How I learned to Develop Relative Pitch

A Working Musician’s Practical Approach to Saving You Time

It seems like magic. Those musicians up there are singing different notes and it sounds incredibly wonderful. Different notes, yet, they blend as one. It seems like magic. Ever wonder how they do that?

Welcome to the world of relative pitch. It ain’t magic. It’s a concrete science. A simple skill that opens so many doors in music…your music.

Before we get started, let’s acknowledge and understand that  “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” are also commonly expressed as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, octave. Thus, the first “do” is also referred to as “1” (one).  “Re” is “2” and so on. The second appearance of “do” is that same note as the first “do,” except that it is an octave higher. And, the pattern repeats itself. Personally, I always relate this concept to that of a ruler. Every 12 inches constitutes a foot. I think of an octave much in the same way as I think of a foot—each octave being its own 12-inch ruler.

If music is a language, and “do, re, mi , fa , sol, la, ti, do” (also known as the solfeggio scale) is the alphabet of this language, then think of relative pitch as a skill one can develop to become more eloquent within the language to form things, such as chords and vocal harmonies. You can put things together that make more musical sense while remaining oriented and in control within the music. And all of this leads to your confidence. And part of making progress with your music is making progress with your musical confidence. Confidence in your own musical language improves your music experience.

Relative pitch is often confused with perfect pitch.

People often confuse these terms. To have perfect pitch means that you can ring a stranger’s doorbell and name the note the doorbell plays. You would also be able to discern whether the note was flat or sharp. Relative pitch is when the musician knows by listening to where “do” (or “one”) is and from there can sing “fa” (or the 4th) and any other note (or degree) in that scale. When folks have this skill, you can tell them to sing a “third” to your melody and they will fall right into place as a harmony singer.

Music is about sonic relationships, including the distance between pitches. We’re here to help you develop the skill of replicating these pitches with your voice. Before you can do this, you must have it in your head.

“Hear” is What You Do.

As a longtime professional musician, I can tell you the most valued skill among musicians is the skill of “listening.” Not simply “hearing,” but actual listening. A lot of folks don’t really know there’s a difference. The difference is this: hearing is when you notice the Beatles are playing on the radio. Listening is when you can discern which guitar is George’s and which guitar is John’s. Those who hear can tell they are listening to pleasant, lush vocal harmonies. Those who have developed their listening can tell the harmonies include a 7th (ti).

Hearing does not necessarily require intent. Listening requires your deliberate attention.

Start here:

  1. Play a C scale on your instrument (“do” is C), “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.” And listen to it.
  2. Sing what you played. Match it.
  3. Play and sing them both together.  Repeat it to get better.
  4. Then play “do.” “Do” is the reference point of the music’s key, right?  In this case, “do” is C. All the other pitches are related to C.
  5. Play “do.” Sing “do.” Place that in your cache of short-term memory. Then choose/imagine a different pitch (such as “fa” or 4 or F) and try to hear that pitch four degrees above the C you just played.
  6. Sing the F that is “fa.” Check it against your instrument.
  7. Do this for all the notes of the scale—comparing (and listening) to “do” against each and every other interval.
  8. Be patient. Never stop repeating. (I still exercise this skill.)

A Helpful Trick

In this step-by-step example, I used a 1 – 4 degree change. “Do” then “fa.”

Academics, aside, it just so happens that the tune “Here Comes the Bride,” exploits the 1 – 4 change. If the word “here,” is on 1, the the rest of the words “…Comes the Bride….” are on the 4th degree. So, with that said, to train myself, I used “Here Comes The Bride,” as a sort of cheat-sheet for when I wanted to find a 4th. Whether it’s a low note or a high note I’m starting on, I just quickly think of the popular bride ditty to find my 4th. By now, I no longer need that trick, I just know where it is and how it sounds. I recognize the relationship of the degree in the same way I can hear the word “blue,” and imagine what it looks like. And the same goes with the other intervals.

Repeat this until you recognize the degree relationship. It takes a little patience and repetition, but it’s definitely achievable. Once you get the hang of it, you can sing more confidently and freely through degrees of the scale, without referencing “do” first. And when you can do this, exercise further your relative pitch skills by taking any melody and singing it with solfeggio syllables.

This will make you tough and beautiful at the same time, enabling you to dive into any key and most any jam. You’ll be able to decipher music easier by ear, improvise more freely, and most importantly, you’ll be able to communicate with the other musicians more completely, efficiently and effectively. More fun for you.

About Chuck Schiele

Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, producer, editorialist, artist, activist and music fan.

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