• How to Listen Effectively: The Basics of Relative Pitch

    in Ear-Training

    When it comes to effectively listening to music to learn new songs, there’s different ways to do it:

    1) Perfect Pitch

    2) Relative Pitch

    Now, before we get started discussing what relative pitch is, let me briefly cover perfect pitch.

    Some think that you need perfect pitch to play by ear. This is not true.

    Perfect pitch is the ability to hear exact tones without the use of a musical instrument or reference. So if someone had perfect pitch and heard a “C” tone, they’d be able to say “that’s a C” without using a piano. It is said that roughly 1 out of 10,000 people have this ability.

    While this may seem like a dream come true, some people with perfect pitch have a hard time with relative pitch (which is more practical for learning by ear as you’ll soon learn).

    Relative pitch does not rely on specific notes. It relies more on intervals and distances between notes.

    Someone with good relative pitch would know that a melody like C to E to G is utilizing the notes of a major chord, but might not know which major chord (because unlike perfect pitch, the exact note is unknown until you sit in front of a piano and determine it).

    With relative pitch, you may not know specifically what chords or tones are being played (like “C” or “E”) but you know what’s going on (e.g. – You know that a song is starting on a major chord and moving to the minor sixth keynote). In other words, you understand the “big picture.”

    Often times, it is going to the piano and matching up tones that allows you to play a song (literally in seconds because you already know what’s going on — you just need a reference point — a major key.

    If you can hear the changing of chords in your head and can quickly transfer this knowledge to the piano (after determining the major key), then you have developed good relative pitch.

    I always say:

    Most of “playing by ear” occurs in the mind. If you’ve gotten to the point where you can pinpoint 2-5-1 and 1-4 progressions in songs, then you’re relying on relative pitch. You’re doing well.

    Don’t be confused into thinking that you have to know exactly what chords are being played before sitting down to the piano. That is not the case.

    All you really need to know is “what’s going on.” Let me reiterate:

    Let’s say you’ve been studying intervals and by now, you know that a “2-5-1” progression is common at the end of a song. Now, you’re listening to a song and there you hear it, a “2-5-1,” plain and simple. You even know that it’s a min9 chord (because it sounds pretty jazzy) going to some kind of dominant chord (like a 13 chord) and then finally returning home to a nice major chord.

    … You may not know specifically that it’s a Gbmin9 or an Fmin9 but you know it’s a minor9 and it occurs on the second tone of the scale. The ‘actual’ note will be determined once you actually figure out what major key the song is in. The major key usually brings everything together at the end.

    So… the missing factor is the major key the song is being played in. So the same person would go to a piano, hit a few notes and soon determine that the major key is, let’s say, “C” major (visit my newsletter archives for more information on how to determine the key of a song).

    That’s the last piece of the puzzle. So all you’d have to do is ask yourself a few questions (…which by now occur almost instantly):

    1. What is the 2 of C major?

    2. What is the 5 of C major?

    3. What is the 1 of C major?

    The answers to those questions would provide the keynotes for the chords you already know!

    So the keynotes of a “2-5-1” progression in C major would be: D to G to C.

    Now apply the chords:

    Dmin9 — G13 — Cmaj

    There you have it! This gets easier and easier as you play “2-5-1” progressions over and over. They become second nature just as any other progression will.

    Ideally, if I called out, “play a 2-5-1,” your response should be, “in what key?” That’s what level you want to be at — where you know all your chords and progressions in all twelve keys and it literally takes seconds to play any chord progression if you know the key to play it in.

    But let’s move on:

    Now, I may have painted it to be much easier than it really is. It really is that easy once you “get” it, but please forgive me (for all the beginners out there). Let’s back up and actually cover the steps to getting to this point in your playing.

    Ok, so what does it take to hear music in your head and to already know what’s going on before you get to the piano?

    An understanding of how music works

    This involves knowing all 12 major scales.

    I’m tired of people thinking major scales are just things to practice to build speed and dexterity. Major scales are more than exercises.

    Major scales make up music!

    Major scales make up playing by ear, believe it or not (at least the effective way of playing by ear).

    Anybody can get on the piano and pick out chords, note-by-note. It might take weeks but it can be done.

    I’m not talking about that.

    I’m talking about getting to a point where you hear a song and you know right away what’s going on in that song. You may not know specifically what the keynotes are, but you certainly know the “outline” of the song.

    The time spent at the piano would be to determine the key signature, confirm the chords you’ve already picked out in your head, and work on details (like melody lines, very unique inversions of chords, and minor specificities).

    Does that make sense?

    Major scales tell you a lot:

    They define intervals.

    They determine what a major third is… or a minor sixth … or a perfect fifth.

    Heck, they determine major keys!

    The easiest scale to remember is the C major scale:

    C D E F G A B C

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    Simply put, a person with relative pitch focuses on the numbers and not the specific notes.

    See, because the numbers can be used universally — they can be used with any key, not just “C” major.

    So forget about the individual notes for a moment and just focus on the numbers.

    With relative pitch, a musician will know when they hear a melody going from the 1 tone to the 3rd tone (in this case, a melody going from C to E).

    A good way to build this is to relate different intervals of notes to famous songs.

    For example, a 1-3 interval (or a major third interval) sounds like the beginning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” In the key of C major, that would be C going to E (single notes played one at a time).

    Try it? Sing or think of the first two notes of that song: “Have your…”

    So, what you’d do is remember that melody as a 1-3 interval (or a major third interval). Having a reference song to recall an interval should help you. Take advantage of this technique!

    By the way, intervals are covered in my 300-pg course on pages 50-55 if you’re really serious about studying this.

    If you keep singing to “Have yourself,” you’d be singing the outline of a major chord: 1-3-5.

    Another song that shares the same exact melody is “Kumbaya My Lord” (1 – 3 – 5)

    So going through each interval of a scale and making mental references to melodies you can remember is a wonderful way to start building this listening skill:

    Try to find references for these intervals:

    1-1: This is called unison (pg 52) because the notes sound the same. They may come from different sources (like two different people singing the same tone; or two different instruments). You’ve probably heard the word “unison” before. This is the easiest interval to remember. If you have an ear to match up notes that sound the same, then you shouldn’t have a problem with this interval!

    In the key of C major, this would be: C-C

    1-2: This is called the “major second” interval. In a major scale, this would be the distance between the first two notes of the scale (like C to D in the key of C major).

    Relate the 1-2 interval to the first two notes in songs like:

    -Frere Jacques

    -Are You Sleeping

    1:3: This is known as the “major third” interval. I’ve already given you examples of the 1-3 interval (Kumbaya My Lord, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,

    Now, you try:

    Play the following intervals and figure out melody references for them (things you can remember and associate with these intervals for future use):

    1:4: __________________________________ (this is the interval between C:F in the key of C major). This is known as the perfect fourth interval.

    1:5: __________________________________ (this is the interval between C:G in the key of C major). This is known as the perfect fifth interval.

    1:6: I’ll give you some help with this one because it may be a littler harder than the perfect fourth and fifth. Have you ever heard the theme music for NBC? The notes are: C to F to A (all played separately but held down as the next note comes in). The C to A, in this case, is a major sixth interval.

    1:7: This is known as a major seventh interval. It helps to form the major seventh chord, a jazzy and extended version (C+E+G+B) of the regular major triad (C+E+G).

    So again…

    The idea is to know the sounds that certain intervals create as they are played. Each interval has its own unique sound.

    … and the same truth applies to chords and progressions.

    Start to think of chords like this:








    8-chord (equal to 1-chord because the first and last note of a scale belong to the same keynote).

    Note: The numbers in front of the chord are the same numbers from above. They correspond with notes from any given major scale. Notice that you have no reference point until you actually define a major key.

    That’s exactly how relative pitch works. You want to understand relationships, intervals, and distances by themselves.


    Even if YOU DO have a reference point, it makes the job much easier.

    Often times, someone with relative pitch can “fake” like they have perfect pitch if they just have ONE reference point.

    Think about it. If you told someone who had a good relative pitch what note you’re starting on, they could very well follow you by listening to the distances and intervals between each note, calling out each chord (or note) as it is being played.

    Think of it this way.

    If I told you to think of a number… any number between 1 and 10.

    Don’t just read, think of a number! :) Write it down if you can.

    a) Now add 3 to that number

    b) Then add 2 to the number you have now

    c) Ok, now subtract 1.

    d) Lastly, subtract the number you started with (which I told you to think of).

    The number you should have now is 4.

    If you don’t have 4, it’s not my fault… you didn’t count right!

    Now, this is an old mathematical trick that people have been doing for years. But it also sheds some light on how relative pitch works.

    Notice that it didn’t really matter what number you started with — you could have started with 1 or 5 or 8. It doesn’t matter. You still ended up on 4.

    If someone told you that they were going to play 5 notes or chords in a row and that they would tell you the first note, relative pitch would kick in and allow you to shout back every note or chord they’re playing just like adding and subtracting numbers.

    And even if you didn’t have the starting note (as in the example above — I didn’t have your starting number), you can still follow along by adding and subtracting different intervals.

    I understand this lesson may be a little “deeper” than others, but if you can get this concept, it may be the breakthrough you’ve been looking for.

    So, how do you get to the point where you can recognize chord progressions:

    A) Write down as many intervals as you can and play them over and over while listening to the distinct sound each interval makes:

    In each key:

    • Determine what a 1-chord sounds going to every other chord of the scale (1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6, 1-7). Now, each tone is associated with a certain type of chord (like major, minor, diminished) but for now, try to learn and recognize the sound of all three combinations. An example is: 1maj to 2maj, 1maj to 2min, 1maj to 3maj. Mix and match as much as you can and learn how each interval sounds (not just what each chord sounds like). Then move on to the 2-1, 2-2, and 2-3 intervals. Then on to the 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and so on…
    • You may know that a major chord is happy, a minor chord is sad, and a diminished chord is scary, but that’s only half of it. Relative pitch is the ability to identify the intervals between tones and chords. So, while knowing whether the chord is major, minor, or diminished is certainly important, the ability to determine the interval between each chord is more necessary if you want to learn songs by ear.

    Looks like I’m running out of room in this newsletter. I’ll definitely continue on this topic depending on how much response and questions I get.

    I hope you enjoyed this issue! I’ll see you next week for a new topic…

    Thanks for reading!

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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