How I learned to speak with notes: Melody

A personal recounting of relative pitch: Part 1

As a 6-year old learning to sing, I was first taught the 7 basic notes of Indian classical music: Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni. This roughly corresponds to the western major scale, C Major for instance. In no time, I was able to go up and down these notes with ease. It became like a song. I didn’t think of the individual notes. I just knew the melody of the up-and-down sequence of notes.

It all seemed very easy until my teacher began to include variations like SaGa, ReMa, GaPa… or SaReMa, ReGaPa… There were many such variations and soon my mind was boggled by the sheer number. They weren’t too hard individually but it did become a chore to learn so many different tunes, as I thought of them.

I was also playing the harmonium as I sang and I noticed that on the harmonium, I could visualise these “tunes” as patterns and jumps between notes. So while it might be easier to learn these variations or paltas, as they are called, by thinking of them as songs, it might be better in the long run to understand the smaller patterns nested within. So SaGa wasn’t just that but it was the sound of two notes sung while a note between them was skipped. I didn’t realise at the time that SaGa and ReMa had very different characteristics even though the pattern was the same. Regardless, this way of thinking still managed to prove useful to me somehow and gave me a better grasp of the notes.

As time passed, I had a very good idea of the sound of Ga or Ma or any other individual note. This was evidenced by my being able to accompany any singer on the harmonium with my improvisations.

I wish I had known that I had learned this much at such a young age.

When we moved to Rajasthan and couldn’t find a music teacher close to home, I practically gave up singing for 3 years. My skills faded away as a result of this long hiatus.

When I began singing in Bangalore again, I found it much more difficult to comprehend music, and I wished I hadn’t stopped for a single day. That’s how it is with wishful thinking. For the next few years, I receded from the music world from disinterest and lack of motivation. That was until I picked up the guitar just before leaving for college.

I told myself that I’d do whatever it took to learn music well. Despite my determination, I did it all wrong for the next few years until I realised that I had hardly improved my melodic and harmonic ability. Consequently, I slumped into playing the guitar less than an hour a month. Apparently, I hadn’t learned much from the past.

I think you know what happened next — I decided that I’d get my act right once and for all. To kill the suspense, I can tell you that fortunately, this time it all worked out well.

So what did I do differently other than not giving up?

I realised what I needed to develop: relative pitch. The ability to identify notes in relation to other notes.

Relative pitch is like identifying your one hand from the other, while always knowing that they’re both your hands in relation to your body. The pitches and the relations among them — both are important to perceive.

I started with something called interval training. It’s the musical equivalent of something like high-kick training in martial arts. It is serious. It is intense. It is repetitive. You need patience and will-power. At least I did.

Essentially, any combination of two notes will have a certain sound to them that sets them apart. Now some sounds can be very similar, like Sa to Re and Re to Ga, but they’re both different from the sound of Ga to Ma. Actually, I should probably explain this in a western classical context to make it clearer.

There are 12 notes commonly used in western music.

[For those interested: There’s A, B, C, D, E, F and G. These are all the white keys on a piano. The black keys are A-sharp, C-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp and G-sharp. Observe how there’s no B-sharp or E-sharp in this naming scheme. Now there’s another naming scheme for these notes that lists them as B-flat, D-flat, E-flat, G-flat and A-flat. There’s no C-flat or F-flat. Sharp means to increase by one and flat means decreasing by one. So A-sharp is one note to the right of A and B-flat is one note to the left of B, and both these names, A-sharp and B-flat, represent the same note, the note between A and B]

To keep it simple, I’m avoiding the traditional western naming system entirely. Let’s just use the numbers 1 to 12. So something like {Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa} will correspond to {1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1}. These are the numbers the to which the notes correspond (The numbers that are skipped correspond to other notes that you’ll see shortly). With numbers, you can easily see that Sa to Re is a difference of 2, just like Re to Ga, but Ga to Ma is only a difference of 1. An interval is analogous to the distance between two numbers — their difference. When we hear two notes together, though, we don’t hear it as a mathematical difference, but as a specific resonance.

Interval training is a fancy way of saying that you’re learning to identify different types of resonances. It’s like learning words in a new language so that when someone talks to you in that language, you can recognise the words they’re using and derive meaning from it. Developing the ability to identify intervals would crystallise my perception of the relations among notes.

If there are so many types of intervals, then it makes sense to name them to make life easier. Let me start with the two intervals we already know. The smallest interval, like Ga-Ma or Ni-Sa, is called a minor second interval corresponding to a difference of 1. A difference of 2, like Re-Ga, Sa-Re or Dha-Ni is called a major second. If you look at all the combinations of notes in the major scale from Sa to the next Sa, you’ll get to hear all 12 types of intervals, ranging from unison (same note, difference of 0) to eighth (or octave, difference of 12). You can go higher till you reach the interval of a thirteenth, by which point you might want to run away.

The point here is that you can hear the difference between two notes. No matter what the two notes are specifically, you can tell the difference by the quality of sound. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s incredible. If you play two notes, on frets 1 and 5 of the topmost string on a guitar, and then play frets 4 and 8 on the same string, you can tell, only by listening to the sound of the notes, that the interval between the two notes is exactly the same. That we’re even capable of this kind of skill is a real gift of evolution.

I was practicing intervals on the guitar and using interval training apps for a few months but what really helped is relating intervals to songs. So the unforgettable Jaws theme is a bunch of minor second intervals one after the other, Beethoven’s genius Fifth Symphony starts off with a major third, the first two notes of the catchy Simpsons theme form an augmented fourth, and when Chris Martin of Coldplay starts of the song Fix You with “When you try your best…” he does it with a major sixth interval.

It wasn’t long before I could easily name any interval within an octave. It didn’t matter if two notes were played in succession or together or in the opposite direction sequentially — the interval remained the same to my ears and I could recognise it in a split second.

There was a problem though. I had divorced my intensive training from the reality of music played in practice. It felt like being able to basketball tricks on the court but never being able to score a basket. I knew all about the note relationships but I didn’t know anything about the notes themselves.

I did what I usually do when I hit a brick wall in music. I went back to my roots — Hindustani classical music. I thought about how I used to be able to recognise each note in relation to Sa. I could somehow recognise Pa, Ga or any other note with the ease only a child can have. I wanted that feeling back so badly. I knew I had to get into my head and pull that ability back to the surface to have any hope of really being able to understand pitches.

I knew intervals now. So I could name pitch differences between any two notes. When it came to Indian classical music, the reference note is fixed. Everything is seen in relation to Sa. The syllable Sa itself is derived from the word Shadaj (Shat + Aj in Sanskrit) — “from which the six are born”, a reference to the other six notes of the scale being born from Sa.

I thought that all I needed to do was apply my interval training to one reference note instead of it being any random note. It seemed like my problem had become 12 times simpler.

Not so. As always, I was wrong to underestimate the difficulty of what lay ahead.

Until then, I had been learning to think in terms of pitch differences. What I actually needed to do now was think in terms of the pitches (or svarasthanas) themselves. This was a vastly different scenario for which none of my training had prepared me.

It felt like starting from scratch. The only thing I had going for me was that I could identify Pa and Re with relative ease. The other notes though — I was clueless. I marvelled at how I had even managed to play in bands all these years if my listening skills were so abominable the whole time.

I should mention one other thing about notes in an octave. If you recall, I had said earlier that {Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa} corresponds to {1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1}. The numbers we’ve skipped also correspond to notes.

2 is what we call Komal Re, 4 is Komal Ga, 7 is Tivra Ma, 9 is Komal Dha and 11 is Komal Ni. Not too hard to remember. Except Tivra Ma, which is one note higher than regular Ma, all other notes are one less than their namesake notes with Komal added to the front.

I had used all these notes in my interval training months, but I was seeing everything as differences in pitch back then. The addition of one reference Sa had changed the whole game. I still needed to identify resonances but I needed to map these to specific pitches and not to the pitch differences. It’s a very subtle change but with very large consequences.

And so began my real relative pitch training — interval training in the context of Sa. It was not a simplification of interval training but an increase in the number of things I had to keep track of. With time, practice and some much needed luck, I was able to see the faintest glimmer of results. This was after two or three months of daily practice, though, and I began to grow impatient with the rate of progress. This pushed me to try anything I could get my hands on so I’d be able to internalise all the notes.

The one change I made in my approach that got me the best results came as a surprise even to me. I had earlier read, how in ancient Indian lore, each note was associated with the characteristic call of an animal:

  • Sa — Peacock
  • Re — Bull
  • Ga — Goat
  • Ma — Heron
  • Pa — Nightingale
  • Dha — Horse
  • Ni — Elephant

One day, while sitting in my room with the sound of the tanpura, I was humming the notes and trying to remember their sound when, out of nowhere, the image of a goat bleating suddenly hit my consciousness when I sang Ga. I didn’t know whether to be amused or excited that I could somehow relate Ga to the bleating. Regardless, I pushed on and kept singing Ga for the next 20 minutes with this absurd association.

After that one session, I never forgot Ga.

I tried this on every other note, going slowly and deliberately. The next note to register in my mind was Ni, the trumpeting of an elephant, followed by Dha, the neighing of a horse. Soon, in a matter of few weeks, I had all the notes down and could recollect each of them with a bit of mental effort. Finally, through struggle and desperation, I had understood both pitches and pitch relationships.

This remarkable and seemingly implausible connection between notes and sentient beings is the reason I have my sense of relative pitch. If not for this, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to master the skill.

There are two ways to rationalise this approach. One, that the sounds of these animals closely imitate the harmonic resonances that we get when we sing the notes in the context of Sa. I think this is what allowed me to relate both these disparate domains at first. Secondly, when we make associations between things, the related neural pathways become stronger with repetition. This has been something all memory and learning experts suggest: associate everything and you will learn and remember better. Relating the sound of a note to an animal makes recollection easier than just blindly groping in the dark and memorising by rote, or in this case, memorising by note.

Whatever the reasons, here I am, with deep gratitude for having been able to experience this. This was truly the watershed moment in my relative pitch development, and with some nurture, I’ve used the skills I developed in those few weeks to experience almost all the music I hear.

This opened my mind to perceive music in a radically different way. Not only could I hear the sounds, but I could also hear a language now, with which musicians were trying to communicate with me. Likewise, I could communicate using this language — a language that I still continue to learn.

I remember meeting one of my musician friends after a long time and telling him about why he should improve his relative pitch. I told him that he’d understand the feeling that lay inside every note and every combination of notes once he perceived music this way. To demonstrate to him how powerful this could be, I sang Someone Like You by Adele while using the note names as lyrics. I was naming and singing the notes in real-time, without any prior preparation! I first sang the intro piano part as:

SaGaPaGa SaGaPaGa SaGaPaGa SaGaPaGa

NiGaPaGa NiGaPaGa NiGaPaGa NiGaPaGa

DhaGaDhaGa DhaGaDhaGa DhaGaDhaGa DhaGaDhaGa

SaMaDhaMa SaMaDhaMa SaMaDhaMa SaMaDhaMa

and then I went on to “transcribe” all the vocal lines.

My friend was rooted to the spot and just said, ‘Wow!’ That encounter inspired him to develop relative pitch too, with the result that he too, sees music in a completely different way than before. Hopefully, you’ll try your hand at this too and experience the difference.

The benefits trickled over into all my areas of musical expression. Instead of seeing instruments as external objects that were time-consuming and hard to learn about, I saw them as unique voices I could adopt. I only needed a basic overview of the locations of notes on the instrument (and this takes only 15 minutes the first time you pick up an instrument) and because I had internalised all the notes, I just needed to “sing” with the instrument, like I would with my voice. I don’t need to constantly think about adjusting vocal cord tension when I sing…I just sing. I could do the same with instruments.

When it came to composition, I could place all the notes in my head, examine the feeling and thought that each generated, try out different melodies and see why something felt the way it did. I could listen to songs while really understanding why a musician did what he was doing. I could use all that I learned from this kind of listening by extracting lessons from song fragments. I began to see, identify and name patterns in songs and relate them to mood, emotion and thought.

Best of all, I used the method of association to learn any skill I wanted very quickly. Whether it was swimming, juggling or chess, I had a fantastic tool which helped me learn new skills with ridiculous rapidity and ease, and many of those times, the thing I used for association, was sound.


Continue to Part 2 >>>

Around Sound turns my personal experiences with music, both as a musician and as a listener, into stories.

Follow my 4-part series on rhythm (How I improved my sense of rhythm: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) to read about my journey through the world of rhythm. As an added benefit, you can improve your sense of rhythm too :)

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How I use music to remember phone numbers or The Voice of a Story

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