Birds, Bats, and Babies: Perfect Pitch Play

There was such a beautiful bird song outside the bedroom window the other day! Too bad it was 5 am in the morning. The initially sweet melody was very loud and went on and on and on.  Since I couldn’t get back to sleep, I wrapped my mind around figuring out the intervals and the exact pitch of each sound.  I tried to visualize the song as notation. This is not the easiest thing to do, especially at 5 am. Next came the inevitable question of why. What was the bird’s message? Was anything or anybody going to answer it so that I could go back to sleep? Why did the melody never waiver? What was that bird trying to say!?

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Later in the day, and fortified with a number of cups of coffee, I surprised myself by going out of my way to listen to a similar pitched melody sung over and over and over again by the young babies in our school’s day care room.  It too was difficult to pin down in terms of exact pitch, but the contour was unwavering.  This time I worked hard to put aside my analytical mind, and tried to just enjoy the sounds. It was obvious that the babies were enjoying making these songs.  They sang them again and again and again. Each time brought a fresh round of smiles, as if they were just discovering something new and exciting.

First birds, then babies, and later in the day I came across an article about the study of bats. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/baby-bats-babble-through-childhood-like-we-do/). It seems that baby bats begin life babbling away using pitched sounds and fragments of melody. The melodious babble is the way the bats begin to communicate. It isn’t until later, after learning from adults, that they develop a more sophisticated sequence of sounds that have precise meaning (to other bats anyway).

Pitch – both processing pitch and producing pitch – is a very early human achievement.

Before words, or concepts or gestures, there is pitch. Infants can process and match pitch within their first few months of life.  Like bats, young babies begin to form meaning of their world through repeated and learned connection of pitch to context. But do we need to always view baby’s use of pitch as a means to an end? Is early pitch use only valuable when it leads to language?

Why do birds, and bats, and babies sing? Well, there are many, many scientists studying these questions looking to uncover meaning and purpose behind this behavior. But after trying to listen to the birds and babies the other day, I began to tell myself…they sing because they can. They sing because they do. They sing because it is in their nature to sing.

This led to a bit of an ‘aha’ moment.  Pitch, and the use of pitch, by babies or children should be valued just because it is a natural part of development.

Although adults can begin to shape pitch into communication with external meaning, we can also celebrate the child’s natural motivation and ability to create pitch.  We can and should view pitch as an important part of the child, separate from language or other meaning and unique in its communicative qualities.

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Try and wrap your head around it as you go through your day. Here are some tips for listening for and valuing pure pitch play.

  • Think about a smell or scent that you love. Remember how you savor that delicious smell as you take a long sniff? Now think about a pitch that you love. Hard to do? Scent and pitch are sensory experiences that can be valued in the same way. Try to find a pitch that feels especially good to you. Enjoy it just as you enjoy a favorite smell.
  • Practice listening for and imitating pitch. Close your eyes and pick out a sound in your environment. Use your voice to try and replicate the pitch that you hear. This might not be entirely specific, since each person might assign a different frequency as being the most prominent in any pitch sound that is not precisely pure.
  • Play with pitch in your own voice. Try not to connect it to any song or familiar musical structure. This might seem silly at first, but keep in mind that this was one of the earliest ways that you let the world know that you existed.
  • Sit down with the babies or children that you work with as they play. Listen to their use of pitch and try and imitate it. Work hard not to place adult thinking about meaning on the sounds, but try and enjoy the act of making these sounds.
  • Join in this pitch play, and let the babies and children teach YOU about this very natural way of being!

 

Enjoy the music!

Beth