resonators (read: different parts of the mouth, though really the nasal cavity is involved as well) code as different words and are perceived as having different pitches.

Thus a person with a strong pitch sensitivity has a better time hearing the differences between similar-sounding words.

Here's my take on this: I've long thought that traditional, music-theory "ear training" courses should be required for all theatre students as they approach their study of dialect. Linklater training and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) are fine and useful, but a person needs to understand both pitch and rhythm before they can master the "up-and-down flow" of a particular dialect. I've gotten through dialect scenes using pitch and rhythm alone.

More importantly, here's my take in regards to learning Hindi: finding the pitch of the language seems to be the easiest part. I can put my voice through the rise and fall. I can match Pratap and Kamala's pitches on the Teach Yourself Hindi CD -- and match them perfectly.

But what I've found (and what surprises me) is that pitch is separate from phoneme. I can wrap my tongue around any interval, but I can't replicate an unfamiliar vowel sound.

This seems unfair -- because what is a vowel but a pitch shaped by an aperture obstacle?

Which means I have to figure out how to make my aperture shape the obstacle. A different challenge than learning how to pull pitches out of the air, though -- theoretically -- it should be similar.

And when I figure it out, I should write Mr. Nagourney.

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