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Hey so I've been in music for about 7 years now and it's gotten to the point where I've developed actual skill. I principle French Horn and second Trumpet (with self taught guitar on the side that started during quarantine) and I'm in High School currently. I remember that when I was "auditioned" by my then band directer he tested me on whether or not I could match pitches on the piano via singing. He played a series of notes and asked me to mimic them (which I assume most people could do) and he insisted I learned French Horn. He said something about needing a good ear and I still haven't really found out what he was talking about (not saying I haven't tried to find out. I've practiced hard due to my parents and even made symphony band freshman year but it still hasn't seemed to come up). Anyway in chorus I'm constantly tested on my call and response and I do well on that too. Also, I can instantly tell if someone is singing out of tune but it's harder for me to tune instruments. Also I'm used for reference in chorus to sing C3 whenever the guys around me need one. But I can't really name notes/chords being played from a piano. I'm also able to snipe out the beginning note in music without hearing it (I found this out during quarantine and remote learning when I didn't need the audio tract to sing the songs. I could just see them and sing them). Usually with the beginning note I sing and key signature I'm able to sing the song np. I can tell when notes don't sound right in instruments but for some reason I can't adjust it. But i think the biggest example comes from my guitar. After hearing a piece I have it memorized and can match it on my guitar (after some fiddling). I just figured those with perfect pitch could do it instantly and even name the notes/chords, but recently I've been wondering if that is because usually they have piano experience, where as I do not. Like maybe this is how they can reference notes and chords and know their names. Like I might've been able to if I started earlier and had teachers/lessons for my guitar.

Anyway I guess I was mostly curious if someone could have perfect pitch and not know it because of a lack of piano experience. Also if it's possible to develop it without piano. Also what was my band director talking about when he said French Horn players need a good ear?

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  • True, a lot of instrumental playing needs 'a good ear', including iolin and French horn, but possessing AP won't necessarily help that. There are many, many musos who have 'a good ear', but not AP.
    – Tim
    Aug 29 '20 at 7:58
  • It's possible to lack a sense of smell without realising it (slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/17/…) - the answer to "is it possible to be different from others in this surprising way" is usually yes. Aug 30 '20 at 8:38
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A few answers:

  1. It's definitely possible for non-musicians to have perfect pitch without being quite aware of it. If one starts to play an instrument, or study music, however, one will quickly become aware of ones abilities and limitations.

  2. About good ear in relation to specific instruments: if you play the piano, you don't need a good ear -- or even any ear at all - to play notes in tune. You press the key and the piano plays the note automatically with the right pitch. On the other hand, on instruments like the French horn or the violin, even playing a single note in tune is already a challenge, not only from the technical point of view (blowing, bowing correctly) but also from the point of view of getting the pitch right. You are not selecting one key out of twelve, you are selecting a precise position from a continuous range of infinite positions. And to do it well, a good musical ear is absolutely necessary. I believe that's what your band director was talking about.

  3. Relative pitch is the awareness of intervals. Everyone has raw relative pitch, otherwise you wouldn't be able to distinguish one melody from another, one song from another. A well educated sense of relative pitch, however, is the result of musical training and practice. For example, hearing a melody and being able to play it right away on your instrument, or looking at some written music and knowing how it's going to sound like. This ability may vary greatly from one musician to another, but each person (musician) usually has a good sense of what they can and cannot do, and so I would say that unlike perfect pitch, which a non-musician may possess without quite realizing it, in case of relative pitch, you usually know where you stand.

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  • 4
    "You press the key and the piano plays the note automatically with the right pitch" dang I wish my school had your pianos. Aug 30 '20 at 2:32
  • @Adam LOL, but you know, actually I was sort of quoting J.S.Bach, who famously said "just press the right key at the right time, and the organ plays itself"
    – MMazzon
    Aug 30 '20 at 16:09
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Perfect (absolute) pitch is the ability to identify heard pitches without a reference pitch.

Relative pitch is the ability to identify heard pitches based on a known reference pitch.

The Levitin Effect is the tendency to remember pieces of music in the correct key, and does not correlate to perfect or relative pitch nor to musical training. For more information, see "Sometimes I naturally sing songs in the right key. Do I have perfect (absolute) pitch?"

A person with perfect pitch knows, without reference, if a solo instrument is playing an individual pitch in tune.1 A person with relative pitch requires a reference pitch to do the same.

Both abilities are unrelated to playing piano, or any instrument. Perfect pitch requires only exposure to pitches and a naming system, but does not necessarily require training beyond that. Relative pitch can be developed through training; there is substantial research regarding whether perfect pitch can be learned.2

As @ToddWilcox says in his answer, you can discover perfect pitch by surprise. You could easily test yourself by having a friend play pitches (singly and in chords) and asking you to name them. (In a chord, you would name the individual pitches; it's not important in this case whether you can name the chord.)

You would have to ask your band director for a definitive answer on what he meant, but I'll speculate it was that French horns often play an inner voice, where picking out one's pitches can be trickier than, say, playing lead trumpet, which often has the melody.


1 It's not uncommon for absolute pitch to go "out of tune" over one's lifetime, which can be a big problem for musicians who rely on it. So, for example, a musician might identify as "B" the same pitch they previously identified as "C". See also "Does perfect (absolute) pitch ever go out of tune?"

2 See, for example:

5
  • Your 4th para. Directly related to OP's question. Someone with AP will only know - if they are a musician. Without knowledge of music, generally on an instrument rather than vox, your statement needs qualifying, I believe.As in, how will someone with AP be able to recognise a certain pitch, if they don't play an instrument, or even know what, for example, a Bb is.
    – Tim
    Aug 29 '20 at 7:55
  • @Tim 4th para, or 5th? (i.e., Are you commenting on "both abilities are unrelated to playing the piano ..."?)
    – Aaron
    Aug 29 '20 at 9:03
  • 4th para. .....
    – Tim
    Aug 29 '20 at 9:05
  • @Tom Got it. I added a sentence to the 5th para, because it seems to fit better. Does that sufficiently address your initial comment?
    – Aaron
    Aug 29 '20 at 9:10
  • Yes, thanks. It came up as it reminded me of a guy with whom I've sung for best part of 60 yrs. He plays no instrument, but I suspect he has AP. I'm trying to find a simple way to prove that, though... He doesn't know an F# from a Bb by name - no real reason why he should.
    – Tim
    Aug 29 '20 at 10:22
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Yes. I taught a student for two years before we figured out he has perfect pitch. He assumed it was nothing unusual - he had no basis for comparison with anyone else’s experience.

Intonation (the tuning of each note to the correct pitch) is notoriously difficult on French horn, and it’s also important. A good ear helps make the French horn an effective and pleasing instrument.

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Yes, it is possible to have not only an absolute pitch, but also any other ability (not limited to music) that you need to train in order to be useful.

You can as well train yourself into determining sizes of objects in metric units within 5% or even 1% of accuracy just by looking at them. You have vision, the rest is training.

What you lack in your case in order to name notes and chords directly is not a piano practice, but Solfège. It is a separate piece of musical education.


I have a homegrown theory about the perfect and the relative pitch that is not supported by any research but by a very basic knowledge of how neural networks (including human brain) and the cochlea in the ears work:

Human ear is by itself an absolute measurement instrument. The brain, otoh, has to be trained to interpret the signals from ears in order to make any use of them (that's how all human senses work).

The relative pitch is actually the harder task in terms of computational load for the neural network, but it is way more important in everyday life, so it emerges first, for most people - well into their first few months. For reasons unknown, some people in the same period (or maybe later) train their brains for absolute pitch also.

Others can be pretty much trained into absolute pitch, given effort and motivation. Those who are not, are left with the "Levitin effect" as an artifact of the internal workings of the human auditory system.

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Of all the band instruments, French Horn is the one where it's most desirable to be able to inwardly 'hear' the required note before playing it. The furthest removed from 'just do the right fingering and blow!'. This is for the simple physical fact that the French Horn has a relatively long tube for the range of notes it usually plays. It's working in a range of harmonics where the notes are close together. Simply put - it's easier to hit a wrong note than on Trumpet, Trombone or Tuba.

I wouldn't worry too much about categorising your undoubted musical skills as 'perfect pitch', 'relative pitch' or anything else. Just be happy that your talent plus your hard work have resulted in a useful degree of musicianship.

If you do want to pin down 'perfect pitch', you don't need a piano. Just, before you've played anything else in a session, choose a note on one of your instruments and sing it before playing it. If you get it right more often than not, it indicates some degree of Perfect Pitch.

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Well, here's something no one likes to hear: "perfect pitch" is either absolute nonsense or a huge misunderstanding, depending on the actual subject.

If you're talking about a someone's ability to tell the exact frequency of a particular sound - that is nonsense. To demonstrate that you simply need to play two distinct frequencies at a distance of 5Hz and see how difficult is to distinguish the two sounds.

If you're talking about someone's ability to identify pitches - i.e. tell if a particular sound matches the frequency of any of the 12 notes in the 12-tone equal temperament - that is a misunderstanding. Firstly, a 12-TET is a relative system dependent on a pitch standard. The adopted pitch standard is A4 (440Hz) which is used to determine the frequencies of each of the notes below and above A4. To be able to point out the exact tone of a sound and specify the octave requires an accuracy equal to that of a tuner - which again is not something a human is capable of. Someone could probably take a guess for frequencies of up to 200Hz or so but there's no way someone could actually correctly identify a note even in that range.

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  • Absolute Pitch is a long-accepted and much-studied phenomenon with a standard definition. It is understood that the phenomenon occurs within the context of a well-defined tuning system.
    – Aaron
    Aug 30 '20 at 1:13
  • Then we're talking about a skill - something which is acquired and refined - not some mystical quality someone might possess without even knowing it. Aug 30 '20 at 4:29
  • It's an inborn ability with much debate about whether it can be learned by those who don't inherently possess it. Research suggests a cognitive component based in early development and possibly a genetic component. It's a skill only in the sense that, say, photographic memory is a skill.
    – Aaron
    Aug 30 '20 at 4:36
  • A skill is something that has been worked on - practised. Absolute pitch is usually something one is born with. Hardly time to practise in the womb... Not sure what the accuracy parameters are for AP, but they must be pretty well spot on, as it appears those with AP are capable of discerning notes, even those 'in the cracks'.
    – Tim
    Aug 30 '20 at 10:37
  • AP does not require complete accuracy of Hz or cents - or even accuracy within +/- 5 Hz or +/-20 cents. All you need is to attach a label on a heard note that the tester agrees with you on.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 30 '20 at 19:46

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