Perfect pitch and relative pitch

Perfect pitch and relative pitch are both related to the ability to identify and produce musical notes, but they refer to different skills.

What are perfect pitch and relative pitch?

perfectpitch relativepitchPerfect pitch

Perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, is the ability to identify or produce a specific musical note without any reference point. People with perfect pitch can identify a note just by hearing it or produce a note without any external reference, such as a tuning fork or another instrument. For example, someone with perfect pitch could identify that a particular sound is a C# note without having to compare it to any other note or reference point. 

Relative pitch

Relative pitch, on the other hand, is the ability to identify or produce a musical note in relation to other notes. This means that someone with relative pitch can identify a note by hearing it in the context of a melody or chord progression. They can also produce a note by knowing the interval relationship between the note they want to produce and a reference note. For example, someone with relative pitch could identify that a particular note is a C# because it is a half step above a C note, or they could produce a C# by starting on a C note and moving up a half step.

In short, perfect pitch is the ability to identify or produce a specific musical note without any reference, while relative pitch is the ability to identify or produce a note in relation to other notes.

Are perfect pitch and relative pitch useful for musician?

Both perfect pitch and relative pitch can be useful for musicians, but relative pitch is generally considered more useful in most musical contexts. 

Relative pitch is essential for playing music in an ensemble, where musicians need to listen to each other and stay in tune with each other. It helps musicians to understand the relationships between different notes, chords, and melodies, and to make adjustments to their pitch and tuning based on what they hear.

Perfect pitch, on the other hand, is less essential in most musical contexts, as it is a less common skill and not always necessary for playing music. While perfect pitch can be useful for transcribing music or composing melodies in your head, it is not essential for most musical activities and even has some drawbacks:

  • Dependency on a specific pitch: Musicians with perfect pitch may become overly dependent on the pitch reference of an instrument or tuning device, making it more difficult for them to play in alternate tunings or with other musicians who may be tuned differently.
  • Inflexibility in transposition: Transposing music to different keys may be more difficult for those with perfect pitch, as they may have difficulty thinking of the notes in terms of their relationship to the new key.
  • Difficulty with relative pitch: Some musicians with perfect pitch may have difficulty developing their relative pitch, since they are not used to thinking of notes in terms of their relationship to each other.
  • Extreme perfectionism: Musicians with perfect pitch may be more prone to extreme degrees of perfectionism, since they have a heightened sensitivity to pitch and may be more critical of even slight pitch deviations.
  • Distraction: Perfect pitch can sometimes be a distraction when listening to music, since the musician may be more focused on identifying the pitches rather than enjoying the music as a whole.

It's worth noting that not all musicians with perfect pitch experience these disadvantages, and some may even find that their perfect pitch enhances their musicianship in various ways. However, it's important for musicians with perfect pitch to be aware of these potential drawbacks and work to develop their relative pitch skills as well.

Are perfect pitch and relative pitch taught at music schools?

Perfect pitch is not typically taught as a part of most music school curriculums, as it is generally considered to be a rare and innate ability that is difficult to teach. However, most music schools offer ear training and sight-singing classes that focus on developing relative pitch skills, which is helpful for all musicians, including those with perfect pitch. There are also some methods and exercises that might help to develop perfect pitch or enhance existing perfect pitch skills, but these are not widely taught in music schools and are often pursued independently by individual musicians. Some musicians may also develop perfect pitch on their own without any formal training or instruction.

Why is relative pith a desirable skills for musicians?

  • Transposition: Musicians with good relative pitch can easily transpose music to different keys, which is useful when performing with other musicians or when adapting music to better suit a particular vocalist or instrumentalist.
  • Improvisation: Strong relative pitch skills can help musicians to improvise and compose music more easily, since they can easily recognize and manipulate the different relationships between notes, chords, and melodies.
  • Ear Training: Developing relative pitch skills can help musicians to improve their overall ear training abilities, making it easier to identify and reproduce different intervals, chords, and melodies.
  • Tuning: Relative pitch skills can also help musicians to better tune their instruments, since they can more easily identify when a note is out of tune and make adjustments accordingly.
  • Playing in an ensemble: Strong relative pitch skills are essential for playing in an ensemble, since they allow musicians to better listen and respond to each other's playing, and stay in tune with each other.

Music starts when tones are combined together to create melodies and harmonies, and it is that very relationship between the tones that makes music. The art of understanding the relationship between notes is provided by relative pitch. Perfect pitch is highly regarded by the general public because of its name ('perfect' must be good, right?), but what serious musicians, including those with perfect pitch skills, actually train and use are their relative pitch skills. Why? Because if a song is played in another key, they may transpose everything easily. Because if the grand finale of a song is ending up in a long improvisation, all the musicians with good relative pitch skills will be able to interact together, to sing or play melodic phrases back to each other, to improvise on the same scales and modes, because if a different tuning than the one you're used to is used for a specific concert, you will be able to instantly adapt to it, etc.

In summary, having strong relative pitch skills is extremely beneficial for musicians. It gives you access to transposition, improvisation, better tuning, better ensemble playing and more generally better musical skills. 

Using Apps and Software like EarMaster to develop pitch skills

An app for ear training, or aural training, and sight-singing practice like EarMaster is very useful for developing pitch skills, as it provides a wide variety of exercises and tools that can be used at any time and at the user's own pace. This makes it a convenient option for musicians and music students with busy schedules. Additionally, EarMaster provides a structured and comprehensive approach to ear training, which is especially useful for musicians and students who are just starting to develop their pitch skills. For more advanced users and students the convenience of an app that provides instant feedback on pitch and rhythmic accuracy caters for unlimited training opportunities at home, in the train, the bus or the subway, in-between classes, while sitting backstage, etc. 

Notice that even though an app like EarMaster is an extremely useful practice tool, they are not a substitute for practicing with real instruments and playing in a real ensemble. It's important for musicians to also practice their pitch skills in real-world situations to fully develop their abilities.