Tag Archives: vowels

On your home pitch

If you’ve ever seen the film production of My Fair Lady you may recall the scene where Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering listen to a recording of the many vowels sounds of which humans are thought capable.* I first saw the film as a teenager and can still recall the feeling of aural challenge. This same feeling came flooding back to me today during the second tableau (from 0:28 to 0:50) of the following video on polski alfabet – particularly the final seven sounds. If you think you’ve a good ear, why not give it a go?

[kml_flashembed movie="http://uk.youtube.com/v/6s-vMd_pBks" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

There are thought to be two types of pitch ability:

  • perfect or absolute pitch – where a person can identify or produce a note without reference to any previous sound

  • relative pitch – where a person can identify or produce a note thanks to the context i.e. previous note, harmonic setting etc.

I’ve always felt that there is a third factor which is familiarity with the instrument (or language) to which one is listening. People’s pitch perception is aided (perhaps unconsciously) by an awareness of the acoustical properties of instruments with which they are familiar. I suppose this goes for tuning systems and harmonic language. I wonder how many of us could sing or whistle a fragment of a melody from a radically different musical culture after one hearing the way we could with, say, a fragment of a Scottish folk song. In language terms, I’m sure we must find it more difficult to distinguish between a set of very similar sounds – none of which we often use.

I was very impressed with the above video – yet another example of the bounteous gifts available online – and spent a large part of the morning experimenting with Windows Movie Maker (thanks to Ewan McIntosh – as I didn’t even realise such a thing existed). The aspect of bonding the visual with the aural was good fun and much easier than I thought. I would post here my little experiment the photographs and music are still in copyright.

* I seem to recall the number as being around 60 but there is a more ambitious estimate of 200 in paragraph 11 of this.