I wonder if ear trained pianists think of melody in terms of intervals (relative) or notes (absolute).

Meaning, when you're on a given note. To go to the next note, do you just know what piano key needs to be hit based on what the interval sounds like, or when you hit that next note you know what that note is supposed to sound like?

  • 1
    I assume you are referring to piano playing since you mention piano keys. For instrumentalists we play melodies using muscle memory think about making it interesting and adding expression. We don't usually think about individual notes or intervals. (This only applies to piano and other instruments though) Apr 25 '17 at 17:42
  • should be relative; there is a reason you are always given a starting pitch
    – Lenny
    Apr 25 '17 at 20:36
  • Maybe it would be useful to define a musical context. (For example, sight reading certainly wouldn't be the correct context since that utilizes neither perfect not relative pitch.) It also might be useful to solicit answers from people who possess both perfect pitch and good relative pitch.
    – jdjazz
    Jun 21 '17 at 23:51

When I play by ear, I think in relative pitches. After playing from a score for a while, I also do this. My idea is to be able to transpose more easily. I was taught how to do this when I was about 5.

I don't know how other people do it. I do know one person with absolute pitch. She learns the piece first in absolute pitches then moves over to relative pitch afterwards. I would guess that most pianists learn however (sometimes through muscle feel) then think of the relative pitches later.


Ear-trained pianists who have taken music history lessons think in relative pitches (intervals). At least in the Royal Conservatory of Music history lessons I took, I learned about sonata-allegro and sonata-rondo form. Both forms involve sections and their transposed versions in the same piece, and in order for listeners to recognize the transposed versions, they need to think in terms of intervals.

Some video game soundtracks also encourage listeners to think in terms of intervals--for example, Mario Kart: Double Dash raises the keys of its racetrack themes by one semitone during the final lap, and UnderTale's soundtrack contains leitmotifs for several characters and then transposes those leitmotifs in different situations where those characters appear. In both cases, the transposed versions are expected to be recognizably similar to their originals.

  • May I ask why you clarify "who have taken music history lessons"?
    – Richard
    Jun 21 '17 at 18:59
  • I expand on that a bit further down the first paragraph. I emphasize that sonata-allegro and sonata-rondo form encourage thinking in relative pitch pretty quick because they transpose their key melodies around. I also note that I learned those forms in music history class. I suspect that music harmony class will not encourage thinking in relative pitch anywhere near as much (unless recognizing major/minor/dominant 7th/augmented/etc. chords is heavily emphasized).
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 22 '17 at 12:46
  • Perhaps it's a continental difference; in my experiences in America, those concepts are more likely to be taught in a theory class, and only brushed on in a history class. Interesting!
    – Richard
    Jun 22 '17 at 16:32

I was trained 5 year of violin when I was young. I use relative. Transpose is so easy for me. But when the key signature changes in a passage in a song, I have to pay extra attention to avoid landing in the wrong pitch. My son's piano teacher uses Absolute. He said 99% children start from relative, then trained to use Absolute. My son uses Absolute from day1. After 3 years learning piano, he now has been taught what is "interval" for his first exam. The poor kid has to look into the ceiling and counts the distance between two absolute notes. while for me, identify the interval is a millisecond thing. However, when mimic a sound from nature, like fart, leaf-trembling, door slam, bird chips, my son always land in the right pitch in his first try. So I think which come first relative or absolute, is totally a born-with preference.

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