Welcome to part 2 of our series on relative pitch. In the last post in this series we compared perfect pitch and relative pitch to decide which approach to ear training will allow you to play by ear. We came to the conclusion (well I did at least) that relative pitch is the way to go.

In this post I’ll go into the mistake that I made with ear training that held me back for well over a year. That may seem like a long time but I consider myself lucky. This mistake prevents a lot of musicians from playing by ear for a lot longer than a single year. For some musicians it holds them back for their entire lives.

So let’s get into it to make sure you don’t suffer from the same problem.

As I mentioned in the last post, with relative pitch you will learn to recognise the intervals between notes rather than the notes themselves.

An interval is created whenever any two notes are played.

The size of the interval created when two notes are played is determined by the number of notes in between the two notes. Each interval has its own unique sound which we can learn to recognise.

For example, the smallest interval (called a minor second) is created by playing two notes that are right next to each other. The MP3 below plays 3 minor seconds. When you listen to them can you hear that they all sound similar?

Upon learning this the most logical path forward is to learn how to recognise the sound of each interval. That way you'll be able to recognise any intervals you hear in music. Sounds perfect doesn't it!

This is the approach that so many musicians take with ear training. They listen to each individual interval and learn to recognise the sound of each one. And this is the fatal mistake.

When was the last time you heard a piece of music that was made up of only two notes? When was the last time you heard a piece of music that was 5 or 10 notes for that matter.

If you're used to recognising intervals just one at a time, how are you going to go when there's a whole band playing? How will you work out the chord progression? Or the melody when it's flying by and there are 2 or more notes being played every second.

As soon as the music starts playing we get ourselves into trouble very quickly. With so many notes being played at once, it's much harder to recognise any one of them. And even if you can, how can you work out which notes each interval is between? Was it between the melody note and the note below it? Or between the melody note and the bass note? You'll get overwhelmed very quickly if all you have are individual intervals.

This is why interval based ear training simply won't allow you to play by ear. You can learn to recognise each interval, but doing so won't help much once you put those intervals into the context of actual music.

If you want to play by ear you need an approach that uses intervals, but puts them in the context of music. One that gives you a clear reference point that you can relate every note you hear back to.

Fortunately, music hands us this system on a silver platter. Music is actually constructed in a way that makes this incredibly simple and easy. The notes used in a piece of music aren't chosen at random. Try playing random notes on your instrument and see how they sound. It doesn't exactly create the nicest melody. There is a method to the madness of music that we use to find notes that sound good together. If we understand that method, we can use it to our advantage so we can develop relative pitch quickly and easily.

In fact, once you've used this system to develop a strong sense of relative pitch, interval based ear training is useful as an advanced addition. But until you've done this you're much better off forgetting about interval based ear training altogether.

So read on to the next post in this series and I'll tell you all about that method.

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