So, I’m sitting in the car with this beautiful girl, minding my own business and all of a sudden, out of the blue, this horrible sound starts blaring out of nowhere. My heart starts to race. I’m thinking that a fire has broken out and an alarm is going off. Or maybe a bank has been robbed and someone has sounded the alarm! Escaped prisoners! Mayhem, hysteria, what’s going on here? I turn to the cute brunette sitting next to me and I ask her; “What’s that hideous sound?” She turns to me with eyes wide open, her perfect lips part and she answers; “B flat.”
Perfect Pitch – There are certain musicians who have the uncanny ability of being able to identify any pitch you throw at them. That means that if you played a B flat on your instrument, they could tell you what it was immediately with little or no hesitation. Because of this, if they develop this interesting ability to its full extent, they can also learn to listen to something and play it back without much effort. Some musicians using this strange and bewildering musical sixth sense can even transcribe stuff without even using their instruments to help them along the way. Pretty cool, don’t ya think? I know this bassist who not only has perfect pitch; he also has a photographic memory, the ability to look at something and kind of take a mental photo of it, and recall it perfectly. Just like looking at a photo for reference, a Polaroid camera in his brain. He can just look at a chart of anything, take a mental snapshot of it and play it back without having to look at the chart again. Jeez, I can hardly even read a chart!
How to get it – Unfortunately, if you don’t have it now and you’re old enough to be reading this without the help of your Mom or Dad, it’s probably going to take a little work. Most of the musicians who have perfect pitch developed it as kids. I would assume it’s because they started learning music while their brains where developing and their brains got wired for sound better then the rest of us. Guitarists generally don’t have perfect pitch. I think the reason for this is simple: we guitarists tend to start playing later in life. Pianists often get started by their parents really early in life, some as young as four or five.
Colors – Most musicians, who have it, describe the sounds of certain notes as colors. There are some courses and programs to develop perfect pitch. I don’t know if they work or not but I have an open mind. You may want to try one of the programs out for yourself. If it works out, let me know and I’ll do it too.
Not Exactly Perfect – I don’t have perfect pitch, I have what we call relative pitch (I’ll get to it later). If God came out of the heavens and asked me if I wanted perfect pitch I would say; “Sure, God.” But if he only gave me one wish, I would chose world peace over perfect pitch. Perfect pitch would come somewhere between free strings for life and a complete ban on whale hunting.
Will Perfect Pitch Make You the Greatest Guitarist in the Universe? – I’m not sure, it can’t hurt. I know a lot of musicians, some of them have perfect pitch but most of them don’t. One thing I do know for sure, perfect pitch or not, all the really great players I personally know have good ears. It is important to develop your ear. I know one musician with perfect pitch, a pianist. He can tell you what any note is, figure out any phrase in half the time it takes me, listen to song once and play it back for you. But you know what? He really isn’t that hot a player. Because of his gifted ear he could definitely be a better player than me but I don’t think he really works on all the other stuff that I did. He doesn’t write well, doesn’t understand scale/chord relationships and doesn’t seem to practice very much. I would love to have his ear but I wouldn’t trade it for the other things that I have as a player.
Relative Pitch – Relative pitch is a little different than perfect pitch. People who have relative pitch have the ability of recognizing what one pitch is in relation to another. I know I just confused you, sorry. I’ll give you an example: If you play one note and tell me that it is an E note and then play, let’s say, a B flat note without telling me that it is a B flat note, I would know what it is because my ear tells me that the interval between the first note (E) and the second note (B flat) is a diminished 5th. I just know the sound of a diminished 5th interval and because I know my music theory, I know that the note that is a diminished 5th from E is B flat. The cute girl sitting next to me in the car on that day in Studio City would know the B flat without having to hear the E note first.
E Note on the Brain – To be honest, I’ve been playing guitar long enough that I have a built-in E note in my head. The reason is because the first thing I play when I pick the guitar up every day is the sixth string which as you know, is an E note. After 25 years, it just kind of got engrained in my brain. For that reason, half the time I can usually tell what any single note is by itself even without the first note to compare it to. It is still relative pitch because I’m still mentally comparing the note in question to an E note, the E note stuck in my brain. Someone with perfect pitch doesn’t have to compare one note to any other note (even a mentally created one) to know what it is. By the way, a Diminished 5th is the interval that starts off the Jimi Hendrix song, Purple Haze. In the case of Purple Haze it is a B flat and an E, try it. I know the sound of Purple Haze’s intro so I know the sound of a Diminished 5th interval.
Developing Relative Pitch – You can develop relative pitch with a little practice. Take a look at the intervals below. Memorize what they look and sound like one by one. I also included some song names that will help you to remember what the intervals sound like. After you get used to the sounds of all the intervals, have one of your guitar player buddies test you on ’em. I’ll start with the easier intervals first:
Perfect 4th – Song examples: Here Comes the Bride, Amazing Grace.
Perfect 5th – Song examples: Love me Tender, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Major 3rd – Song examples: When the Saints Go Marching In, On Top of Old Smoky
Major 6th – Song examples: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
Diminished 5th (Augmented 4th) – Song examples: Purple Haze intro, Maria from West Side Story.
Major 2nd – Happy Birthday
Minor 3rd – Greensleeves
Minor 2nd – Jaws
Minor 6th – Love Story (in reverse)
Minor 7th – Star Trek Theme
Major 7th – I have no idea for songs for this one. I offer a challenge to all readers of this lesson: find a song that uses this interval and I’ll be eternally grateful. Someone once told me the theme to Superman starts with the interval of a major 7th. but the song isn’t common enough to be of any use.
Get used to the sounds and shapes of all the intervals. Move them up and down the fingerboard and on to other strings. You will find the shapes will stay the same till you get to the fourth and third strings. Get together with a guitar friend and test yourselves: have him play an interval and see if you can tell what it is by its sound. You’ll find your ears improving a little everyday and before you know it, you won’t need a beautiful brunette to tell the names of various daily pitches anymore.
Until next time…