Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Aural Training


Dear Clare, can you give some tips on how to develop perfect and relative pitch in adults with no music background? Please also include your definition of perfect pitch and relative pitch, as there is seems to be some variation on how people define them.

Hello Jane,

Can I assume you're learning an instrument or vocal training? Because if you are, the sooner you get started on theory and aural the better. You can see colours, so to speak, but theory and aural teach you how to recognise patterns and (eventually) put colours together to make patterns of your own.  You study theory to recognise the "tools" of music when you see them written down, but you should also study aural to recognise them when you hear them.

Each time you cover a new topic eg intervals, you need to be able to: a} recognise them when they're written down b) write them yourself eg here's your starting note, what's a major sixth below it? c) recognise them when you hear them d) sing them back eg here's a starting note, now sing me a perfect fourth above it e) write them down from dictation eg I'll tell you the pitch name of your starting note, now write down what this note is. A) and b) are theory questions, c) d) and e) are aural. The same goes for rhythm - can you clap me the rhythm of a musical phrase when you read it (= theory)? If I play you a phrase can you clap it back to me (= aural)? If I then tell you the speed of the beat and what that beat is, can you write it down (= aural)? You progress to singing back/writing down from dictation increasingly longer phrases, then two parts writing down both parts, or hearing the two played together and singing back either one, then as you get more advanced, writing four parts from dictation and recognising cadences, harmonic progressions and modulations.

You can see why I consider theory and aural to be inseparable and teach both together. You're aiming to develop your inner hearing so that you can hear internally every note you read and write.  Not having inner hearing is a major handicap when you come to harmonic analysis and composition, and having it improves your sightreading - how can you play/sing a piece of music at sight if you can't recognise how it should sound?

To identify intervals you needed a starting note, but the "building blocks" of the Western key system are the two diatonic scales, major and minor, which are constructed in exactly the same way in all 12 keys.  The various degrees of the scale and the triads built up on them are of greater or lesser importance in relation to the keynote; and we have the concept of "related" keys, which makes it easy to move from one key to another, either directly or via other, more closely related, keys.  Once you have firmly established your home key, you have a network of interconnections and interrelations that underpins every note you write, and it‘s the relationship between chords rather than the chords themselves that is all-important.

So more advanced aural training involves "thinking within the key" and all exercises start with a key chord being sounded, but not necessarily named.  Once you've heard the key chord you should be able to identify a progression of, say, five chords by their relationship to that key (eg you've heard I and identify IV V7d Ib II V) without knowing their pitch.  In a theory exercise you know from the key signature what key you're in so can analyse a given chord progression or, if you're given the progression, write the correct chords yourself.  If you're taking aural dictation you'll hear the key chord and be told its pitch name, then you have to a) identify the progression as before and b) write down the correct chords - you should know all 12 major and 12 minor keys so fluently as to be able to write and/or play IV V7d Ib II V in them instantly.  That's what I mean by "thinking in the key", and it and inner hearing (seeing IV V7d Ib II V and immediately hearing it in your head) are as fundamental to a musician as breathing.

Everything I've said so far demonstrates the relationship of one chord to another, hence relative pitch.  In my aural dictation class I'll play you the key chord, tell you it's C# minor and expect all my students to complete the exercise.  There may be one or two students, though, who won't need to be told it's C# minor because they already know that from hearing it.  Those are the students with perfect pitch.

There's a great deal of rubbish written about “perfect pitch”, generally by journalists who don't understand what it is (“having perfect pitch” doesn’t mean “singing/playing in tune”). I prefer the term “absolute pitch” but even that's misleading because pitch has never been absolute. Probably 90% of the great composers didn't have absolute pitch. Mozart did, and so do I, but the chord that Mozart would instantly have identified as F major I will instantly identify as E major because over the past 300 years standard pitch has risen by at least a semitone. Different countries used different standards, and in England military bands used a higher pitch than orchestras until as late as 1939 when an international conference established concert pitch as A=440; it wasn't accepted as a technical standard until *1955* - the year before I was born, for heaven's sake.  If you're interested, there's a good article in Wikipedia http://en#wikipedia#org/wiki/Concert_pitch.
Absolute/perfect pitch can't be taught - you're either born with it or not.  It has its fun moments, particularly when you're a child, but the problem with having it is you can't switch it off and it can be an absolute bloody nuisance if you're transposing at sight or playing an instrument that's sharp or flat.  The conflict between what your eyes read and hands play, and what you hear (which you know "isn't right"), is incredibly disorienting and can cause real distress; the time I had to give a 15-minute recital at school on a piano that was a tone flat I had to stop listening to myself and concentrate hard on my fingers in order not to break down and was physically sick afterwards.  The real problems started when I took up the harpsichord and had to cope with baroque pitch, which is a semitone lower (A=416) than concert pitch.  I eventually learned to be "bilingual" - if I'm playing or listening to the harpsichord I think in baroque pitch but if I'm playing or listening to the piano I think in concert pitch, but I have to concentrate when transposing at sight regardless of the instrument I'm playing.  All very complicated.

So forget about absolute pitch if you don't have it, and work on your aural training to acquire superlative relative pitch.

Hope this helps.  

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


58 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 43 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 46 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 21 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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