For many musicians the subject of ear training remains somewhat of a mystery. There are hundreds of options on the Internet to learn “perfect pitch,” but is that really possible? Here, Ronald Bickel, adjunct professor of jazz and piano at the Mary Pappert School of Music, Duquesne University, explains what ear training is and why developing relative pitch is important for every musician—especially singers.
Is there really such a thing as perfect pitch?
According to Bickel, perfect pitch is actually an imperfection in the ear that allows you to hear pitches that are played and know what they are. “But, having perfect pitch doesn’t mean you are a good musician,” he says.
“I think it’s a mistaken notion to try to develop perfect pitch; you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have perfect pitch, you can develop relative pitch—relating one pitch to all the other pitches,” he says, explaining that it’s something people can develop to varying degrees. “I’ve worked for a lot of years developing relative pitch. I can ‘hear’ much better now than when I was in college.”
Can every musician benefit from relative pitch?
“It’s important to be able to use your ear efficiently in any style of music, but particularly in styles that require ‘playing off the page,’ where much of what you play is not written down,” Bickel says. “Jazz is a living, breathing thing. Every time you play a tune it’s different and that’s the exciting part. Players make changes to the music as they are playing. Those playing with them need to be able to complement what they are playing.” This requires recognition of chords and melodic patterns.
Bickel says all musicians can benefit from developing relative pitch because it will help them: develop repertoire by learning how a song sounds and playing it by ear, rather than worrying about the written notes; learn to transpose and play tunes in any key; and improve sight reading by being able hear how music sounds in their head without playing it. Relative pitch also makes it easier to transcribe solos from recordings and compose in your head.
Of course, the biggest thing is improvising.
How do you get relative pitch?
Bickel says that any ear training (also called solfeggio) you can do to improve your ability to hear relative pitches is a good thing. His new book, Developing Relative Pitch for Players of Jazz and Related Styles, offers many tips. Here’s an exercise to try:
Sing the solfeggio scale—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. Then sing “do,” and pick out a pitch that you want to sing and try to hear that pitch. Then sing it and check to see if you have the right pitch. If you have difficulty doing that, you can sing a scale (in your head or out loud) until you arrive at that pitch and you eventually learn, for example, what “sol” sounds like. You can do that with all of the degrees of the scale. Sing “do,” sing the scale, pick out a degree. Sing it until you know what that degree sounds like. Once you can do it with one pitch, you can sing “do” and pick out two different scale degrees. And once you can do two of them, you can get away from “do” and just sing indiscriminate degrees of the scale. Once you can do that, you can take a melody and sing it with solfeggio syllables. That should enable you to play it in any key. For example, if you are in Eb, Eb is “do” and Bb is “sol,” if you are in G, G is “do” and D is “sol.”
To order the book Developing Relative Pitch e-mail Ron Bickel.
Take Our Relative Pitch Quiz
Listen first to this recording of Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. Next, take the quiz to see how well you’re able to recognize different notes in relation to Do.