There has been a lot of discussion on this site concerning whether or not it is possible to have perfect pitch or relative pitch or the ability to listen to the radio and accurately call out the chords as they are being played over the radio.
Over the past few days I have talked with friends of mine that have the ability to do this and after practicing this, I would like to share my thoughts on how this can be done.
1. Intervallic Training
One of the first lessons that piano players learn is the ability to distinguish intervals. Piano players that learn from a traditional teacher will play intervals (or seconds), thirds, fourths, etc. (Playing the root note and its second, the root note and its third, the root note and its fourth). This concept is difficult to teach on the guitar because it
is tuned in fourths, but turns out to be necessary to hear easily the chords that are being played.
When you think of playing the chord scale diatonically, the shortcut of learning to distinguish intervals will make much more sense. For example, in the key of C, playing the chord scale diatonically will give you C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B dim, and C following the Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished, Octave [MmmMMmDO]. The difference between the C root in C and the E root in Em will always be a third. The difference of a third, or a fourth, or a fifth is something that is very easy to distinguish. Being able to pick these intervals out will help you figure out how to tell which chords are being played on most songs that occur on the radio.
[Editor's Note: To practice this concept, refer to our Interval Ear Training Exercises
2. Hearing Major vs. Minor
The next step is to be able to distinguish between what has a major tonality versus a minor tonality. Most people will have no problem determining the difference between an E major and an E minor. The problem occurs when you introduce a melody over a chord progression. When you approach soloing from a Modal perspective, there are certain modes that introduce a major tonality, while others introduce a minor tonality. The key is to be able to pick out the root of the chord that is being played (which happens to be what the Bass Guitar is playing) and tuning out the melody to determine what is being played as backing chords.
3. 7ths, 9ths and Other Extensions
Once you have learned to distinguish Major versus Minor tonality, the next step is to be able to pick out the extension. How does adding the 2nd or 9th effect the chord? What effect does adding a 6th or a 7th effect the chord?
I have found that in most popular music you rarely worry about anything other than the 2nd/9th, 6th or 7th extensions, so it would be in your best interests to be able to distinguish these.
4. Learning by the Numbers - Some Common Shortcuts
Unless there are any key changes, it turns out to be very easy to find out what key a song is in.
- Trick #1 - See if you can find any 2 majors in the progression that are a whole step apart. If you remember the pattern (MmmMMmDO) the only instance where you will have two majors in succession are for the IV and the V. By counting backwards from the IV you will be able to determine what key you are in, which makes picking out the minors and other chords very easy.
- Trick #2 - Repeat the previous pattern based on two minors and count backwards from the ii.
- Trick #3 - I tend to talk about the MmmMMmDO patters in terms of Roman Numerals I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii*, I - where the upper case Roman numerals are major and the lower case Roman numerals are minor. By calling these by their numbers, you will have an easy way to transpose this to any key.
So, in the beginning you can call out the changes in - say - the key of C. Then when you have your instrument, transpose it to the proper key. With time, you will be able to distinguish an E from an A and really be able to call out the actual keys as they are being played.
I just started practicing this with friends last night. Make sure the instrument that you are using is in tune. Don't be frustrated. Practice.