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I'm sure that most musicians have a good sense of relative pitch. Given the name of a well-known song and a starting note, they can sing it in that key, whether or not it is the original key.

I have always assumed until now, that people with perfect-pitch also necessarily have relative pitch.

But is this true?

If it is true then perfect-pitch on its own could be a handicap because such people would be unable to recognise a tune in the "wrong" key and unable to transpose by ear when singing.

Are there people who have perfect pitch only and have no sense of relative pitch whatsoever? How does this affect their musical appreciation and ability?

  • *” If it is true then perfect-pitch on its own could be a handicap because such people would be unable to recognise a tune in the "wrong" key and unable to transpose by ear when singing”. I can’t imagine, that this can be the problem. Maybe we have different concepts of relative pitch. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 13 at 12:15
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    I have perfect pitch, and I've dropped every transposing instrument I play because of it. Transposition is an inconvenient and annoying process where I have to suppress my knowledge that the pitch as written is not what is sounded. So yes it strongly interferes with relative pitch. – obscurans Sep 13 at 17:11
  • I see answers and comments here that don't seem to agree on what "relative pitch" means. Are you asking about the ability to recognize different musical intervals when one hears them? Some people here (e.g., in the comment from @obscurans, above) seem to be talking about how "perfect pitch" impacts one's ability to read music that may be written in a different key from the key in which the instrument actually sounds. – Solomon Slow Sep 14 at 16:13
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    @SolomonSlow I don't see any disagreement? Presumably, you can internalize say Jingle Bells either as a series of specific frequencies (absolute pitch) or as a series of intervals starting from any arbitrary point (relative pitch). For reading, when I (using relative pitch only) read say "middle C" I read a fingering or a piano key, if the sound that comes out is a different pitch I won't even notice. Someone using absolute pitch will presumably react to the written pitch being different than the sound, because they have internalized that "middle C" is 261.6 Hz. – j-g-faustus Sep 15 at 2:35
  • The question makes me wonder how it works, from the example given for relative pitch: I can sing a song and transpose it quite naturally (I have no absolute pitch), even produce a fifth or a third with another singer singing a note (I did choral in the past), but actually it's very hard to impossible to me to tell which interval it is after hearing two notes, except if the melody is simple enough so I can recognize the scale and deduce from it.. strange – Kaddath Sep 15 at 7:42
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I can share two anecdotes that suggest to me that, yes, these are two different skills that unfortunately can lead to someone with absolute pitch having no relative pitch (or at least very under-developed relative pitch).

  1. I've had several students in my conservatory classes that can sing every pitch in a melody perfectly due to their absolute pitch, but then are unable to identify what pitch is tonic. This doesn't immediately answer your question, but it shows that they can sing the pitches perfectly (absolute pitch) while having no idea of how these pitches relate to a tonic (relative pitch).

  2. I recall once showing a friend the horn part to a really famous orchestral work. They had absolute pitch, looked at the score, but then looked back at me confused; they couldn't identify the piece. Only after I told them that it was the horn part (and thus needed to be transposed down a fifth) did they recognize the piece. And they recognized it immediately!

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    I can identify a piece's or musical excerpt's key just by listening to it. I have listened to several passages where I found no tonic. I have read several implications that the kind of absolute pitch that allows the holder to determine the key of music just by listening to it is significantly rarer than the kind of absolute pitch that allows note recognition only. – Dekkadeci Sep 12 at 11:41
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    Another anecdote- my cousin has perfect pitch and had one of his school music exams severely hampered by a badly adjusted tape player ( or a bad tape ) that was slightly off key and left him guessing what the notes were supposed to be. – glenatron Sep 13 at 0:11
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Yes, one can have perfect pitch but not relative pitch.

Here's a question from SE Music Practice and Theory seeking help with exactly that issue: How can I develop relative pitch if I have perfect pitch?

On the research side, the article "Perfect pitch reconsidered" touches on this issue. A quotation from the abstract:

AP [absolute pitch] can interfere with relative pitch.

Another paper, "Perception of Musical Intervals by Absolute Pitch Possessors", further suggests that absolute pitch can directly interfere with the development of relative pitch. Again from the abstract:

These results suggest that AP subjects tend to adhere to AP in relative pitch tasks, and that at least some AP listeners may have developed a strong dependence on AP at the sacrifice of relative pitch. AP may not have any advantage in music, in which relative pitch, not AP, is essential. Rather, AP may conflict with relative pitch and, in some cases, harm musical pitch processing.

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    There was a story on this site recently about a choir that rehearsed a song in a key one semitone low, then when they performed the choirmaster took it back up. But those 'with AP' hit the high note a semitone low, it seems. I don't believe that would happen - BUT - if it did, maybe it proves/disproves this question! Searched, but failed to find the example. – Tim Sep 12 at 6:40
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    @Tim Feature request: Add a "flag for hilarity" for comments. If that story pops up, please post. – Aaron Sep 12 at 6:43
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    @Tim was it the one about "absolute memory for pitch", maybe? You can imagine how that would interfere in that situation even for people without AP... – Luke Sawczak Sep 12 at 12:22
  • @LukeSawczak - no, actually, I cannot. I play and sing things in different keys (for the same songs) and can't imagine singing notes from one key that belong in another, if that makes sense. Once I'm in a key, I'm in a key! That's relative pitch. But don't see why AP should affect songs. – Tim Sep 12 at 13:23
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    @Tim Perhaps I should have said "reason" rather than "imagine" :p I meant that going by the supposition of this question and of the anecdote — that absolute pitch could be to the detriment of relative pitch, and thus make it harder to stay in a different key than you're used to — the interference could just as easily come from not being able to un-remember a pitch you've sung a hundred times as from conceiving of a song as being a series of absolute pitches. – Luke Sawczak Sep 12 at 15:09
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I can answer this question first hand.

I have absolute pitch. It used to be very close to "perfect pitch", although it has degraded a little as I have got older.

I do not have any sense of relative pitch whatsoever.

This used to confuse my father, who had a very fine sense of relative pitch, and did not have absolute pitch. He tried to develop my sense of relative pitch, by quizzing me with the piano. He would play two notes, then ask me what the interval between them was. My thought processes would be something like "let's see, the first one was C#, and the second one was F#, so that's, umm, (counting on my fingers), umm, a perfect fourth, right Dad?" He could never understand why I couldn't hear immediately that it was a perfect fourth, like he could.

If I quizzed him in the same kind of way, I couldn't understand how he could know what the interval was, without knowing what the two notes were.

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    This is a very interesting answer. As a result, I intend to ask another, more specific question about these phenomena. I hope you will answer amongst others. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 13 at 10:55
  • So you mean I'm not alone in having to figure out intervals by counting semitones on my fingers? :) – F.X. Sep 14 at 9:51
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I guess that relative pitch is somehow a compensation for the lack of perfect pitch. Maybe like a blind person has much more kinesthetic sensory or spatial orientation, better hearing, and is able to learn to read braille while for seeing people have mor problems with it.

This would explain my theory that perfect pitch can be an obstacle for learning relative pitch, which must have been trained and built up carefully in little modules of melodic elements.

Edit: relative pitch is concerning the tones and notes relative to each other. This is what we mean with ear-training and solfege. For people gifted with perfect pitch this p.p seems to be an advantage in the eyes of others, but it can be also an obstacle.

The ability to imitate a melody is not the same like relative pitch!

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  • I don't understand your comment about "learning relative pitch". As a child I could be taught a melody and immediately recognise it in any key whatsoever. I didn't have to learn in little modules. Only later, when I learned theory, did I even realise that there were such things as "keys" and that they were distinctive in some way. Note: I have a limited ability to recognise notes if they are used at the beginning of a well-known song. I don't necessarily know the names of them unless I happen to know what key the song is in - e.g. by seeing the sheet music. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 13 at 11:00
  • Learning relative pitch is actually the method for learning sight reading: Your example of the beginning of well-known songs is exactly what I mean by little modules. Some people can distinguish and identify intervals by their tension (consonance/dissonance. Most of all I know (thousands of pupils) were only able by learning by modules. Of course most of us are able to sing a melody ... but this isn’t what I am speaking about: solfege, singing from notes, reading sheet music, writing down a tune or chord progression. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 13 at 12:00
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    - I don't think we are disagreeing about facts necessarily. It's more a matter of terminology. Maybe I'll research the the vocabulary a little. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 13 at 12:11
  • Edit:: thousands of pupils is exaggerating. * Hundreds ... would be more correctly ;) – Albrecht Hügli Sep 13 at 12:33
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Human ears are by themselves an absolute pitch sensor. Sort of. Every hair cell in the cochlea resonates in a given (narrow) frequency band and fires its very specific neurons.

The brain, OTOH, has to learn at early age (and/or improve later, given training and motivation) how to understand the neural pulses coming from the ear. The absolute pitch is the easier task, but is (for most people) less useful in everyday life, so less people develop it.

So yes, given the right conditions (and luck) one can develop a relative pitch, an absolute pitch, both, or neither.

I personally know all the four kinds of people.

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Perfect pitch without relative pitch may by possible in theory, but not in practice.

Possible in theory means that, for example, a very young child may instinctively possess perfect pitch, but have not been exposed to music, and therefore have no sense of scales, melodies, etc. Or you may imagine an adult with similar talents -- inborn perfect pitch -- but who has lived all their life in a society where music doesn't exist. Under such circumstances you may say they have perfect pitch but zero relative pitch.

In practice, however, anyone who lives in our society is highly exposed to music, scales, and melodies, and as soon as these organized sounds start to hit your sense of hearing, relative pitch is automatically awakened and stimulated to grow.

Now, not all have an educated relative pitch, i.e. not all can name intervals and transcribe music by ear, but everyone, even non-musicians, can tell, for example, if you are playing a major scale from bottom to top or top to bottom. This means everyone have relative pitch in raw form. Without relative pitch you wouldn't be able to even tell that a melody is going up instead of going down, and everyone can tell that.

And not only that, but even non-musicians can tell, for example, is someone is singing a little out of tune. Detune one string of your guitar by 20 cents and play it -- even a non musician will know that something is wrong. Play an Arab scale (i.e. which doesn't use tempered tuning) to a non musician who has only been exposed to Western music, and they will instantly know that something is "wrong" there! All of that proves that even non-musicians have in fact a rather fine, micro-tonal sense of relative pitch, simply from hearing music in the background often enough.

And if that's true of non-musicians, in the case of musicians, even if one never deliberately did any form of ear training, it would be impossible to end up with complete ignorance of those intervals and melodic structures that are the building blocks of everything you do.

Bottom line, just being exposed to any music that is based on any systematic intervals structure (as opposed to, say, singing of birds or pitch changes in human voices) inevitably results in your brain internalizing that system of intervals to a rather precise and deep level. And that's why I submit that perfect pitch without relative pitch may exist in theory, but never in practice.

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    Logical answer. Note on "everyone can tell that" - in the example of playing a whole scale top to bottom or reverse, sure. But reduce the data to just a pair of pitches, and it's interesting how some people have difficulty telling whether the second went up or down. Sometimes if such a pair is surrounded by other instruments or it's a harmonic-heavy investment, I find it hard. – Luke Sawczak Sep 12 at 12:20
  • @Luke True, a lot of (untrained) people can't tell which of two pitches is higher. I clearly remember having this difficulty myself, when as a child I tried to tune a guitar for the first time, and I could not tell whether the string had a higher or lower pitch than the pitch pipe, Interestingly, at the same age I was also able to memorize a whole song from TV and sing it back pitch perfect (or so my parents claim, I only have vague memories), So it's true that for some reason comparing two pitches is harder than we'd guess at first -- and that's why I used a up/dn scale to make the point :) – MMazzon Sep 12 at 12:54
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    I think you're unduly stretching the meaning of "relative pitch" to mean "ability to sense changes in pitch". Relative pitch is more specific: the ability to specifically identify intervals aurally. – Aaron Sep 12 at 18:34
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    "Detune one string of your guitar by 20 cents and play it -- even a non musician will know that something is wrong". Well, no. I've spent a few years trying to play guitar. I didn't bother to tune it, because it all sounded the same to be. – Eric Duminil Sep 13 at 0:14
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    This answer is contradicted by my own personal experience, as described in my answer. – Dawood ibn Kareem Sep 13 at 5:15
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This is personally a very interesting subject. Although I was taught (where and when has been long forgotten) that perfect pitch was a genetic trait, I have concluded that it can also be learned. (In this case "perfect pitch" was vaguely defined as being able to recognize that a note was off-key, or being able to "carry a tune.") Like many I grew up listening to western music played on a tempered scale, and since I could always impress my trombone instructor with my ability to please the Strobotuner which was placed where I couldn't see it I had assumed I had this genetic trait. But I wondered why I could never identify a note I had heard, or the key of a song. And improvising Jazz-style was always beyond me - it was too hard to figure out which notes would be in the same key. Later when I learned about the origins of the tempered scale and that the 12-note octave was not universal I began to wonder why a genetic trait would favor this particular construct. Then, even later after extended exposure to non-western music based on different scales I found I could no longer do so well with the Strobotuner, and actually was consistently off with certain notes. Another decade of listening to western music later I can once again do well against modern descendants of the Strobotuner. To me this implies that my pitch abilities are based on a learned catalog of appropriate tones. This would also imply that I should be able to learn to identify notes, however although I have spent some time with the piano trying to teach myself this, I have not been successful. Maybe I have just not spent enough time on it, or maybe there is some underlying genetic trait I am lacking. (For what its worth I cannot roll my tongue, which my musician dad believed was a genetic trait possibly related to the "perfect pitch" trait. Note that none of this has been updated according to modern understanding of the human chromosome.)

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Yes, it is possible to have perfect pitch but no sense of relative pitch. I have experienced it when taking AP Music Theory class last year. Because I have perfect pitch, I can immediately recognize any pitch given. However, we are supposed to catch differences between the audio recording of the music and the music score. However, it was all transposed, but I can't hear many of the differences, because, for example, the score wrote A♭-D♭ and the actual sound was C-F#, I couldn't tell the difference easily. However, if played A♭-D, I could easily tell the difference.

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I would say yes absolutely. Relative pitch always comes from training. Perfect pitch is something you can be either maybe born with or subtly trained at in a young age to get. The topic is realy confusing because of similar terms and people meaning different things.

Perfect pitch is something you get when you were younger than seven or you’re born with it, or maybe some sort of breed of the two. Relative pitch is gained by practice like anybody does as they learn music. Your relative pitch can become so good that for all intents and purposes you have perfect pitch. For example someone like this could hit a note on a piano at the beginning of the day and essentially have perfect pitch for the rest of the day, because they’re practicing or answering questions or playing notes on instruments throughout the day and the relative pitch is really strong.

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