Lesson 17: Developing Your Ear (Relative Pitch, Part 1)

It’s been said that the distinction between a great musician and a lesser player lies NOT in how fast one can play, but rather, how fast one can listen. How true. Developing our ear to the extent that we can quickly and accurately discern and identify (and consequently, respond to) elements of the music (harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, etc.) is one of the most important musical areas in which we can invest our time and energy.

In this first level of The Art of Groove course, we’ll focus on ear training in the area of relative pitch.

You may know some musicians who are gifted with perfect pitch.

Speaking of which, what is the definition of a violinist with perfect pitch?

Well, it’s when he can throw the violin across the room and it goes right into the trash can without hitting the rim. But we digress... (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Actually, people gifted with perfect pitch can name the pitch of any note (or sing any note you ask them) without having any reference note. Pretty scary stuff.

However, what I believe is arguably more useful, and certainly more readily attainable, is developing relative pitch. That term refers to having the ability to identify the notes in a musical piece if given a reference pitch. In other words, if you know that the first note of the phrase is an E, then you can easily identify the proceeding notes.

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to develop relative pitch is by working with intervals.

Intervals

As we covered back in Lesson 6, most of us don’t find ourselves using “Do-Re-Mi’s” very frequently when describing music. Instead, most of us use note names and intervals.

It is extremely valuable for any musician (especially bassists) to have the ability to hear and identify these intervals in both the octaves above and below a particular note. This will be a huge help in allowing a player to musically dialogue with other players in the ensemble spontaneously.

Here are a few exercises to help develop this area of our musicianship. Use these as a springboard and come up with your own creative variations.

Exercise 1

  1. Play the D at the 5th fret of the A string;
  2. Sing the desired interval relative to that note - say, the 5th above (great vocal chops aren’t required - just the ability to “hear” the note clearly in your head);
  3. Play that 5th above on the bass and verify if it was the note you were singing.
    Repeat for all of the intervals in the octave above, and practice them in random order.
Video Example 1

Once you’re comfortable with that, repeat Exercise 1 with the intervals in the octave below.

Exercise 2

Let’s kick that up a notch:

  1. Play a random note on your bass;
  2. Sing the desired interval relative to that note; and
  3. Play that note. That new note just became the root (the “1") for the NEXT interval.

Repeat steps 2 and 3...for 10-15 minutes.

If it would be helpful, you’re welcome to write out a sequence of random intervals on a sheet of paper to assist with Exercise 2.

It could be something like this:

3rd above
5th below
6th above
octave below
2nd above
7th above
6th below
4th below
5th above
7th below
etc., etc....

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