I often come across accomplished musicians with good relative pitch (can figure out melodies, chord progressions) beating themselves up for not having absolute pitch. In general, reading people's writings on Western music leave me with the impression that absolute pitch is the Holy Grail of aural skills.

Why is this? Unless you want to play atonal music by ear, isn't relative pitch good for everything else?

(Here, I am referring to the ability to give a note name to a frequency. There are other skills like pitch resolution - i.e. figuring out the names to many notes played simultaneously, and aural memory - i.e. being able to reproduce music of varying complexity after hearing it a certain number of times, but those seem like skills that someone with relative pitch can also possess.)

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    Not even sure it is. More like a bete noir to a lot of folk who have it, it seems. – Tim Apr 12 at 13:24
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    You should be able to recognize pitches, chords and scales when done with any sort of conserve training. Scales, chords, intervals and pitches all have unique sounds, it is not that hard to learn to recognize them – Neil Meyer Apr 12 at 14:13
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    @NeilMeyer - what kind of chords, what sort of scales, absolutely. But pitches? Relative, yes, but even having training doesn't endow one with absolute pitch. Seems it's something on either has or has not. Are you saying that we ought to be able to tell an E from an F note if we went to a Conservatoire? I disagree! – Tim Apr 12 at 15:15
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    In my experience, good musicians with well trained RP are not annoyed by the fact that they don't have AP; yes, sometimes it is useful and in those moments we (me being one of them) could momentarily think "oh, if I had...". But, actually, there are often more benefits from RP than downsides. On the contrary, some AP people I met are actually annoyed by it, as it can become a huge limitation if not properly trained (esp. for transposition or using different tunings). And, well, I also met some that, because of their view on how "wonderful" AP is, are actually annoying people ;-) – musicamante Apr 12 at 15:32
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    I don't think I've ever heard any "accomplished musicians with good relative pitch beating themselves up for not having absolute pitch", but I have heard many many beginners wishing they had it because it seems to them like a superpower that allows them to play anything just by hearing... – Edward Apr 12 at 21:55

I think you're attacking a straw man here. Yes, good aural skills are very important to a musician. But in 65-odd years of dealing with musicians - and striving towards becoming one - I've never experienced such a yearning expressed by myself or others.

Of course, good 'relative pitch' DOES enable atonal sight-singing. Once a reference pitch is established, I (like any trained musician) can sing any interval, not just the 'easy' ones.

And some degree of perfect pitch does develop in many musicians. I personally find it very hard to play a keyboard with a transposition function switched in. Which is a nuisance, as this ought to be a boon to an accompanist! When I play and the 'wrong' pitches come out, it can quite throw me. (Hey! Perhaps I DO have perfect pitch!)

When I was at college, we were required to transcribe a passage of 'atonal' 4-part harmony. Those of us with some jazz experience often found ourselves recognising patterns that the pure classicists heard as random dissonance. That's the trouble with atonal music - tonal keeps catching up with it!

  • Anyone care to justify the dv? – Tim Apr 12 at 15:16
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    @Tim Instead of providing an answer to this interesting question, it's frame-challenge that uses one anecdotal piece of evidence to try to disprove the entire premise of a question. Don't ask me, because I'm not the person who downvoted it, but if I had, that would have been my explanation. – user45266 Apr 12 at 16:10
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    @user45266 - sheer supposition, which is all any of us could provide. Pity though, as with a posted reason, we could all attempt to understand. My perennial moan... – Tim Apr 12 at 17:01
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    A question based on an incorrect premise is valid. But it must be accepted that refuting the premise is a full and sufficient answer! The only 'answer' to 'Why is the sky green?' is 'It isn't!' – Laurence Payne Apr 13 at 12:18
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    Confusion between absolute pitch and relative pitch I think. The latter is completely trainable. – Laurence Payne Apr 13 at 15:53

You are right. Someone with a 'good ear' can certainly achieve great abilities with practise and experience. There is a downside to having perfect pitch for sure. When playing (or listening to) say Baroque music, especially in period performance groups, the pitch can be quite a lot lower than the usual A 440. This can be excruciating for someone with perfect pitch.

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