Musically Illiterate

I have zero musical ability. Well, I suppose it depends on how you define ability. I have music -> visual Synesthesia. That means I see music as patterns, movement and colors. It’s very pretty. I’ve never known anything else so I don’t know how you people see your music. I guess you don’t. How boring for you.

I also have perfect pitch. I sing off-key. I can’t stand to hear myself singing. I went out to dinner with some friends on Sunday night to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in East Los Angeles not far from where I used to live. They make guacamole right there to order. The restaurant is not far from Mariachi plaza. Basically, it’s where a bunch of Mariachi musicians stand around in case they’re needed. If you want to hire a Mariachi band for a party, that’s the place to go.

Mariachis playing in Mariachi Plaza (image from

Mariachis playing in Mariachi Plaza (image from

The restaurant had a few Mariachi’s playing that probably came from Mariachi Plaza. They also had a singer who was terribly off-key. I sat there for the whole meal cringing at his voice. It ruined the evening for me. That’s how I feel when I hear myself singing. I have to turn the volume way up to drown out my caterwauling if I want to sing along to the radio.

I can tell bad music when I hear it. And I can see music instead of just hearing it. I’m not sure that equals musical talent.

When I was a kid, my mom wanted me to learn an instrument. My mom plays piano. We had one in our living room. I hate the piano. I took lessons, but I didn’t have an aptitude for it. You have to move both your hands and your feet independently of each other? No way! I was not destined to be a drummer or a pianist.

When I was in elementary school, they had band day. We were all encouraged to pick an instrument. Most of the girls chose flute or clarinet. Most of the boys chose trumpet or trombone. Being the shy kid that I was, I was hardly first in line, so by the time I got up there, all that was left were the instruments no one wanted. I chose French horn because you played it with one hand, the left, and I’m left-handed. Plus, I love the sound of the French Horn. It is one of my favorite instruments.

Somehow, I completely missed the part of class where we learned how to read music. To this day, I still have no idea how to read music. I played the French horn for a few years. I did recitals and took private lessons. I was pretty good at it, but I never learned how to read music. I faked it the whole time.

Whenever we started rehearsing a new piece of music, I would only pretend to play along. I would listen to the other instruments’ parts. I would visualize how it all fit together. I would figure out where my part went, and learn it by trial and error until I had it. When my mom put me in weekly private lessons, it helped. I’d take the sheet music to my teacher and he would record it on a tape. Easy peasy.

Some people seem to think my musical fakery is remarkable. It’s amazing that you were able to fake it like that! I never told anyone about it at the time. I was embarrassed and completely terrified that I’d be found out. Nobody ever caught on, not even my private music teacher. I survived with my terrible secret undiscovered.

On Christmas this year, I went to a party at my best friend’s house. Most of my friends are musically talented and it somehow turned into a play around with music type event. There was a violin, piano, two accordions, a guitar, a wood flute and drums. Someone handed me a cute little pink ukulele. The guitar player sitting next to me asked me if I knew I was holding it upside-down. “No, I didn’t, but I am left-handed so that’s not surprising. I do everything backwards or upside-down.” He said, “Ah, just like Jimi.”


Left-handed Jimi Hendrix playing a right-handed guitar upside-down.

As if. I have no idea how to play any string instrument, let alone ukulele, but my musical fakery kicked in again. I closed my eyes and looked at what they were doing and soon found the notes through trial and error. I was plucking along with the right sounds. I wasn’t ready for a solo, but I did manage to find the notes.

All this made me strangely yearn for musical fakery again. It made me wish that I really could play an instrument. I told Male, whose addition to the Christmas musicality was trying to play a jug, and he said that he wants a cornet. We joked about starting our own brass section. I even looked at French horns and cornets for sale online until I realized how expensive they are. Some small part of me wants to try to learn an instrument, not even horn necessarily, but maybe some other instrument. It would be nice to finally know how to play the right way.

Y’all should be thankful I didn’t decide to take up singing.

There are 26 comments

  1. Caron Eastgate Dann

    Highly entertaining and interesting piece, thank you! My mother has perfect pitch/absolute pitch and is always surprised when I admit that I can’t just pick up a strange instrument and play it by ear. She plays piano very well by ear (but reads music only slightly) and can listen to a song on the radio, then just instantly play it. I did operatic singing as a child and, luckily for my mother, my voice was pitch-perfect! She and I often comment that because we can hear if a singer is even slightly off the note, very few of them sound any good to us.


      1. Caron Eastgate Dann

        Undoubtedly the perfect pitch. My mum won a piano competition at 4. She would put the music in front of her, but just play by ear. Her music teacher used to tell her off for ad-libbing and playing with her own style. She later found a more liberal-minded music teacher, but never really enjoyed lessons.
        I was interested also in the way you see music in colour. I see numbers, days, months and people’s names in colour, which I think is part of the same “condition”. I thought this was normal until I said something like “Oh yes, April, that’s a cornflower-blue month”. Caron is red, Eastgate is green. Goldfish is…gold, I guess.


    1. goldfish

      You’re quite welcome! The last thing the world needs is more of my singing.

      It would be so interesting to look at a piece of music and know how to play it without all of the guess work.


  2. Melanie

    I’m a faker too. I would listen to my teacher play and watch her fingers on the keys. Then I would count the lines between the notes and the keys on the piano and play that way. It was a long time before a teacher noticed. She started refusing to play any new songs for me. It became hard to learn new music, so I quit.


      1. Melanie

        It must be strange to watch. I can’t sit at the piano and play the scales. I can’t look at a sheet and tell you the notes. But if you play it and let me watch you, I’m all over it. It’s a good party trick, but it doesn’t help at a symphony production.


        1. goldfish

          Yeah, not so much. It is interesting to me how some of us just can’t seem to get the knack for reading music. Instead, we developed these overly complicated ways to compensate.


  3. Omo

    My fiddle teacher only taught by ear so a couple years into the lessons when he switched over into reading notes i never caught on. But if I hear it i can pick the notes out and play the song.


  4. twistingthreads

    I wish I could play by ear. That is actually a gift in my book, and I would love to have it, but like my other musical “skills” obtaining it will take a lot of time and dedication; it will never come naturally for me. I also have no natural rhythm, so I drum the beat and rhythms into my head with metronomes and obsessive/repetitive counting. I can read music, and with a lot of practice, I can sight read effectively, but it would be so nice if I could hear, remember, and play something back properly/improvise and have the end product actually sound decent. I can tune my instrument if I’ve done it enough times with a tuner, but if I haven’t done it in a while, I have to relearn. I’ve always wished I had perfect pitch, both in the singing and hearing department, but alas, I have neither. Now I live in an apartment, and if I play my instrument, everyone will hear it and be annoyed by my obsessive and repetitive fumbling, and besides, now I’m a smoker, and apparently that means I can’t find the breath support to play it anyway. So I bought an electric guitar to get in my therapeutic music needs, and every time I start making progress I do something stupid at work and burn/cut all my fingers and can’t play for a week or two.


      1. twistingthreads

        Yeah, that does sound like an unfortunate drawback, because even if you’ve got vocal lessons or practiced and improved, that would be a lot of wincing until you got to a point you could stand to hear yourself. You can still play an instrument if you want to, though. I find it fun and satisfying, even if I do occasionally get frustrated by my hapless fumbling and slow learning curve.

        It’s interesting to hear another side from someone with perfect pitch. It seems like I’m always hearing about an astounding musician who had perfect pitch and it supposedly made them insanely, instantly talented. I was envious, a bit, I’ll admit. I’m not happy that it doesn’t make everything perfect for you, but I’d never considered that it might make things difficult in some ways, too.


  5. suesconsideredtrifles

    It is interesting the different musical skills people have. I do not have perfect pitch and am not good at remembering pieces of music, even if I can play them with the music in front of me. I am not sure how much musical talent I started out with, but I have worked at it and been fortunate to have opportunities to learn and improve. Music is now one of the most important thins in my life. I know other people who can play without music, but do not read music very readily. The synaesthesia sounds fun! Sue


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