What's your earliest memory? Some people might recall swinging in the park, eating ice cream in the summer or building a snowman in the winter. Erik Ferguson's first memory is of his stepgrandmother's voice when he was only 18 months old. Not only does he remember her voice, he remembers the exact pitches of her voice.
Erik, or "Fergie" as his friends call him, is one of about 10,000 people who have perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize pitches just by hearing them. He is a human piano, a living pitch pipe, but he tends to get annoyed when people ask him what pitch they're singing.
Erik, a senior at Williamsville North High School, didn't always know he had such a talent though.
Erik said he might have inherited his talent from his grandfather, who had perfect pitch in his younger days. However, while the rest of his family sings, Erik wasn't musically trained until age 10 when he started playing the trombone. In band, the conductor would tell the trumpets to play in tune, and Erik would think to himself, "Come on, can't you hear that? It sounds horrible!" He didn't have any clue yet that other people couldn't hear what he heard.
In his sophomore year of high school, Erik took music theory. One day, his class was learning to identify intervals by ear. However, Erik wasn't recognizing the intervals by how they sound; he was writing down the notes he heard and then figuring out the interval based on the distance between the notes. That day his teacher, Marnie Salvatore, realized his hidden talent. Erik thought that everyone could hear what he heard.
He went on to take AP Music Theory and got a 5 (top score) on the exam.
"Theory stuff makes sense to me," says Erik.
While other people have to learn and memorize major and minor chord progressions, Erik can just look at them and instantly hear what they sound like.
Erik also joined Concert Choir as well as Select Chorus this year.
"Since I can sing in pitch, that makes it all the better," he said.
However, some of his peers get annoyed when Erik tells them they're out of tune. Sight singing is a breeze for him because he can hear the notes in his head. The only limitation he has singing is how high or low his voice goes.
Salvatore, both his choir director and music theory teacher, is very impressed with Erik's ability.
"He's an extremely gifted musician with an amazing ear," she said. "He has been a strong leader in our tenor section and is a true asset to our music department. I have really enjoyed watching him grow over the four years I've had him in class."
Once he discovered his love for music, Erik started composing.
"When it comes to composing," says Erik, "I do everything in my head. I hear everything in my head, and I know what it is, obviously."
He doesn't even use a piano when he composes. Erik's ideas come from all around him. Once, he said, he was having surgery and he came up with a piece featuring oboe and piano based on the pitches of the humming of an MRI machine.
Erik went on to compose music for Williamsville North's Jazz Ensemble, but that was just an experiment for him.
Michael Conte, North's band director, said, "His pieces are outstanding for someone of his age. His musical sense is mature beyond his years."
However, Erik really loves writing for a full orchestra. At Christmastime, for a secret Santa gift, he wrote an entire tuba concerto for a friend. So far he's only written the solo part, but he left rests in certain places because he already knows what the entire orchestra will be playing in the background.
For his upcoming Conference All-State solo, Erik will be playing a concerto he wrote himself.
So what does Erik want to do when he's older? He said he would be a terrible orchestra conductor because he'd get angry if people played out of tune. He can sit in the audience of an orchestra, point to a person, and tell how sharp or flat he is.
"When there's dissonance, it hurts," says Erik. It can even give him headaches, sometimes for hours at a time.
Next year, though, Erik wants to go to the University of Michigan for composition.
"He's well on his way toward a composition career," says Conte.
There are a lot of people who can compose great music, but what makes Erik unique is he doesn't just recognize notes played on a piano, he recognizes all kinds of sounds. Erik can tell what note someone's voice resonates as well as in what key they speak. He also can tell how fast a boat is running based on the pitch the motor makes, which can be useful in physics.
According to Erik, rural areas have a harmonic flow while urban areas are very dissonant.
This ability can get annoying when he's trying to concentrate. Erik said that when he's trying to take a test and the vents start blowing air, he listens to it and tries to figure out how flat or sharp the hum of the air is. He says the best way to distract him while he's working is to talk or play music.
Erik hears a lot of noises that most people don't even notice. He said the hands on a clock make a buzzing sound (that's a Bb). When he's sitting on the couch, he can determine whether his sister or his father is creeping up behind him based on the pitches their footsteps make.
Erik hears all the sounds all around him like a symphony. Music is his life.
Naomi Soman is a senior at Williamsville North High School.