the E string

(I’m headed to the mountains tomorrow morning to help chaperone 40 teenagers at camp for a week. Pray for all of us. We do this every year; it’s always a hard week, physically as well as spiritually and emotionally. But the end result is that we all come away better for having been there.)

A funny thing happened Friday evening. I was vegged out, trying out a new sock pattern and watching Turner Classic Movies. Operation Petticoat had just finished and Father Goose was about to start. TCM has this musical ditty that they always play before a movie comes on, when they are showing the rating for said new movie. So I’m sitting there, knitting away, and the little musical ditty comes on, and out of nowhere my brain says “That note is an E. Furthermore, it’s the low E string on a guitar.” Oh, really?

I’m guitar-impaired. I get it in my head, but my fingers aren’t really interested in learning patterns. They wanna know exactly what notes they’re playing. A handicap of growing up as piano-playing fingers. Lately though, the fingers have been branching out some on the keyboard and learning to play by pattern recognition rather by printed note. This makes the ears start paying more attention to what they’re hearing, listening for those patterns and translating them into chords on a keyboard. So maybe that has something to do with why my brain said what it did about the E. Of course I had to put the brain to the test, and yes indeed, the note was the low E.

In college I had to take “Physics of Music and Acoustics”, which was basically a class on how to purchase a killer stereo system. My professor was of the opinion that “perfect pitch” was instinct as opposed to a learned response to stimuli. I disagreed, wholeheartedly, and we had some lively discussions on the topic. I didn’t give the concept much thought after that. I just knew it was something I didn’t have, mainly because I wasn’t a singer.

Well, so what?

Maybe this: I think the professor and I were both right. I was right in that perfect pitch is a learned response to stimuli. He was right in that it’s more than just an learned response to stimuli.

As my kids like to say, “What that even mean?”

When I heard that note and my brain said “that’s the E string”, I first noticed a feeling in my chest, a specific sort of vibration that touched me in a very visceral, emotional way. Then I noticed that the pitch sounded like the low E string, and because I do at least know how to tune a guitar, I knew to call the pitch “the E string.” Even if I didn’t know what to call the pitch, I recognized it as the low string on a guitar because I enjoy listening to someone playing the guitar.

Another thing I’ve noticed about myself recently is that I can hear a piece of music and immediately know that it’s in the same key as some other piece of music. And I’m not necessarily talking about music I’ve studied in the past. I hear it in my head, and in my heart if you will, and I know immediately how to identify what I’m hearing in relationship to something else I’ve heard before. How? Don’t know for sure, other than my knowing that music affects me in a very profound, emotional way. It’s something primitive, visceral, instinctive…

I haven’t always been able to do this. Maybe it’s a product of maturity?

And why am I even thinking about this anyway?

Sometimes, when something is true, you know it is so because that truth touches you in both an intellectual and an emotional, or spiritual, way. You hear something, or see something, or maybe even touch or smell something, and a universal truth makes itself known to you. Every time I smell slightly scorched scrambled eggs, I am taken back to my first baby sitter’s house, Mrs. Easter. Her house always smelled like scrambled eggs in the mornings. The truth of what scrambled eggs smell like transcends time and space, taking me from almost-50 back to almost-5, across the state line to the house that, back then, seemed a mansion to me. We drove past that house last week on our trip up the mountain to the funeral home. While it is still standing, the house suffers from serious neglect. There are posted No Trespassing signs. The playroom that used to house a pool table and a ping-pong table is falling down and looks barely large enough to hold one of those itty-bitty smart cars.

There are lots of people who say that what is true for one person may not be true for another. That truth is relative. That all truth is relative. Those folks may or may not be able to identify the E string when they hear it, but if they can then they know that the pitch of the E string doesn’t change.

I wonder, whose house does their mind travel to when they smell scrambled eggs? I’ll bet there is one.

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