September Q&A: Perfect pitch, playing chords by ear and more

In today’s Q&A session of PianoTV, I take a look at four of your questions and try to answer them as best as I can. If you’d like to see more Q&A videos, check out this section of the website.

Question #1

Types of perfect pitch

This is an interesting but difficult question to answer. So what we’re talking about is two different kinds of ear skills:

  • Perfect absolute pitch
  • Perfect relative pitch

I would say the first one you’re definitely born with. Perfect pitch, or perfect absolute pitch, is pretty rare. People with this skill can name the key a piece is in. They can sing any given pitch without reference – if you ask them to sing a middle C, they can spontaneously sing the tone of a middle C.

They can even figure out the pitch of everyday sounds, like electronic beeps!

Perfect relative pitch

The thing is, some of these skills can be developed to a certain extent, and that’s where we get “perfect relative pitch”. Relative pitch is when you’re able to identify notes relative to other notes. So you might not be able to spontaneously sing a middle C, but if someone played you an A, you’d be able to find the pitch of middle C.

People with perfect relative pitch can keep a tune when singing, and generally have no issues with harmonizing and choral work.

Pseudo-absolute pitch

However, even though I believe perfect absolute pitch is something you’re born with, I do think you can train yourself to have pseudo-absolute pitch. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about that:

Those with absolute pitch may train their relative pitch, but there are no reported cases of an adult obtaining absolute pitch ability through musical training; adults who possess relative pitch but do not already have absolute pitch can learn “pseudo-absolute pitch” and become able to identify notes in a way that superficially resembles absolute pitch. Moreover, training pseudo-absolute pitch requires considerable motivation, time, and effort, and learning is not retained without constant practice and reinforcement.

The reason I believe a sort of fake version of absolute pitch can be trained is because that’s what I can do. Using middle C as our example, I can sing that tone without any reference. I just “know” what it sounds like.

If I start singing a radio song, there’s a very good chance that I’m singing it in the key it was written in. If I take my time and think about it, I can identify the pitch of random noises like beeps and honks.

Interestingly, I developed this skill by accident. I think it mainly happened from teaching piano – you get certain notes drilled into your head. That’s why middle C is so easy for me – it’s the first and most important piano note most people learn. But some of it probably developed from years of jamming, writing music and improvising.

I do have a student who has perfect absolute pitch, and it’s mainly different than what I have because of age. He’s young and hasn’t had much musical training, but can still tell me what chord I’m playing just by listening, or what key a piece is in. He “hears” F, G, etc., in ways that most people can’t. It’s really fascinating.

Question #2

Figuring out chords by ear

This problem makes perfect sense to me. Melody is comparatively easy to figure out – it’s usually just a single line of music, and it projects loudly and clearly above everything else.

Chords, on the other hand, are relegated to the background. Chords are meant to blend, to “support” the melody. They don’t stand out. This makes them much more of a challenge to identify by ear!

Listening for the bass line

One thing that I do when I’m learning a song by ear is listen to the opposite extreme of the melody – I listen for the bass notes.

Bass notes are sometimes easier to pinpoint than chords because you’re simply listening for the absolute lowest pitches in the music (chords are usually more blended in the middle). Basslines are also usually one note at a time, so they’re easier to “hear”.

So if you’re listening to a bassline and you pick out “C, F, G”, there’s a good chance that, if you flesh those out into chords, you’ll end up with a C chord, F chord and G chord.

But it depends. Basslines aren’t always going to play the “root” note of a chord. Sometimes a bassline might play an “E”, but it’s not an E chord at all – it’s a C chord (which has an E in it).

Music theory and ear training

This is where music theory becomes your best friend. If you’re learning a piece and you know it’s in the key of C – maybe you’ve figured out the melody and there aren’t really any sharps and flats – then you’ll also know what chords you’re likely to come across.

Using the key of C as our example, say you hear a bassline that goes like this:

C – E – F – A – G

There’s a good chance that second note, E, isn’t root – if it was, you’d end up with an E chord:

E G# B

Which would be really odd for this key. You basically won’t see this, unless it’s an abstract song. But maybe it’s an E minor chord?

There are thee possibilities of what this chord could be:

C chord (C E G)

E minor chord (E G B)

A minor chord (A C E)

All of these chords would fit in well with the key of C, so that’s where you’ll have to be able to discern major versus minor (we did a video on that). If it sounds minor, you’ll have to compare E minor and A minor to the original music – which one seems to “fit”?

Over time this largely becomes intuitive, but this is how I would start approaching it. Get into chord theory!

Question #3

Playing ornaments with more ease

Loud ornaments! This is a really common occurrence, and usually has a very simple answer.

Well, simple to understand, but not necessarily simple to do!

If your ornaments are too loud, it’s because your hand is getting tense. It’s really common for hands to tense up when playing fast passages (which ornaments are). One of the biggest challenges in piano is being able to play fast and quiet.

What I suggest to my students when this happens to them is to slow the ornament down and get the fingers as relaxed as possible. Notice how it feels to be relaxed at a slower tempo. Then gradually increase the speed while trying to maintain that relaxation. It’s not easy! But the more coordinated you become, the easier this skill becomes.

Work little exercises like this into your daily practice. Spend a couple minutes playing fast passages or little trills while concentrating on keeping loose and relaxed.

Question #4

Impressing your piano teacher

I saved my favorite question for last! This question is kind of silly, but I thought it might be helpful for you guys to know what things us piano teachers are really impressed by.

Number 1 is…

  • Practice!

And not just any practice, but intelligent practice. If you can come to class and show me what days you played piano, for how long, and what exactly you worked on, you get a gold star.

It’s not hard to do this! Even if you’re only playing for 30 minutes a day, if you can clearly show me the “when, what and how long” of your practice, I’ll be impressed. It’s usually a sign you weren’t just aimlessly playing.

Tip #2

  • Practicing what we specifically ask you to practice

Another no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often a student and I can work through a problem, fix it, and then next week – the problem is right back there again. Or if we practice dynamics (louds and softs), and then the student returns and plays everything the same volume.

If you practice the specific thing we ask you to practice, you will get a gold star. Even if you’re not a pro at whatever it was, it shows that you’re listening and that you value my opinion. It also shows that you have enough initiative to actually remember the things we talk about (usually this comes down to writing notes in class).

Tip #3

  • Doing any additional learning

Oftentimes when we’re learning a piece, I might mention “hey, you should check out Beethoven’s life story if you’re learning his sonata”, or “hey, you should listen to this waltz before you learn to play it”.

These aren’t usually “hard” assignments the way learning a piece is, but they’re still important. It shows that you’re willing to go the extra mile.

This is such a fun question that I might explore it more fully in a future video if you guys would like!

conclusion

I hope you enjoyed today’s Q&A session. I answer 4 questions every month, so if you there’s something you really want to know, please leave a comment! 🙂

xo,

Allysia