West-Marvin hits it out of the park with pitch lecture

Lily Iserson
Chief Copy Editor

Have you ever wondered about especially talented musicians, who can recognize and hit perfect notes without referencing an instrument? Rather than accepting pitch perfect at face value, Wooster alumna Professor Elizabeth West-Marvin will give a lecture on the very subject, exploring the science behind those who possess the rare aptitude for an “Absolute Pitch” (AP).

On Thursday Mar. 2, West-Marvin will interrogate absolute pitch as a mystery and a science in a lecture entitled “In Their Own Words: Analyzing the Extents and Origins of Absolute Pitch.” The lecture will occur from 12-1 p.m. in Scheide Music Center, room 203. Posters on the lecture invite audience members to bring and enjoy bagged lunches during West-Marvin’s presentation.

Having originally received a double BA in Organ Performance and Theory Composition at The College of Wooster in 1977, West-Marvin now teaches at the Eastman School in Rochester, NY as a professor in music theory; she also holds a secondary appointment in the University of Rochester’s Brain and Cognitive Department. These combined disciplines demonstrate West-Marvin’s enjoyment of diverse research that analyzes music and the cognitive process, which includes the science of the flawless pitch as a skill capable of analysis.

In her abstract on the lecture, West-Marvin explains that “although tests of AP possessors’ abilities have been studied extensively in the laboratory, few researchers have collected qualitative data about the experiences of AP listeners as they engage in musical and nonmusical activities in their daily lives.”

Indeed, a brief Google search for the absolute pitch online procures a variety of pseudo-scientific resources, training tests, and blog reports of experience. None of these immediate results engage qualitative experience using a precise scientific method. By conducting experiments alongside interviews with AP Eastman musicians about their memories and experiences, West-Marvin presents a more comprehensive understanding of AP as a genuine skill set that impacts different parts of the AP musician’s life.

“Of course there is no denying that AP can be helpful to musicians,” said West-Marvin in her essay, “Absolute Pitch Perception and the Pedagogy [Teaching] of Relative Pitch,” originally published by the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy in 2007. In this paper, West-Marvin acknowledges the remarkability of AP, while practically comparing AP against “relative pitch,” the process of deducing pitch by comparing notes against other notes. Using this comparison, West-Marvin expresses interest in music teaching methods that acknowledge the skills and tendencies of AP musicians and non-AP musicians through a realistic understanding of ability.

West-Marvin continues, “To name just a few examples, AP assists musicians in hearing long-range, tonal relationships over time, tuning and performing atonal music, providing pitches for a cappella choral music, hearing unfamiliar music inwardly (from score reading) and transcribing music from sound to paper. Nevertheless, the AP musician who never develops relative-pitch skills may miss an entire dimension of music listening and performance: the aural understanding of dynamic hierarchical relationships within a key.”

As a culmination of these studies, West-Marvin’s lecture posters and research promises a frank overview of AP’s discovery, its perceived extents, and the ways it impacts the musician’s listening skill. All Wooster community members, professors and students can attend this event free of charge.

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