Aural Comprehension: Absolute Versus Relative Pitch

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What are the relative merits and challenges of Absolute Pitch and Relative Pitch?

Absolute Pitch (AP), often called perfect pitch, is the ability to identify a pitch in the absence of any other tonal points of reference. For example, C will always be perceived as C and Eb as Eb, no matter what piece you are playing or what key you are playing in. AP is a rare gift indeed, and for those of us not so endowed, it is a miraculous and humbling thing to witness. According to widely accepted studies, it is estimated that AP is possessed by roughly one in every 10,000 people.

Relative pitch (RP) is the ability to hear musical tones relative to some pitch reference that is within your field of perception. Relative pitch is enabled by our natural ability to perceive harmonic “distance”, consonance, or dissonance in a given musical context. Thus, the sound-feeling of the notes C and Eb always depends on the musical context or what key you are playing in. RP is the way that most of us mere mortals perceive and enjoy music.

There are two classes of relative pitch reference:

  • The prevailing key center Do. This is the purview of Solfege ear training. Solfege only works when an enduring sense of key center provides the harmonic “context”, a context that organizes all the sounds in functional terms relative to a single point of reference Do.
  • Any note currently in your field of perception. This is the purview of Interval Ear Training. Interval ear training does not contradict Solfege. Interval ear training complements Solfege, adding another dimension to your listening skills. This is useful when the tonal center is ambiguous or there is a key change in progress.

Learn More… Is Absolute Pitch a Learn-able Skill?


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