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Poor Man's Perfect Pitch
(Soapbox Column #5)
Bass Player Magazine
Published May, 2000

You've probably seen the ads touting how you - yes, you! - can develop perfect pitch in mere seconds by sending $39.95 every hour on the hour to the ever-present address below. You may have even seen one in this magazine. To paraphrase the late, great Madeline Kahn, "Is it twooo?" Can you really "learn" perfect pitch?

I don't think so. I've been around some pretty sharp ears, and if I had to count the number of folks who could identify an F# out of the blue in a split second, I wouldn't need two hands to do it. A more common talent is the ability to identify any note after being given one note for reference, a.k.a. "relative perfect pitch." In other words, someone tells you "this is an E" and then they play it once. Just so long as you know your intervals (and we'll get to that in a bit), any following note can be identified by simple math and a limited music theory background. A perfect fifth above? That's a B. A major second down? That would be D. And so on.

But I've got a secret for you. Over time, I've developed what I like to call "poor man's perfect pitch." It's a cross between actual perfect pitch, relative perfect pitch, and just plain cheating. How does it work? Simply pick a song you've heard a thousand times - not necessarily your favorite, but one that sticks with you - and practice singing its strongest note (usually the root of the key). Start by doing it along with the track until you feel you've got it nailed - then take off the training wheels and try it a capella. When you can belt out the note in question by yourself and verify its accuracy by cranking up the tape while you're still singing, you've got yourself a note. A Poor Man's Perfect Note.

The key to success is finding the right tunes for each note. You're probably wondering, "So, Mr. Smart Guy Columnist, what songs do you use for this great technique of yours?" Funny you should ask.

E - Black Sabbath, "Paranoid"
There are so many E's out there it's almost silly to pick just one, but if I had to, this is mine. The verse. E, over and over again. Tower Of Power's "What Is Hip" isn't a bad choice either. [BB's note - turns out "Paranoid" is in Eb. The original article ran with the incorrect information. D'oh!]

G - Deep Purple, "Smoke On The Water"

When the bass comes in, it makes its way up to that chugging G and just sits there. For a higher register G I use Led Zep's "Over The Hills And Far Away," specifically the acoustic intro, when it lands on the root after the first little lick.

D - Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir"
There is no stronger D in rock, period. John Paul's Jones' octaves over the main lick serve it up as fat as it gets.

A - The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
It's the pre-vocal intro. Take your pick, either the bass note or the top note of the first two guitar licks. They both work.

C - Jaco Pastorius, "Come On, Come Over"
A bassist's special. Both of the alternating licks in the verse end with C. (True confessions: Sometimes I use Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance." Really.)

And now for two somewhat esoteric suggestions:

Ab - Glen Miller, "In The Mood"
OK, you find another famous song in A flat! (Oh, I can see the angry Letter To The Editor already.) The opening horn lick's top note, five times in a row. Ba da ba DA DA DA DA DA. . . .

B - Stevie Wonder, "Sir Duke"
Here's a fancy one. Again, an opening horn lick. The first four notes begin and end with B's, but since it's a major triad from bottom to top, if you can sing them all accurately then you've just bought yourself D# and F# as well. Not bad for two seconds of memorized music.

You see, you don't have to have a song for every note. This is where relative pitch comes in. If you know your intervals by ear well enough, maybe you don't need to memorize Ab or C#. Maybe you only need four or five notes to be able to hear all twelve. When you hear a note you don't immediately recognize, try singing one of your "good" notes and try to get there from where you are. Which notes should you start with? Well, E, A, D and G seem like nice jumping off points, don't they?

But first you need to memorize some intervals and apply some theory. Say someone plays a C# and you don't hear it, but you've got that E in your head. From E up to C# is a major sixth. What's the most famous major sixth in history? I say it's the bells from NBC. From "N" to "B" - that's a major sixth. Of course, you need to know that C# is a major sixth up from E in order for this to work, but that's a theory lesson that should be mastered before attempting stunts like this.

Need some other interval-identifying tunes? Try these:

Minor Second - "Theme From Jaws" - duh.

Perfect Fifth - "Theme From Superman" - the opening four notes.

Perfect Fourth -"Wedding March"- a.k.a. "Here Comes The Bride."

Major Third - "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony"- da da da DAH...when the note changes (or when it goes from "da" to "DAH" for those of you following my exquisite notation), that's a major third. This one can be tricky when it appears in a minor context such as this, so it pays to know the interval cold. Want to compare it to what it sounds like in a major context? Try the first two "na na's" of the outro of The Beatles' "Hey Jude" and compare them to Beethoven's major third. They may not sound the same, but they are. Oh yes, they are.

Minor Third - Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" - the first two notes of the main guitar riff. Suddenly you'll be glad that AOR radio played this song seemingly every thirty minutes for twenty years. (Uh, I think I just dated myself.)

Tritone (Augmented Fourth/Diminished Fifth) - there are so many in rock. Metalheads should try the main riff of Metallica's "The Frayed Ends Of Sanity" or "Ride The Lightning." Grunge fans can use the first two vocal notes of every verse in Pearl Jam's "Evenflow," or the chorus of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" ("I've got a new complaint...."), or any Stone Temple Pilots song. If you have a hard time with this one, try moving a half-step down from a perfect fifth or a half-step up from a perfect fourth.

You may look at the tunes I've chosen for identifying both notes and intervals and think I've just lost it. Fine. Choose your own. (My apologies to the jazzers and classicists out there - surely I omitted some examples of intervals used famously by folks other than Metallica.) The point is that, unlike true perfect pitch, the poor man's version doesn't have to be for gifted freaks only. By taking a couple of your favorite (or least favorite but instantly recognizable) songs and memorizing just three or four notes, and then doing the same with some intervals, you can not only impress your friends during drunken sessions of "name that note" - you can learn tunes faster on the fly in rehearsals and react more quickly to other bandmates' improvisational whims during gigs. Or, in simpler terms, it'll give you bigger ears. I think if I ran an ad for "Poor Man's Perfect Pitch," that's what it would say: Get Bigger Ears.

But whatever you think of this cockamamie technique, I can assure you of one thing from painful experience - it sure beats advanced solfege.

Reprinted with permission from the May, 2000 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit

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