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My six-year-old son Tyson has a gift called absolute pitch, also known as perfect pitch. It means that he is able to name any pitch he hears.
If you were to play a note on any musical instrument, he would be able to identify what that note is as easily as if you were to ask him the colour of his T-shirt. He even knows the note of everyday sounds: that the purr of our refrigerator is in the key of D, that our lawn mower blares in the key of A, and that our minivan honks in C.
Tyson began taking piano lessons two and a half years ago. His older brother had been taking lessons, and from the beginning Tyson begged us to take him too, but he was only 3 so we thought he was too young. Eight months later, we succumbed.
At home, we’d been using the Suzuki method, which involves a daily regimen of music listening. We’d play the Suzuki CDs, then Tyson would go to the piano and try to figure out the songs on his own. By the time he had his first lesson, he could play most of the songs in the first book by ear.
Around the time he started lessons, I bought a metronome that would also play a solid A and a B flat. Sometimes I used it to check if my piano was in tune. Ty used to play with it all the time. He’d put his ear to the piano and hum with the metronome. I thought this was a little quirky, but it occupied him and allowed me a few minutes to putter around the house. Now I think he might have been internalizing those notes.
At the beginning, I wondered how Tyson acquired this ability. I am an average piano player, having taken lessons when I was young. My husband was musical too, but in a different way. He played the Japanese taiko drum and was a professional night club DJ in his 20s, yet he couldn’t carry a tune if his life depended on it. Tyson was the first person we’d ever met to have perfect pitch.
I asked our piano teacher, Maureen McReynolds, how it happened. She said I must have listened to a lot of music when I was pregnant with Tyson. I certainly did, but no more than with my elder son. The environment of my two kids was almost exactly the same.
I asked the teacher of his weekly group music lesson, Orsi Lengyel . She said people are just born with it. Interestingly, I did discover that several children at her school possessed perfect pitch. They were just like Tyson – normal, but with supersonic ears.
It was Orsi, a professional cellist, who discovered Tyson’s perfect pitch. She pulled me aside after class one day. She’d been teaching the children solfège, the do-re-mi system of notation.
She’d played a note on her cello and asked if any of the kids knew what it was. Since they were pianists, they were not able to discern the note by her fingering. Tyson put up his hand and said it was an A. He was correct. She played several other notes, and that’s when she knew.
When she told me, I thought maybe Tyson had just made a few lucky guesses. At home, I went to the piano and asked him to name a string of notes as I played them. I also played chords. He got them all right.
For curiosity’s sake, I asked him to do the same for me. Hell, maybe I had it too. But no matter how many times he played a note, I hadn’t a clue. I scored 0 out of seven.
Tyson laughed. “Why don’t you know, Mom?” he asked. “It’s easy.”
During the months that followed, Tyson became a great party trick when we had family or friends over. One time he tuned an old ukulele for my nephew, a guitarist.
Since then we’ve learned a lot about perfect pitch. Beethoven and Mozart both had it. So did Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and Nat King Cole.
We know that people with perfect pitch sing especially boisterously in the car and the bath. They like to have clean ears. Sounds affect them deeply.
While Tyson is practising piano, a sound that clashes, such as the vibration of a window, will distract him and I have to find the source and mute it or it’s difficult for him to go on. On the other hand, he can imitate most tunes he hears on the piano – even the ones on his video games.
When he sleeps, he dreams like any other child. But when he has a nightmare, it’s piercing, and he wakes with his hands covering his ears. Sometimes, he says, the sound in his dream is too loud and his head feels like it’ll explode.
Tyson enjoys piano and this gift has helped him learn music faster than most children. Who knows, someday he may want to pursue a career in music. If he does, that’s great. And if he doesn’t, that’s okay too.
I put the kids in lessons more as a way for them to gain discipline and focus and to learn an appreciation for the arts. What’s important is that they grow up to be good people. I want them to be happy. As a parent, my duty is to nurture my children’s interests, gifts and passions, whatever they may be.
Monica Lin Morishita lives in Toronto