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It’s All Relative, Pt. II

Last month we discussed the differences between perfect pitch and relative pitch. Today, we are going to look at concrete things players can do to develop a sense of relative

Last month we discussed the differences between perfect pitch and relative pitch. Today, we are going to look at concrete things players can do to develop a sense of relative pitch, without which we would be lost in situations where we are playing by ear.

Once we let go of the idea that perfect pitch can be learned, we can get down to the hard work of developing relative pitch and produce tangible results that will transfer to the bandstand. As I asserted in my last column, with the support of scientific studies, perfect pitch cannot be learned as an adult. Guitarist Jack Grassel states that “Neither I nor anyone I know have ever seen any evidence... that the [perfect pitch] development courses for sale in magazines produce any results. Don’t waste your time and money trying to develop it. Work on relative pitch instead.”[1] We may be making some progress, as we are now starting to see many online companies selling programs that are intended to develop relative pitch rather than perfect pitch.

The goal of developing relative pitch is to advance ear-to-hand skills. This means that ideas first heard in one’s head – or heard on the bandstand – can then be reproduced on one’s musical instrument. A player might think to himself, “I hear an idea, and knowing where that idea sounds on the fretboard, I can then play it, or use it as a basis for further improvisation.” Many guitarists suffer from the malady of playing something on the guitar and then hearing it – wrong order!

The level of sophistication of ear-to-hand skills is on a continuum, and these skills can be further advanced over one’s career. An example of the use of relative pitch, or ear-to-hand skills, would be two guitarists trading licks back and forth. The second guitarist is able to repeat notefor- note what the first guitarist played, after only one hearing. This function of relative pitch assumes that the player has already determined what key they are in. Functional use of relative pitch means you can execute such ear-to-hand tasks once you already know the reference pitch, or key – hence “relative,” meaning relationships between pitches.

This brings us to the primary area of study for developing relative pitch: intervals. (There are many free online programs that teach the intervals [2].) For fully internalizing intervallic relationships, the intervals must be sung as well as located (in their many positions) on the guitar. In fact, for serious advancement of this skill set, everything you are going to perform on the guitar, the songs you are learning and the solos that you work out should be sung as well as located on the fretboard. Playing by ear and learning solos or songs by ear from recordings note-fornote are tasks that help advance relative pitch since they deal on many levels with intervallic ear training. Singing everything you practice is central to the development of relative pitch and internalizes the process in a deeper way. The ultimate goal is to be able to reproduce on the guitar anything that you hear once you are given the initial reference pitch or key.

Once the intervals are learned and internalized, more complex ear-training studies can be undertaken. Singing the notated solos of the masters and using the guitar as a reference point to check yourself helps deepen both a stylistic concept and one’s ability to hear intervals.

Memorization of one’s repertoire is vital for developing relative pitch. After all, this is how the masters learned to play in the first place, through both copying and memorizing the material they wanted to perform. Developing one’s ear, which is the same as saying intervallic ear training, is central to developing one’s own unique style – it’s a more internal approach rather than an intellectual one. I have found that the things I am singing and truly hearing have more depth of feeling attached to them than if I am simply playing complex mechanical scale patterns. As a result, this connects my playing to things that are more expressive and uniquely me. Many programs focus on learning scales as the key to developing improvisation skills, but I feel this approach misses the mark. Scales and knowledge of the fretboard are, of course, important to knowing the instrument, but they serve no musical purpose unless practiced within the context of intervallic ear training.

Studying and singing intervals, copying by ear the material I want to integrate, memorizing repertoire and singing the works of others (e.g., Charlie Parker solos) is what big ears are made of.


[2]Here’s a good basic interval ear training web site for beginners:

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast. An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar. (dealer: IslandFunhouse).