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I am confused by these terms. I heard perfect pitch is impossible to learn as an adult, but if you memorize all twelve notes in the chromatic scale in whichever octave, isn't that perfect pitch? If it isn't, please explain the difference between the three.

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Perfect (or absolute) pitch is the ability to instantly recognize a note or to instantly produce the sound of a requested pitch. Someone with absolute pitch can immediately sing for you a D♭, or they can immediately tell that the Star Wars Theme is in B♭ without looking to the score.

Pitch memorization is exactly what it sounds like: a memorization of a pitch or pitches. But in some ways it's just another word for absolute pitch, since that's all absolute pitch is: a long-term memory for pitches. It's a bit like squares and rectangles: all absolute pitch is pitch memorization, but not all pitch memorization is necessarily absolute pitch.

Absolute pitch (or AP) is typically developed at a young age. Like foreign-language learning, it is a skill much harder to develop as someone gets older, but most literature on the subject suggests that it is possible. (Whether or not it's worth it is for someone else to decide, but I say it isn't.) At the very least, experienced musicians tend to develop some level of long-term pitch memory. After studying Mahler 8 for so long, for instance, I can always sing an E♭ thanks to the opening organ. Other research shows, for example, that when presented with the "Jeopardy" theme and a transposed version of it, the majority of listeners can determine which is the original. This suggests that even non-musicians have long-term pitch memory.

People think that absolute pitch is a magical remedy for everything, but it comes with a lot of drawbacks. Those with AP have considerably more difficulty in keys with lots of "black notes," and they often have trouble spotting transpositions and motivic relationships. Imagine you're listening to the opening of Beethoven 5—but first, try to sing the opening two pitches, and see if your pitch memory is correct!—you know all of those "da-da-da-dum" motives that are transposed at different pitch levels? Some AP listeners don't hear those relationships because their brains are so focused on the individual pitches. In contrast, those without AP tend to have less difficulty spotting the motivic connections. (This is a simplified example, because everyone knows Beethoven 5.)

Furthermore, let's say a church sings a hymn during a service, but the organist decides to transpose it down a step. Unless the AP member of the congregation has specifically practiced this skill, s/he will have an awful time singing that hymn, because they'll continue to sing the notated pitch, not the transposed pitch that the organist gave. Those without AP do this without problem.

And one other problem with AP: it changes as one gets older! Typically someone's AP slides up over time (see one source here), meaning they reach a point where what they think is A is no longer A. Yikes; no thanks!

Lastly, relative pitch is the ability to sing any pitch when explicitly given a pitch reference. For instance: this melody is in D major, and here's a D; now sing it! This skill relies not upon pitch memory, but rather the understanding of tonal function and how pitches and harmonies progress within a key. Good music educations teach such relative hearing to those with AP, but (in my humble experience) AP students often fight back, and hard.

TL;DR: (In my opinion:) You can think of absolute pitch as just the rote memorization of things. In less generous terms, it's the ability to monkey back "that's a G!" or "here's an F!" Relative pitch, however, demands a more nuanced understanding of key relationships: how does this F♯ function in the key of C? What is this D♭, and where will it resolve? And so on.

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    Nice answer, Richard. I have a friend with AP who gets headaches whenever he hears people jingling metal objects - keys / flatware / etc. Also, I’m sure you can relate - once relative pitch becomes developed enough, the distinction between the two largely doesn’t matter. Last, yes, AP students always fight back hard - never had to work before at it! – jjmusicnotes Jan 17 '18 at 23:41
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    Absolutely correct; once relative pitch is developed to a certain point, it's a much more powerful skill than absolute pitch. I'm glad I don't have AP, even if I wished I did when I was younger! – Richard Jan 17 '18 at 23:43
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    In reflection, I believe my absolute pitch may be closer to what's called pitch memorization here (I figured out only Middle C in Grade 8, it took me more than one grade to finish memorizing the rest of the chromatic scale, I still find note identification faster if I hum those notes). Like other AP people, I have trouble singing transposed melodies if I've never heard them in the new key before, but I only tend to have trouble if the piece switches keys or I'm very unfamiliar with the piece--e.g. I have no trouble humming the famous Mario theme in a new key, but not the Halberd On Deck theme. – Dekkadeci Jan 18 '18 at 0:04
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    @Tim In my experience, those with absolute pitch are typically tuned to a normative 440; a historical performance of a Baroque piece, with tonic shifted down a quarter step, really bugs them! – Richard Jan 18 '18 at 14:10
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    Am curious: reference for "typically people's AP drops over time"? – user45266 Mar 11 at 4:01
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Perfect pitch, more properly called absolute pitch, is the ability to hear a note - anything from the drone of a lorry passing, to one played on an instrument, to a buzzing bee - and be able to say what pitch and what note it is without reference to anything external. Some people have synesthesia, which manifests itself in a particular note being recognised as a colour, a taste, a feeling. Others seem to have it from birth, and can just recognise what note is being played.

Pitch memorisation is a new one on me - how anyone can memorise the 12 chromatic notes I don't understand. Yes, once a particular note is played or heard, then it's quite easy to sing other given notes, but surely that's relative pitch.

Relative pitch is relatively easy to nurture. It involves knowing the intervals, e.g. a P5. So that when a note is heard, a P5 above it can be sung or played. Thus, given a C, one can sing/play a G - the P5 of C.

Absolute pitch can be encouraged in those who don't possess it. But - it can take years of daily practice. And it's often not perfect even then! After several years, I can sing a particular note and verify it on an instrument, but at the moment, the score's only 8/10.

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    Is "kinaesthesis" the same as "synesthesia"? – user45266 Mar 11 at 4:03
  • @user45266 it isn't, I think Tim has mixed the terms up. – user48353 Mar 15 at 23:37
  • @replete Well, I've edited it now. Tim can change it if there are any objections. – user45266 Mar 18 at 2:22
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I'm less sure of the answers than some of the others. I learned as an adult and played entirely by ear to begin with. If someone had asked me to sing an A, I wouldn't have had a clue because I'd never knowingly played one.

Over a period of years I developed a limited memory of certain notes without knowing what they were called. For instance I used to have a microwave that made a humming noise and whenever I heard it I would find myself singing a familiar classical theme that I didn't know the name of. It eventually occurred to me to track this piece down and, sure enough, the microwave was perfectly in tune with the opening bars of the piece.

I never made any active attempt to memorise the pitch and to this day I don't know what the actual name of the note was. So, do I have perfect pitch? I don't know. I couldn't sing that note on request but if I heard it I would recognise it.

I suspect that very young and prolific musicians simply pick this sort of thing up in the way we all pick up a first language. Adults find it hard to learn a new language but they will pick up a few phrases if they live in a foreign country for a while.

So there are two aspects. (1) Recognising a note when you hear it and (2) Producing a note on request. Personally I can only do (1) and only for a limited number of tunes.

I believe that although a few people are completely tone-deaf, the majority of us could have perfect pitch if we started early enough and were interested enough.

You can easily test yourself. Think of a tune that you know well (one that is always played in the same key) and find it on Youtube. Without listening first, see if you can sing or whistle the first few notes in what you believe to be the correct key. Then play the track. If you correctly get the right note without fail then you have perfect pitch.

  • Getting those notes correct in your last paragraph could easily be just a manifestation of the Levitin Effect instead of perfect pitch. – Dekkadeci Mar 16 at 0:35
  • @Dekkadeci - Interesting - I hadn't heard of that. I think my point is that there are no sharp cut-offs between the different abilities. By the effect you mention, almost any musician could learn certain notes because of their common occurrence. Then, by using relative pitch quickly extrapolate to other notes. Eventually, like any memory phenomenon, this could become automatic to the point where any note could be recognised. Incidentally I wonder how people with perfect pitch coped in the days before pitch was standardised. Organists especially would have to adapt to the local standard. – chasly from UK Mar 16 at 9:20
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Relative Pitch is a recognition process based on awareness and understanding of complex pitch interrelationships from within a musical context (dynamic recognition).

Absolute Pitch is a process of pitch awareness based solely on memorization (static definition; musical context irrelevant).

'Absolute pitch' memorization is a static conception (i.e. "A"= 440 Hz) which is prized only in the area of music. It is interesting that this type of memorization is irrelevant to the visual arts (i.e. “Red”= 440 THz). I wonder if this is due to the fact that chromatic music is a 12 note system (A-G), whereas color theory encompasses hundreds of named colors, each with exponential perceptible variations of contrast, hue and saturation; and it also encompasses an awareness of the impact of the surrounding visual context on the perceived color.

The static concept of ‘absolute pitch' can become meaningless at best, or an impediment at worst, in situations where A440 is not the pitch standard or in non-chromatic, non equal tempered, and micro-pitch scale systems. Because relative pitch perception is a dynamic concept and process (a practice of developing awareness of pitch interrelationships) it can be carried forward and adapted to other musical systems.

I trained with both transposing (Bb, Eb) and non-transposing musical instruments, so the concept of 'absolute pitch' has always been arbitrary in practice. However, pitch recognition is not. For example, I notice the pitches of my phone's ringtone when listening to music, wind chimes and other unrelated sounds. I don't try to memorize the pitch names. Instead, it increases my awareness of a vivid differentiation between pitch memorization and pitch recognition. Pitch recognition is a perceptual skill that can become more refined as a musician's micro-pitch (pitch color) and timbral (tone color) awareness is developed.

The development of good intonation (relative adjustments of each pitch within a harmonic context) is very different from the memorization and reproduction of the pitch definitions established in an equal temperament system.

A fundamental difficulty arises for a musician trying to develop simple, static pitch memorization when a more complex understanding and awareness of the contextual relativity of pitch has already been acquired. This difficulty is conceptual more than technical, and results from an awareness of the complex interrelationships existing between the pitches and intervals within many different musical systems and methods (i.e. Just Intonation, Raga, Maqam; micro-pitch scales). This awareness makes the concept of ‘absolute’ pitch seem arbitrary and not widely applicable as a musical skill.

'Absolute pitch' is dependent on a quantified reference standard, which is itself based on the conception of each chromatic pitch as a separate (discrete) entity, not affected by its musical context. With musical training and exposure to different music systems, a recognition arises that any 'absolute' conception of pitch is a reductive simplification. That is, musical pitch is a process within an integrated context (verb; relatively defined) rather than a discrete, static definition (noun; absolutely defined).

Interestingly, there is another related type of static pitch recognition which occurs, for example, when a person can begin singing a song in the correct key without knowing which key it is. Or when someone recognizes that a song is being played back in a different key from the original rendition.

  • Another reason that it's irrelevant in art is because of the percent of the population that can do it. Anyone who isn't colorblind or blind or severely incapacitated can imagine the color "red" and get it right every time. Among musicians, the incidence of Absolute Pitch is so much less common. than the related ability in artists, memorised color recognition. Imagine if 99% of the population of Earth were colorblind. The 1 percent would then be like people with absolute pitch for music. – user45266 Mar 11 at 4:09
  • What's the "fundamental difficulty [that] arises for a musician trying to develop simple, static pitch memorization and recognition when a more complex understanding and awareness of the contextual relativity of pitch has already been acquired"? Based on my experience with acquiring absolute pitch, I developed relative pitch 1st, and I don't recall my relative pitch getting in the way of my nascent absolute pitch. In fact, I think my relative pitch accelerated the development of my absolute pitch--I could name other notes given my memorized Middle C until I memorized the other 11 notes. – Dekkadeci Mar 11 at 6:12
  • Anyone who isn't colorblind or blind or severely incapacitated can imagine the color "red" and get it right every time.” — There isn’t any specific shade of ‘red’ that would be consistently named as a standard ‘red’. In effect, the ‘red’ would be described subjectively as a range of relative distinctions (i.e not-orange; not-yellow). With training, additional distinctions such as reddish-orange vs orangeish-red would emerge into awareness and further extend the perceived varieties of ‘red’. – Dolores Catherino Mar 11 at 15:59
  • The ‘fundamental difficulty’ for a musician who has developed an understanding of relative pitch has to do with an awareness of the relativity of pitch and interval values within many different musical systems (i.e. Just Intonation). This awareness makes the idea of ‘absolute’ pitch arbitrary. So yes, effort could be invested in memorizing the 12 note sequence of equally tempered pitches derived from A=440, but what would be the value and purpose of this effort when there are so many other systems of music beyond it to explore? – Dolores Catherino Mar 11 at 16:00
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    Regarding "effort could be invested in memorizing the 12 note sequence of equally tempered pitches derived from A=440, but what would be the value and purpose of this effort when there are so many other systems of music beyond it to explore?", I argue that the other systems of music are quite rare (e.g. gamelan slendro's 5TET) and therefore may not be worth the effort (especially since I don't quite like gamelan music). I generally classify notes in only 12 pitch classes anyway (my only current exceptions are quarter tones); notes often don't care whether they're 12TET or justly intoned. – Dekkadeci Mar 11 at 16:29
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Actually perfect pitch and absolute pitch are not the same thing. I read that perfect pitch is not possible to aquire in adulthood. I don't know that it has never happened to anyone. Absolute pitch unlike perfect pitch is possible to acquire in adulthood. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize a pitch instantly when you hear it. Absolute pitch is the ability to tell what the absolute pitch of something is but not necessarily to recognize it instanty. Most people when they hear a note a few hours later don't know which note to play in their head to have it be the right note. The brain usually doesn't bother developing the ability to recall the absolute pitch of something because there's no way to describe to them what the pitch really sounds like. Until I read part of Richard's answer, I didn't know what pitch memorization was. It turns out that it's another way of saying absolute pitch. I didn't use to have absolute pitch. Later, I was sluggishly getting closer to having absolute pitch and could sense it. When season 2 of "The worst witch" came out when I was about 30, after just a few episodes, I developed some extent of absolute pitch. Now I'm quite often able to play music I heard before at the correct pitch in my head but am not always able to so it.

I believe the reason people can't develop pitch in adulthood is because actually because it works better not to have it. Once there was something going on at the roundhouse in Toronto and I bought some lemonade with tickets and they had a false memory that I didn't pay then somebody else told them I had paid and they believed that person. I believe the explanation is that the brain developed a certain method of reconstructing memories that's usually reliable but wasn't reliable in that situation. I guess the person I paid was very busy doing so many things so her brain drew less attention to my payment but she used the same method of reconstructing memories that didn't work that time. It's possible that she will eventually find a slower more reliable method of reconstructing memories and not overrely on the simpler method she was using earlier.

Similarly, instantly sensing the pitch of something is overrelying on a method of sensing the pitch that you can never be sure is actually feeding you the correct information just because it seems that way. I feel like driving is too hard for me but it's worth it. It's probably partly because I'm a slow deep thinker. Also, since I don't even have the desire to drive, I'm happier because now I don't have to put up with the stress involved in driving.

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