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Relative pitch and ear training: let's talk about it

Discussion in 'The RedBanned Bar & Grill' started by Francesco Bortolussi, Jan 10, 2019.

  1. I apologize if this post wanders a bit too much, I wanna put some of my thoughts down and hear your opinion about it.

    I've been thinking about ear training for a loooong time now. A little bit of background:
    10some years ago I thought that playing something by ear was magic. I was a sight-reading "wonder", some times I was able to sight read some classical pieces better than some people would study in a week. I was reading sheet music all the time and since piano didn't demand any pitch training, I was basically a step above being tone deaf. Since a close friend of mine had perfect pitch, I associated being able to play by ear to having perfect pitch. I thought that only people with perfect pitch were able to pick out and sing the notes of chords/clusters, while I thought that I had to rely on written out scores for all my life.
    Now, we all know that's bollocks; perfect pitch only gives you the ability to name notes without a reference tone, not to "hear" them. However, there are a couple of things I wanna discuss:

    Having perfect pitch means that every time you're listening to music, you're basically transcribing. Some people that have perfect pitch have done this for YEARS - at least the ones that grew up to be musicians or that at least realized that they would be capable of doing it - and have a massive headstart compared to everyone else. Perfect pitch doesn't give you the power to do anything more than naming random notes in your head, but it does give you the power to have a reference "instrument" in your head at any given moment, in any place. I've been thinking about it more and more in the past few months, and it's a pretty big realization: imagine being able to transcribe when walking around the city, when commuting on the train, whenever a commercial comes up on TV (I don't even have a TV!). It really is a massive advantage, especially for composers, and it really puts things in perspective. I read this curious quote by Jacob Collier about it:
    I'm not gonna read too much into the "memory" part of it, as it's just a muscle like many other things.

    After being obsessed with perfect pitch for literally years (I've read every scientific publication and every forum post ever written about it), I've come to the conclusion that it's practically impossible to acquire it as an adult; or if it's possible, it's not even worth the effort. It's at this point of the story that the "relative pitch" shows up. In a perfect world, with relative pitch, you could theoretically do all the above, with the exception of an absolute reference point (A440 is overrated anyway). With a phone or a tuning fork in your pocket, even this small issue is solved. With a good relative pitch, and a good dose of willpower, I could imagine that this process would make everyone's musicianship spiral upwards like crazy! People listen to music all the time anyway; give them a good pair of ears, and every bus ride is a transcription session!

    (of course, there are a lot of things that should be practised: hearing individual inner voices (and possibly fast), being able to both actively produce/sing intervals and recognizing them in different contexts, ...)

    Even if this seems to be possible, how difficult really is it? How far away are you guys from this utopian view I have of relative pitch? What I saw during the years were thousands of discussions about perfect pitch (given a little selection bias), and thousands of discussions about learning the "songs associated to the intervals" (here comes the bride and alike); but I've never saw much of what discussing what an incredible benefit developing a solid relative pitch would give to musicians. And I mean ROCK solid.
    Most jazz musicians seem to have this on lock-down, although I never know how much theory and preparation there is behind any given solo - in terms of knowing mechanically knowing the chord changes, the scales and whatnot - compared to how much they actually hear. Can they hear everything they're gonna play in their head, before playing it? I'm sure some can, but I don't know if their skill can go to the extent I was describing above.

    My other question would be: what would be the upper limit? How far can you actually push it? Is Jacob Collier's quote believable? It's really difficult to assess how good people can be, because there are never public displays of aural skills. Do you have any media material that could show how crazy a good relative pitch can be? Or any relevant anecdote? I would imagine that improving more and more would result in a snowball effect. It's like when you're surrounded by foreign people that speak a language you start to understand: you can understand sentences, read text, and every day it gets easier and easier. I don't see why it would be any different with relative pitch accuracy and speed.

    Right now, I really don't have it. My one dream is to be able (one day!) to have a seamless 100% translation of what I'm thinking to the piano (melody and chords), and to be able to effortlessly visualize what I'm hearing on the keyboard without hunting for it. It would be really great to look at a score and hear music in my head, and to learn something every time I put my headphones on without reaching for the piano.

    I'm curious about at what point you guys are on this journey, and what you think about it!
  2. #2 Mike Verta, Jan 10, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2019
    Take heart - being able to identify something doesn't mean you have any understanding of it. I suppose it would be convenient, but equally annoying. Ever seen a perfect-pitch person try to play sheet music, but transpose a key or two up in realtime? Most can't. The really perfect-pitch people also go bonkers when things are slightly tuned differently.

    You don't need it, it gives you no greater understanding/control of what you need. It saves some hunt-and-peck, but the process of developing relative pitch is better for your composing skillset than having the answers handed to you anyway. Think on this no more and get back to transcribing.

    A minor second is Jaws. A major second is the start of "Doe, a Deer..." a 5th is Star Wars, a 4th is Here Comes the Bride. A 6th is old N-B-C logo. A dominant 7th is the original Star Trek theme. Try stuff like that to compare intervals you hear against. Great way to start.
  3. Outside of practicing playing by ear and transcribing daily, the link below is by far the best thing I have ever done for "Ear training"


    I have written some posts on this subject on the site so you can look those up too.
  4. #4 Francesco Bortolussi, Jan 10, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2019
    Thank you very much for the answers!

    I became better at not talking about doing stuff, but actually doing it, but I still slip up sometimes :D maybe I'm overthinking it a bit! I've definitely come a long way only in the past 1-2 years, so I just have to put in the work and be patient.

    Oh man, not gonna lie, you got me so very excited with that video! But there is no way I'll ever manage to make a trip there from over here in The Netherlands :D
    I guess I'll keep transcribing and hope for the best!

    EDIT: found out that she published a book about it last summer, just ordered it!
  5. Would you actually consider a disadvantage for someone trying to write music? The benefits for a pure performer are relatively obvious. I definitely agree re: understand. Being able to identify has nothing to do with the ability to write.
    I'm half-experimenting on my nearly 2-year-old daughter to see if it can be "taught", in a way, but this process is simply a byproduct of getting her to appreciate great musical works in general (she's obsessed with "Vader music" the last few weeks, I've never listened to the Imperial March so many times in one day).
  6. No.

    The "don't worry about it and get back to writing" is the best answer. Just make the most of what you have.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  7. #7 Rohann van Rensburg, Jan 12, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2019
    I don't have it, but I'm curious to see if my kids can develop it.

    I think the best indication is that there are plenty of adept composers who don't/didn't have perfect pitch, just as there are many great performers that also don't. It seems quite useful, especially for transcription and for writing in one's head, but I've never been bothered by not having it. I've noticed many musicians that don't have it get oddly sensitive about it when the topic comes up -- I wondered if I was at a disadvantage for a while until I realized how powerful relative pitch really is.

    Edit: Man, a lot of musicians get really, really sensitive about not having it. I don't get it. Why do people care so much?

    PS, Francesco: Both Doug and Mike don't have perfect pitch, and neither does Howard Shore. Ravel didn't, Wagner didn't, and Stravinsky definitely didn't. If that's not reassuring, I don't know what is.

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