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Perfect Pitch en masse at public sporting events

Dear Auditory readers,

A recent thread on the subject of perfect pitch was discussed on another
distributed email list (SMT-list, devoted to Music Theory) which I think
will be interesting and entertaining to readers of this list.  There's
even something in it for sports fans, too.  I've edited down the discussions
a little bit.

Greg Sandell (sandell@sparky.parmly.luc.edu)

[ Beginning of excerpts from SMT-list ]

     Fellow scholars: For those interested in inherent pitch ability in the
 untrained public, music cognition, "chant" and other pitch phenomena:

From: "Philip A. Todd" <PATODD0@UKCC.UKY.EDU>
Subject: AIR-BALL as a form of mass chant in F !!!

     Yesterday (Sunday), syndicated columnist Dave Barry (of Dave's World)
 wrote that a friend sent him a copy of an article entitled "Air Ball: Spon-
 taneous Large Group Precision Chanting," published in the journal Popular
 Music and Society by Dr. Cherrill P. Heaton, an English professor. In this
 article, Heaton describes discovering the phenomenon of precision chanting at
 NCAA basketball games -- whenever an opposing team's player shoots the ball
 and misses everything, there arises the chant "AIR-BALL! AIR-BALL!" Heaton
 videotaped several different basketball games, and discovered that they all
 chanted the same tones = F to D !!!!!  Perfect pitch, babyyyy !!!!

From: jlondon@carleton.edu (Justin London)
Subject: Re: AIR-BALL as a form of mass chant in F !!!

My own sense is that the "Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye" chant so popular at mass
sporting events IS INDEED sung in more-or-less d-minor, which would put this
on the same axis as the "air ball" chant.  So there another datum here (though
this awaits broad empirical confirmation).

From: ferenczg@uwwvax.uww.edu (George Ferencz)
Subject: air-ball...mass chant

It makes me wonder if comics (and amateurs) who do impressions (say, of
James Cagney and "you dirty rat") tend to place them at a consistent
vocal pitch. Perhaps just a silly thought...

From: jfboss@ucs.byu.edu (Jack Boss)
Subject: "Airball" as a form of mass chant in F (fwd)

     I too was intrigued by Philip Todd's comments on the "Airball"
motive (if I may call it that).  In the interest of scholarly
accuracy, however, I must protest the key attribution implied by his
subject heading.  "Airball" is *not* in F; it vacillates between the
fifth and third scale degrees of Bb major.  The motive is pure
text-painting; its incomplete nature mirrors the inability of an air
ball to reach its intended goal.

     This motive has been used by sports crowds to set other texts
besides "Air ball."  New Yorkers will remember its application to
Darryl Strawberry's first name during his tenure as outfielder for
the Mets. (Now that he is returning to the city as a member of the
Yankees, I expect the motive to resurface, perhaps at the same
specific pitch.)  And Clevelanders will recall that it was applied to
John Elway's last name repeatedly during the 1986 American Football
Conference championship in that city.  (Alas, whatever connotations
it may have suggested about Elway's inability were disproved by his
famous last-minute "Drive" that denied the Browns their first Super
Bowl appearance.)

     The motive also has older connotations that have nothing to do
with sports, like most simple tonal elements.  For centuries it has
been associated with the cuckoo bird (and with clocks that simulate
this bird's call), and it is an important component of the children's
song "Ring around the Rosy." (In that context, the motive is
*clearly* ^5 and ^3.)  My conviction is that the 20th-century
manifestations of the motive have their ultimate source in "Ring
around the Rosy," proving that all sports fans (including this
author) are in some sense children at heart.

From: "Elizabeth W. Marvin" <ewma@uhura.cc.rochester.edu>
Subject: Re: "Airball" as a form of mass chant in F (fwd)

These "airball" postings remind me of a paper given at the 1993 meeting
of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition in Philadelphia by
Daniel Levitin, entitled "Absolute Memory for Musical Pitch:  More than
the Melody Lingers On."  It may have appeared since then in _Music
Perception_ though I don't have the reference here at home.  Levitin
argues that absolute pitch is a two-component attribute, consisting
of (1) pitch memory, and (2) pitch labeling.  Forty-six subjects sang
popular songs and their renditions were compared to commercial recordings
of those songs. 24% of subjects sang in the correct key, and 67%
came within a whole-step of the correct pitch-level.  Of course,
musicians may be unimpressed by "absolute pitch" that is a step away,
but his subjects as I recall were musical novices and sang tunes they
had heard on the radio or personal copies of CDs, and came pretty
darn close to the right key.  As I re-read this, I see I left out a
detail:  24% sang on pitch, and 67% of the _remaining_ subjects
were a step off.  Maybe the airball "song" and "sound-off" chants
are similarly learned in a particular key, but the singers are not
aware of the particular "labeling" of the key:  Levitin's second

From: Daniel Harrison <hrsn@uhura.cc.rochester.edu>
Subject: "Airball" and standard pitch

Jack Boss offered the insightful observation that the F to D "Airball"
could be heard as 5 to 3 in Bflat, with the inability of the
arpeggiation to reach 1 illustrating the inability of the ball to
reach the hoop.  If Bflat is indeed a kind of referential note used to
anchor the pitch structure of the chant, one wonders why.  Perhaps it
is due to the pervasive 60 Hz (Bflat-ish) drone of electrical
equipment in the US and Canada.

[ End of excerpts from SMT-list ]

I read this thread to my wife last night, and when I sang the "air ball"
melody, she went to the piano to check my pitches.  Without even being
conscious of it, I was singing F-D, practically right on the money.

- Greg
Gregory J. Sandell, Research Associate, sandell@sparky.parmly.luc.edu
Parmly Hearing Institute, Loyola University Chicago
6525 N. Sheridan Chicago IL 60626 USA voice:312-508-3976 FAX:312-508-2719
WWW: http://www.parmly.luc.edu/sandell/homepage/Greg.Sandell.html