Tuesday, September 11, 2007

questions of frequency


People often say to me:

“I love music but I don’t play an instrument because I am tone deaf”.

Or: “I cannot learn a foreign language. My accent is rubbish. ”.

The worst is: “Our son Jimmy’s just like me, tone deaf, so we won’t bother with the cello.”

Then of course there is: “You speak fantastic French because you’re a musician.”

As it happens, I do grasp languages (I can get by well in German and Italian and speak good French) and accents very easily until…

It comes to Spanish where, after ‘donde cerveza e jamon’, I am completely at a loss. I haven’t tried Japanese or Hungarian yet.

I always sensed that recovery from being ‘tone deaf’ had something to do with learning to listen, but actually it doesn’t, it has to do with hearing, and this is not something we can consciously control.

‘You cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear.’ Says Alfred Tomatis

Coming across his work (about which I have always heard and giggled a little because he sounds like tomatoes) through a friend who is learning Italian through the Tomatis method has been a revelation.

Essentially, because every language uses a different set of frequencies, we are, literally, ‘deaf’ to other frequencies unless our ear is retrained to hear them.

Is it so mind-blowing, then, that I can speak German, French and Italian when they are the languages of Opera which I have been playing all my life? When I walk down the street in Venice or Paris or Salzburg and I need to say something, am I not drawing on the frequencies from Don Giovanni, Carmen, Hochzeit, Pelleas et Mélisande? But then what about my desk partner who has been sitting next to me all the while but can't pronounce a word in any but her mother tongue?

The German language is, apparently, the language that has the widest spectrum of frequencies. Is it then surprising (asked Julian) that there are there are more Great German (speaking) composers than any other? Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bach for starters….

And perhaps recovering those frequencies that were killed off during twelve years sitting in a pit in front of the timpanis and the trombones at Glyndebourne could help me with my Spanish?

Meanwhile, for Peter (the other), here is Manon on the new bedspread. Still to come, slate grey Oscar on the new granite worktop. One day, both of them on the terrace...



Blogger Kaycie said...

I laughed out loud at your references to timpanis and trombones. Being a flute and piccolo person myself, I have been accused to piercing eardrums.

I am hopeless at languages and accents, but then, I learned music in junior high and high school band. We didn't exactly play opera.

What a beautiful cat.

8:09 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

oh yes those flutes and piccolos can KILL!!!

and yes, she is a beautiful cat!

10:44 PM  
Blogger Peter (the other) said...

Ahhh.... yes.... that terrace.... Well anyway, I asked and received quite nicely, my toes curl in admiration for that fine, feline, bed accessory.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

I have to go in the other room to practise my flute or piccolo, and shut the door, and my husband puts his headphones on. When I play something nice I stick my head out the door and ask 'Did you hear that? Wasn't it pretty?' and he gives me a pained look and says 'What?'

I'm allowed to play cello in the living room though.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

Interesting. I find written French quite easy to read, but spoken French impossible to follow -- I would have said "I just don't have the ear for it." Whereas Spanish and German I hear just fine. French is just all mushy and indistinct to me. Frequencies? That would never have occurred to me, but it makes sense.

6:07 AM  
Blogger MB said...


10:51 PM  
Blogger The Omniscient Mussel said...

Frequencies! It's all starting to make sense now. I've often wondered why some people find it impossible to understand English speakers with foreign accents while others (me) don't find it to be a problem at all. Does my musical training mean I am able to listen more carefully and distinguish between different sounds more accurately?

5:59 AM  

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