Q: I recently bought one of your books about ear training entitled Ear Training One Note Complete Method and I'm a bit confused about certain aspects of the method you talk about in the book.
You suggest learning what each of the 12 tones in the octave sounds like instead of "just" learning to recognize intervals because it would allow me to identify the actual pitches (scale degrees in this sense) that someone is playing based on the established key center. You emphasize this to be a major advantage over the traditional methods of pure interval training.
At first read I felt totally convinced about this method and its obvious advantages, but then I started really thinking and discussing. Imagine, a person had learned to recognize and sing all intervals found in our modern Western octave subdivision. Let's apply this fact to the scenario you describe in your book. The band is playing the tonic, in this case the C-major chord (broken up into the bass playing the C, guitar playing the chord voicing, etc.) and now another instrumentalist is playing two notes in a row, E and G. The person obviously would recognize the minor 3rd interval between the two notes as you described in the book. But my point is, wouldn't he recognize the intervalic relation with the root tone C, too? And therefore, know that the instrumentalist played a major 3rd from the root and a then a minor 3rd from the E.
To make this more clear, imagine the instrumentalist just plays the tone E. In this case the person would hear a major 3rd up from the root C, wouldn't he? In my opinion you can always relate any tone to the tonic if you wish to, but that's just one method. For example, you could also relate it to a chord tone or to a previously played tone. Am I wrong?
To clear it up: with interval training I don't think of associating song beginnings or something like that to the sound of the interval. I think of learning and internalizing the sound of each interval. It seems, that there isn't a real difference between my understanding of interval training and your method because you teach to actually internalize the sound of each pitch against a root tone which, I think, is the same thing as how the distance (interval) sounds between the tones (i.e. root -> 5th). It's just another way of describing the same thing, isn't it?
Let's further apply your method to an improvisational scenario. The ability to recognize the pitches another instrumentalist is playing is obviously a good thing, but is it useful at all if you don't know how to play what you've just heard on your own instrument. I think it's also essential to exercise the connection between your musical and your physical mind (actual finger movements). Steve Vai explained a method he used to achieve this in one of his Guitar World columns. He suggested singing along with what you play on the guitar as a way of getting used to the sound your fingers are creating in certain positions. The next logical step then, is to try the opposite and sing a note and then try to replay this note on the guitar. This exercise really trains the connection between your head and your fingers. Of course, in the beginning you would start out within the range of on octave and within a range you could sing effortlessly.
Well, I could continue this for some more hours. Regardless, I really want to thank you for the opportunity to get in touch with you so easily.
A: There are a few problems with your ideas but I'm glad you are thinking this through. First let's look at the idea of checking one interval and relate that interval to the key center. Let's say for argument sake that you know what key you are in.
1. Basically you have to do three calculations. What the interval is of the two notes, Pick one of those notes and then relate it by an interval to the tonic. This process will work but the amount of time it takes to do this makes it impractical because music is going by in real time.
2. The next problem is if you are an improvising musician and you want to improvise over this C E G you are going to then have to analyze this in your mind to figure out which scale degrees are being played and then relate this to a scale or melody to then play over the structure. Not too hard when it's C E G, but what about Gb G Db in the key of Gb.
3. Let's get a little more complicated. This is certainly a situation that applies to almost any piece of music. Suppose the tonic isn't being played and you hear a G played by the bass player and a E and G played by another instrument. Let's say for argument sake that you know the key is C major but remember if you didn't know, your interval method isn't going to help you decide what key your in. Only the type of relative pitch training I suggest will do this. So now you hear your E and G, you know it's a minor third and you pick the bottom note to relate it to.... Well there's a problem; do you relate it to the C or to the G? What if it's a walking bass line changing every beat? You've got a major problem.
Let's say you didn't know what the key was and you heard the same example. Because interval relationships don't tell you the key center only the note relationship, let's say you decide that G is the key. You could still use your system of intervals based on the arbitrary choice of G as the key but is that the key your are hearing or is it C major? How about E minor? If you can't hear what relationship notes have to a key center you are going to have your mind racing around trying to figure out intervals, pick keys relationships based on music theory rather than the musical situation, and THEN try to improvise something meaningful? I think you can see this is not only impractical, it's not the way great improvising musicians hear sound. I know this from teaching and I know this from playing with some of the greatest improvisers in the world. They hear by relating notes to the key, not by interval relationships.
As far as Steve Vai's ear training method goes, I agree that you should sing what you play with or without an instrument. But you should hear the notes you are singing not by the interval relationship of one note to another but by their relationship to the key you are in. There are many interpretations of good ear training exercises and methods. If you really need someone famous to back up my ear training check out the Guitar One Magazine's lesson with Steve Morse where he describes the exact same relative pitch training I recommend.
I hope this is enough for you to see the errors in your reasoning. I've been through these arguments a 1000 times in my head. I learned my intervals perfectly in college and I'm here to tell you it just doesn't work in real time. Yes it does work in a class room were you have the luxury of time to sit and figure this all out in your head. It could work it you only played nursery rhyme songs with simplistic structures. Unfortunately or fortunately music exists in time and most of us including you, I'm sure, like things a little more complicated than "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Hope this helps you understand. Give it some thought and get back to me if you have more questions.