I have been playing guitar for over 10 years now, and for more than half of those years I have studied under a tutor in order to force myself to learn new techniques and genres of music (everything from metal and jazz to classical and funk). As such, I have developed a very good ear for telling scales apart and I am pretty good at knowing intervals apart when I hear them.

However, I am unsure if I have developed relative pitch or if I can just picture scales in my head and visualise which notes of a scale are being used. For example, I have no trouble identifying and recreating riffs and melodies on a guitar and after thinking about it a bit, I can work out what theory is going on "under-the-hood" if they use scales I am familiar with; I can also work out what chords are being spelled out in a song if I recognise the chord and with a lot of thinking can recreate the chord if I am unfamiliar with it. But when I hear a line that uses a scale I am not familiar with (non-standard modes come to mind) or an arpeggio I have not heard before, my sense of being able to recreate that melody on the guitar goes out of the window and I have to think for much longer about what is going on in the melody theory-wise.

I have also studied classical theory for a number of years and know (or can work out if I forget) the names of all standard intervals, and know where each note comes in relation to the last (e.g. there is no E# between E and F without being pedantic about quarter-tones), meaning I can work out how far apart two notes are when I hear them. Is this relative pitch?

Where is the line drawn between having good relative pitch and just having a good mental library of scales, arpeggios and music theory?

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    I think the two are interwoven. When one hears, say, P5, and knows what one note actually is, then it's easy to say/sing the other. Don't forget that just about every two notes have at least two different interval names. E.g. aug2/m3; dim5/aug4. – Tim Jul 13 at 11:04
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    Why does it matter, so long as you hit the desired notes? – Carl Witthoft Jul 13 at 12:16
  • @CarlWitthoft curiosity more than anything. I'm interested in where the line is between relative pitch and a sound knowledge of theory. – James Whiteley Jul 13 at 12:30
  • What are 'non-standard modes'? – Tim Jul 13 at 14:34
  • @Tim I suppose I mean scales/modes not based off the standard diatonic scale (Ionian, Mixolydian, etc). Might not be the correct term for it. – James Whiteley Jul 13 at 14:37
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think what you are describing is exactly relative pitch. How would you expect to recognize intervals, scales and arpeggios if not through a mental library? Relative pitch is all about memorization. From a certain point on, you incorporate it, and it becomes more natural, but still due to the memory you have built of how a certain interval sounds like, for example.

Of course, the more you hear something, more familiar and natural it becomes. That's why it's so easy for you to work within the scales and arpeggios you already know. But the ability to decipher different stuff, even if you take much longer, means you have a good relative pitch. The more you study and hear these scales, the more familiar you will become.

So answering your last question, I would say: the bigger the mental library, the better the relative pitch. It's all about memorizing patterns.

Yes, it sounds as if your (apparently considerable) Relative Pitch skills are a bit too tied up with scale recognition. So play some chromatic scales! (What is it with guitar players and scales anyway? Sure, practice scales to develop dexterity, and because scale passages often occur in the repertoire. But there's SO much more to music than 'scales over chords'.)

There's no big problem here. Do more of the stuff you have to "think for much longer about". It's not like you CAN'T do it.

  • I think that guitar players are just flashy and show-off-y by nature and without some sort of scale repertoire to rely on when playing an "awesome improvised solo" to demonstrate our mastery of the instrument, we feel lost and silly ;) I agree that I may be a little bogged down with scale recognition though. Time to brush up on my 12-tone music I suppose... – James Whiteley Jul 13 at 14:31

Set aside the guitar and try singing the same exercises. Record yourself doing so, then listen to the recordings. If you sound good, I'd say that you have good relative pitch. If you don't, then I'd say that you have some work to do.

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