“Perfect” Pitch

Absolute pitch, often called perfect pitch, refers to the ability to name pitches you hear without reference to an instrument. It’s a really cool and useful ability, and some aural skills teachers explicitly seek to teach it. Unfortunately, while there’s some debate, most of the research on the subject seems to suggest that after childhood it’s not possible to develop extensive absolute pitch. Fortunately, you don’t need absolute pitch to be successful as a musician.

Absolute pitch either comes in different varieties or, maybe, exists on a spectrum. Some people are extremely accurate and quick at naming any pitch at any time. Other people are great with the “white notes” of the piano but a little slower and less accurate with the “black notes.” Others can identify the open strings of the guitar, or the orchestral tuning A of an oboe. Others, even without musical training, can’t necessarily name pitches but can sing our favorite songs at or very close to the pitch level we’ve learned them at from recordings.

People with absolute pitch should celebrate the ability, because it really is useful. But there are also good reasons to develop other ways of hearing. For example, sometimes a choir goes flat, or a Baroque ensemble uses a different tuning standard, or a string quartet adjusts the tuning of individual notes to make them more expressive, or a pop song is tuned a quarter-tone up because it improves the “sound”; in these situations, it’s nice to be able to hear the relationships among notes rather than identifying each one. Many people with absolute pitch also find part of their range seems to “shift” at some point in middle age, making it more challenging or even sometimes unpleasant to rely on at this point. And hearing relationships between musical tones is just such an important listening skill that it’s worth learning for its own sake.

Fortunately, you can definitely learn relative pitch—that is, the skill of identifying how pitches relate to each other in some way. This is helpful as an additional, complementary skill for people with absolute pitch, and it’s probably the best way for people without absolute pitch to learn to hear music in more detail. This is the approach we take in this text—listening for relationships, particularly within a key but also in intervals and triads.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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