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kottke.org posts about LJ Rich

What’s It Like Living with Perfect Pitch and Synesthesia?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2019

LJ Rich has synesthesia and perfect pitch and wrote about what that feels like for her personally.

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back — on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords — or perhaps compose a variation on that melody - develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

I have a friend with perfect pitch and one of the first times we hung out together, the horn on a tugboat sounded and she said, “C sharp”. I looked puzzled so she explained, and then I peppered her with questions about all the other sounds around us. It was like watching a superhero do their thing.

But with great power sometimes comes great irritation. From a NY Times article about Rich:

LJ said she had been a “weird prodigy kid.” For her, perfect pitch had been a nightmare. The whole world seemed out of tune. But then teachers introduced her to Indian ragas, Gamelan music and compositions with quarter tones, unfamiliar modes and atonal structures. As her musical horizons expanded, her anxiety dissipated. (She remains exceedingly sensitive to pitch, though. Her refrigerator, for example, hums in A flat. Working from home, I hear my fridge running 12 hours a day. Blindfolded, I’m not sure I could pick the thing out of a lineup of three other refrigerators.)