Babyface, Patenting, and Absolute Pitch (For My Fellow Music Nerds)

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The old saying is that one should “never say never.”  Well, there’s one thing that is true: one thing I will never do in life is tell you a wrong note…and I have Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to thank for this.

Last night I watched Centric’s tribute to the singer/producer/hit making savant/genius known as “Babyface” at the Soul Train Awards and remembered how some of my earliest childhood memories eventually lead to the discovery that I have absolute-also known as perfect-pitch.

Absolute pitch is the incredibly rare phenomenon in which one can identify a note just by hearing it or recreate a note without any reference.  I think I read that it is common in about one of every two thousand musicians.  In thirty years, I have yet to meet another musician who has perfect pitch.  I once asked my father-a professional musician who has played with damn near everyone who has appeared on an episode of TVOne’s Unsung-how many musicians with absolute pitch has be met in his forty years in the music business outside of myself.  His answer was “Maybe one or two.” 

Anyways, what was the beginning of this discovery happened between 1989 and 1990.  On Christmas of 89, my grandfather bought my mother her first CD player and Babyface’s album, Tender Lover.  She played that album all of the time.  If she couldn’t listen to it in the house, there was a copy of it in the tape deck of her blue Pontiac.  My favorite song was “My Kinda Girl.”  I just liked the key of it.  To me, it was bright but mellow.  It reminded me of a light blue that wasn’t quite as soft as baby blue; but it was reminiscent of that hue.  While waiting in my mother’s car for her to deposit a check at the Dime Bank by Green Acres Mall, my mother was playing the song that she all but ran through the ground, “Whip Appeal,” I realized that that song’s “color” was the same as “My Kinda Girl.”  Both songs are in the key of a-major.  Once I made this correlation, I was able to associate all of the songs on this album with colors (“It’s No Crime” was green, and is in the key of f-major).

I began singing in the church choir at five, began piano lessons at eight, and the tenor saxophone at ten.  In sixth grade, I realized that what was a “c” on my tenor saxophone was a b-flat when I was playing the piano.  This was something that I thought all musicians could do.  One day I was sitting in my father’s home studio and he played a note and I named it without looking at the piano.  My dad paused what he was doing and had the look on his face that one could only describe as “Holy fucking shit!”  He began to play other notes and asked what they were.  I was able to name each one correctly, even if he tried to trick me by playing them quietly. 

A few nights later, he was having a rehearsal session with his band and I stopped by to see him.  He said to the band “Check this out.  My son has perfect pitch!”  It was the first time I had heard of the term.  He played notes for them as I guessed them as if this was some kind of parlor trick.  The eyes of each of these men in their late thirties and early forties that had dedicated their lives to music’s eyes began to widen as I was able to name each tone correctly.  My pops and his friends then explained to me that what I was able to do is incredibly rare.  Travis Milner is so proud of this, that every time he introduces me to one of his peers he tells them “My son has perfect pitch,” their eyes brighten, and every musician and teacher I have met since give me the same face and must immediately administer this same exam.

The funny thing about this is that it has frustrated every music teacher as well as my father that I have this gift.  While I can play three instruments, I have not mastered any of them and it drives all of them nuts.  I didn’t take my lessons seriously because my mind was occupied with playing sports, writing raps, or whatever else teenagers are into.  I didn’t have the interest in becoming a performance musician.  This has slowly been rectified because for the last seventeen years I have produced music, so I have trained my ear to use this gift in another fashion. 

To this day, everything that I hear is a note.  Each click on this keyboard from tapping is a different pitch than the other.  When people are talking I am listening to each word and can identify the notes.  With the exception of drums-which I have probably conditioned myself to see as a differently-anything that I cannot distinguish a specific pitch for drives me absolutely wild.  Whenever I listen to a song, my fingers automatically pantomime the fingerings of the melody as notes on the saxophone or the actual chords one a piano.  If there is a song on and someone sees my fingers wiggling mysteriously, this is what I am doing.  Everything is music to me, literally.

As the father to a four year old, I am just as amazed to see my daughter make small discoveries and put proverbial two-and-two’s together.  It is arguably one of the best feelings of being a parent.  While I am not quite sure what Cydney’s “thing” is going to be, these small moments make me think “this must be how my father felt once he noticed this [about me].” 

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