Pitch Memory Survey


I posted a short survey of how people remember pitches without a reference note. This came about when a Redditor asked what key people sing “Happy Birthday” in (the correct answer being the key that the first/loudest singer chooses).

I, like most people, don’t have perfect pitch, and if someone sits at a piano and plays a popular song, I can’t tell what key they’re playing unless I see their hands. My “movable do” adapts immediately. Problem one for this survey is that, for me (and I’m assuming most others), tonality is “sticky.” Play C – G7¬†and ask me to sing a song, and it’s likely to come out in C or A minor. After a little longer maybe a closely related key like G or F.

I try to fight that in the survey by asking participants to listen to this “music” between questions. This is one track of Cm – Bdim7 slowly pitch shifted up two whole tones and another¬†of Em – D#dim7 slowly pitch shifted¬†down two whole tones, just trying to disorient the listener.

Anyway, the “answers” are below, but remember there’s no harm in being “wrong”. Perfect pitch memory/recognition is helpful at some tasks in music transcription, but relative pitch is the crucial one that allows you to enjoy and create the vast majority of Western music, recognize when notes are sharp/flat, etc.

Happy Birthday: No wrong answer. No one regularly listens to any particular version of this, which is the inspiration for the¬†survey. The tune was published in G (starting on¬†D), but the book that added the lyrics is in Ab (starting on Eb). But really, people will more likely remember Marilyn Monroe’s live performance¬†(or maybe Lana Del Ray’s tribute), both of which are in Db with starting note Ab.

For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow: No wrong answer, but in Life of Brian, “he’s” is G, the 3rd of Eb major.

Hey Jude:¬†“Hey” is C, the 5th of F major.

Hotel California:¬†“Dark” is F#, the 5th of B minor.

When Doves Cry: “How can you…” is A, the tonic of A minor.

Beat It: “Beat it” is Bb, the 5th of Eb minor.

Smells Like Teen Spirit: “With” is Ab, the 3rd of F minor. In hindsight I should’ve asked for¬†the tonic “out”.

I have some ideas for how to improve this:

  • Just have them sing it in a mic. We don’t want people distracted by the process of finding that note.
  • Baring that, provide a Shepard tone piano with unlabelled keys.
  • Use a better “tonality cleanser”, like a jumbled mix of 12 tone music. The hard part is you want to pull the listener away from any tonality, not lead them to a random tonality.

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