Original: I have been trying to improve my pitch identification. I managed to improve it to within maybe +-5 semitones of a random note on the piano so I usually get to the right one on maybe the third try or something. Unfortunately it seems like I only remember the pitch half a minute or something, so I suspect it only enters my short term memory. Any tips how to persist it to long term memory?

Version 2 after discussion: I realized identifying sounds, reproducing sounds, or producing appropriate sounds might be different things.

So new question: how to improve ability to quickly play along music. Specifically in a folk music setting where you might listen to and peek at others.

  • 1
    Does one of these answer your question? music.stackexchange.com/questions/41687/… music.stackexchange.com/questions/74260/… (And, note music.stackexchange.com/a/46376/78419 : Why do you want to be able to identify pitches?) Oct 6 '21 at 20:52
  • I tried making my own solfege (luckily we have three extra vocals in sweden) but the colors were new. Noone seemed to know how to get it into long term memory in the best way in the answers you showed. I have problems with playing along / simon says kind of thing where you in a few seconds have to jump in with a group of players and start playing so I want/need to get a whole lot better at hearing the pitches. This seems/is(?) super common in folk music settings, you have to repeat a song pretty much at once...
    – Emil
    Oct 7 '21 at 6:42
  • It could also be me not knowing the piano/fingerboard well enough I guess. Not sure where the difference between identification and reproduction is.
    – Emil
    Oct 7 '21 at 7:06
  • Oh, one more question: you mention "piano/fingerboard." What are your primary instruments? Yes, it would be good to develop these skills in the abstract and be able to apply them to any instrument, but the fluency and familiarity of your "primary" will be the best entry point. Oct 7 '21 at 12:47
  • Thanks for clarifying the context and goals that you're thinking about. It would be great to edit them into the original question to make it clear that you're not just looking to gain the parlor-trick skill of hearing a single note and saying "that's an A," but looking for practical application. Oct 7 '21 at 12:50

For the purposes you are considering, I really don't think achieving absolute (perfect) pitch is your aim. That apart, it is something one's born with, or takes literally years to achieve. 10 yrs on, I usually get within a semitone, tone on a bad day, but that's still no great help for anything!

Relative pitch is going to be far more useful to you. That means you hear a note, play a 'random' note on your instrument, and identify the interval between them, which subsequently means you can then play the matching note.

In a house band for open mic., that's one strategy I use. Wait for what is clearly the home note/chord, play a note, then use it as a stepping stone to find the correct one.

However, for what you seem to need, that's only one way.Another, which I tend to use far more frequently, is to listen to/watch a guitar player. Even from behind (my usual position!), looking at his fretting hand, chords in particular can be guessed. Even fretted ones give a clue from behind - maybe it's 5th fret, maybe 6th, and the sound makes it an 'E' shape, so it's A or B♭. There's a capo on? Good, there's another clue.

Open chords are somewhat easier. The distinctive sound of an open G, open C, open Em, et al gives an almost immediate answer. So knowing the sound of these guitar chords works well. And in the situations you describe, open chords will most likely be flavour of the day!

So, there we have it - not an answer to the question, but hopefully an answer to OP's problem... Coupled with knowledge of chord families, you could be joining in within 3 or 4 bars of a new song!


So you don't have perfect pitch I guess knowing the piano keyboard is a big advantage to imagine the whole and half steps of the major C scale.

What I do for training is:

  • sing the doremi and then the 12 tone scale (all chromatic tones as approaches to the doremi, always keeping the root tone DO in mind).
  • sing all intervals as sequence the scale up and down.
  • sing the circle of fifths (diatonic and chromatic).
  • random accessing from DO to any of the 12 tones.
  • sing baby songs with relative and absolute names
  • sight reading (singing) and writing down little melodies, controling with a piano.

Also a tuning fork or a tuning app is a good tool.

  • Do you use a particular melodic pattern for bullet point one, chromatic approaches to DO-RE-MI? Oct 7 '21 at 15:30
  • Yes, first imagine the goal degree and than the chromatic approach (semitone higher or lower= leading tone). There are melodic patterns derived from chord progressions e.g. augmented 5th: domiso-si-la, sotire-ri-mi, or secondary dominant: lati-di-re, remi-fi-so, or minor 3rd: dolafa, do-lu-fa. Also the training of German 6th and the dim. 7th to each degree are helpful: e.g. the Prelude 1 in C by Bach. Oct 7 '21 at 20:05

You should be aware that you're dipping a toe into a morass of topics in which labels and definitions jostle for position and subjective opinions become loudly attached to (or opposed to) objective (or are they?) studies. For our purposes, let's say that your stated goal is to be able to name a pitch you hear, to within a half-step (not needing to be able to say "that's A 442 Hz", just "A").

Is this a worthwhile goal? I'll say yes. While being able to stand at a piano, hear a single note, and name it is little more than a parlor trick, there are real musical applications that it benefits. If we're asked to transcribe a tune and told that the starting note is G, one person can say "Ok, that's a major 2nd up, a M2 back down, a P4 up, a m2 down..." while another can say "Oh, that's 'G A G C B." If the first person gets one interval wrong every note that follows will be wrong (except usually common sense and tonal context can help them correct), while the second person doesn't have to think about intervals at all (or is free to consider them after-the-fact). And of course, learning a tune "by ear" and being able to play along is simply transcription without the step of writing it down. If I walk into a folk music session and hear someone play through a tune, I hear it involuntarily as a string of named notes (Actually, not primarily—I actually experience it as a sequence of imagined tactile experiences as I imagine playing each pitch and its fingering, but I tie these cognitively to note names).

Is it an urgent or vital goal? I'll say no. Tim's answer shows that there are more practical workarounds you can use while waiting for this skill to develop, like simply watching what's physically being played. If you have "relative pitch" (interval recognition) and can ask the starting note, you can work out the rest. In fact, as long as you can generally distinguish the size of intervals and overall melodic contour ("It goes down a bit then up a lot then down a bit"), and pair that with common sense and the hints of tonal harmony, you can figure out a lot.

I say all that because I'm going to advise that you prioritize some more practical goals before pure pitch recognition, and eventually it will develop through just making music a lot, as well as pursuing more contextualized aural skills. Because that's what you're looking for: there's a whole field called "ear training." Pitch recognition is just one tool in that bag. And meanwhile, there's the notion of "acquired pitch." As a violinist, I can 100% identify a note played on the violin. I can pretty reliably identify a note played on the piano, in violin range. Below violin range I'm much less reliable, and I have a hard time with the human voice or, say, saxophone, because the timbres are too different. I didn't get this ability by working toward it in any way. I got it simply by taking the process of: "See that dot on the page. That's a 2nd finger on A string. Play that." (While some subconscious loop of my brain muttered "... also known as a C.") ... and repeating that times 1,000 of notes per day, hundreds of days per year, over several years. Eventually you internalize the link between the idea of C, the physical/tactile experience of generating it, and the auditory experience of the frequency. I don't mean to take a position on whether absolute pitch can be taught through explicit and intentional work... but I do mean to say: Relax and wait; it will come eventually.

In the meantime, by all means pursue all types of ear training, starting with the foundation. Chances are you already have many of these skills, but in order:

  1. Can you identify direction in pitch-space? If someone plays two notes, can you say which one is higher or lower?
  2. Can you get a general sense of distance in pitch space? Given two descending intervals, can you say which is wider?
  3. Can you master pitch matching? When someone plays a reference tone, can you match it with your voice, whether or not you can name it?

At this point you can build on these skills to go from "that's a fairly wide ascending interval" to "that's a major 7th," and to go from "Sure, I can sing that pitch if you'll keep sustaining it until I manage to match it" to "You can sing several pitches and I can replicate those intervals accurately, using my memory across time." By this point you'll have a working version of "relative pitch," in which you can recreate a tune you hear as a series of intervals, and if you know the starting note, then the distinction between "relative" and "absolute pitch" will start to get awfully blurry anyway.

  • Great answer. All I'd question is the recognition of a note played on a violin. Somewhere half way up the neck? How could you not be a semitone or tone out, just by listening? Maybe the vib? I certainly couldn't do it involving a note on the guitar neck - and I've played and done this for 60 yrs. Maybe I'm just slow.
    – Tim
    Oct 7 '21 at 17:06
  • @Tim My recognition is less reliable with extremely high pitches, perhaps just because I spend less time playing them (violin jokes aside). Also, it gets complicated for me because I spend more than half my time playing baroque violin at A415, and have to "code-switch" between 415 meaning A vs A flat. But yeah, I'd risk some $$ on my abilities up to C7 (and a bit less $ above that)! Oct 7 '21 at 17:13
  • Though another good point is: I have done explicit ear training, including Kodaly-method stuff when I was a teenager. I'd be off-base to advise "Forget it, it'll happen by accident eventually without any explicit ear-training work." While I wouldn't absolute pitch some sort of urgent, quixotic, Grail quest, maybe it is true that ear training in general is worthwhile and helps. Oct 7 '21 at 17:14
  • After training my voice to not wobble too much in frequency for an hour or so (not a singer, the frequencies wobbled like half an octave first ...) I tried recording myself playing some notes on the violin and then humming the same notes and it looks like I got them right. Perhaps I am just too much of a beginner on my instruments to assess my pitch hearing skills using them?
    – Emil
    Oct 9 '21 at 17:30
  • @Emil Although I'm a violinist myself, I'd use a keyboard to assist with ear-training exercises. In particular, if you're working on matching a pitch, it's helpful to use an electric keyboard setting that will sustain the pitch as long as you hold the key. You'd want to choose a fairly "pure" synthesizer patch with a nice simple sound; for instance, many organ or chorus patches combine a cluster of intentionally detuned pitches separated by a few microtones, or fluctuating individually, to replicate the wave interferences of the real things. Oct 9 '21 at 23:47

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