As someone with perfect pitch, I can do the usual things associated with perfect pitch such as name a note instantly without a reference note, name the key, and name a chord. Sight-singing comes pretty naturally too, but that's because I end up reading note-by-note very quickly on sheet music rather than by discerning intervals.

However, I am looking to develop relative pitch and it seems to be somewhat hard at the moment. When I am tasked with discerning an interval, I end up trying to name every note I hear and then try to "count keys"--imagining a piano in front of me and counting keys between the notes to discern the interval. This seems very inefficient and I was wondering how I could learn relative pitch if my perfect pitch causes me to "count keys"; I want to be able to discern intervals immediately.

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    To evaluate how far you may have already gone in acquiring relative pitch, can you recognize a tune even when its key is changed? (This is a common tactic when people sing the national anthem because they tend to start on some given note. This is also the crux of several forms of classical music--e.g. the sonata-allegro first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony--and a common tactic in video game music.) – Dekkadeci Jul 23 '19 at 16:29
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    Yeah, I won't be fazed if the key changes but I might be a little perplexed because the notes aren't "right" (original). – DiscreteElite_ Jul 23 '19 at 16:42
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    @Dekkadeci - which national anthem..? – Tim Jul 23 '19 at 16:52
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    @Tim - Doesn't matter which one. At hockey games, I recall both the Canadian and American national anthems not being consistently sung in the same key between performances. – Dekkadeci Jul 23 '19 at 23:39
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    @Karlo - I've read that people with absolute pitch but no relative pitch will not recognize a tune in any key other than the original, and those sources implied that they may think of the same tune in different keys as two different tunes. – Dekkadeci Jul 24 '19 at 15:30

Counting pitches will get you half way there. But then there's the problem of - is it an aug 4 or a dim 5. So, you can count up from the lower to the upper (the only way to go with intervals), but you'll need to know what you call the lower and upper notes.

With absolute pitch, that's just not easy. The note you hear may be F# - it may be Gb. Then you hear the other note, and that will be another one with possibly two (or more) names.

So,I think that the job is impossible! You may well (I'm a tad jealous!) be able to recognise the two notes in any interval, but what do they get called? I'll leave it at that for now!

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    But this is true even without perfect pitch, isn't it? – JimM Jul 23 '19 at 18:31
  • The question sounds more like practical musicianship than answering questions in the classroom. – Camille Goudeseune Jul 23 '19 at 22:39

I don't have perfect pitch, but I liken perfect pitch to seeing pitches on a piano keyboard. And based on that assumption, if you can learn to name an interval immediately without counting keys by seeing it on a piano keyboard, it's possible to learn to do the same with perfect pitch. Myself, I can see in my mind what I hear on a piano keyboard and with a slightly worse hit/miss rate on a guitar fretboard, and I can transpose the vision to a different key at will. It is no problem to tell which interval I'm looking at on a keyboard, because all the intervals and how they look are very familiar to me. I've developed these skills entirely by practicing playing by ear, playing and accompanying songs as melody+chords, in different keys.

Each chord and each note in a chord has a role (function) and harmonic taste within its key. And each chord has a position within a key, with the chord's root note and third being good "known positions" to compare to. I suppose your perfect pitch doesn't in any way hinder your ability to feel e.g. a V - I dominant chord motion? I'm suggesting you to play (and/or sing) melodies and chord accompaniment (perhaps also arpeggiating the chords) in different keys. When you have a song where the melody goes from a I note to a III note, and you have to produce that jump in different keys, it should make you associate that jump i.e. interval with those pitches. Just like if you're playing it on a piano - when you've played that I - III jump in all keys enough times, I think you'll begin to see that interval visually without having to count keys. The same goes for all intervals. When you've played a 6th interval in all keys many times, you'll recognize that interval, particularly if you can relate the pitches to other known sounding pitches. Third and sixth intervals have a functional meaning, because you can see them as jumps between a major or minor triad's third and fifth, or some other triad's 1st and 3rd, e.g. C-E can be a part of C major or A minor triad. These things become more meaningful when you have to produce them, not just observe them.

So, to summarize the "prescription". You want to make the intervals - not just pitches - important and meaningful for you, and so you get into situations where you have to produce the intervals. The practice routine is: play or sing intervals and entire melodies and chords in different keys. When you have to produce the intervals, you get to know them, and the question of recognizing an interval becomes: in which harmonic and/or melodic situation would I have to make that jump. If you just listen to music, you get the pitches as given because of your perfect pitch, but now you reverse the chain of command. Your task is not to play or sing a specific pitch, the task is to play or sing intervals and arpeggios, like in instrument practice, except you're not given ready-made notation for the exercises.

This is just a theory I made up after thinking about your situation, and it hasn't been tested on anyone. It would be great to know if it helps you. Interestingly, that's the same exercise I've recommended for people who don't have perfect pitch, but would like to learn to recognize chords and intervals by ear. Produce, don't just observe.

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Because you can sightread, do this to disentangle your perfect pitch from understanding intervals: sightread something but sing it in a different key. This will be infuriating at first, and may take months to become easy, but by then you'll be able to "turn off" your perfect pitch whenever you want.

Pianists with perfect pitch, when playing on an electronic instrument that has automatic transposition, often prefer manual transposing to the electronic shortcut, because playing a C and hearing a D drives them nuts. It's the same kind of problem, with the same kind of slow training to overcome.

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  • I'm not completely sure this will work. I ironically developed absolute pitch several years after first learning a transposing instrument (B flat clarinet, in my case). I effectively sight-read music that played back in a different key from what was notated for years. – Dekkadeci Sep 26 '19 at 9:47

I can recall and sing C, C#, D, D#, etc. without the reference out of the thin air. But I look at it this way. Music is another language, therefore, intervals ,chords, or chord progressions. I hear those as the contexts or sentences. Just like a language, when you hear people speak, you don’t count and hear a single word for a sentence to understand but you hear the context and meaning.

Therefore, to learn the relative pitch you have to understand the context of the music. You can start by learning the simple intervals like major, or minor first then go from there to hear each quality of chords then the chord progressions. Each interval you learn, try to listen to its quality. Hope this helps.

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  • That’s what I meant saying “it’s like learning to walk when you can fly” but I think it’s better to compare it with “walk if you are used to drive in the car*. As the ability of perfect pitch seems to hinder people analyzing the relations of the sounds in a tonal centered system. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 26 '19 at 5:43

I would argue that thinking in terms of intervals is not how you want to approach this. Rather, relative pitch is an explanation of how pitches function in a key. Since intervals have no hierarchy (that is, no reference to an over-riding tonic), singing by interval tells you nothing about how each pitch you're singing functions within the given key.

As such, I would recommend skipping interval training and singing music on a movable system like scale-degree numbers. (You could also do movable do, but I advise against this if you have perfect pitch.)

The more you sing melodies on scale-degree numbers, the more you'll be able to learn how particular scale degrees sound and "feel" within a key. You'll also learn to spot patterns like "5–7–2–4," that it's the dominant seventh chord, and how that sounds and "feels" within a tonal context.

If your aim is solely to quickly recognize intervals, I would advise you use your absolute pitch skills to identify the pitches and then identify that interval. But to me, this is a pretty amusical task with relatively little real-world musical impact.

But if your aim is to be able to hear music functionally and reproduce it by singing, then definitely learn to sing using a movable system like scale-degree numbers.

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  • I’ve given the same advice, Richard, but what about people who use the relative names for all keys like in French. I think you’ll see the conflict too. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 26 '19 at 5:04
  • @AlbrechtHügli I'm not sure I know what you mean. Could you clarify a bit? – Richard Sep 26 '19 at 9:09
  • I don’t have PP and I don’t read in French. I can understand that one with perfect pitch has problems as he always recognizes the absolute tone and when using the relative names he will struggle because he might apply the fixed do. Maybe with perfect pitch it’s difficult to understand what is meant by moveable do. I assume French speaking people might have a similar problem as in their naming C is always Do, G is always Sol etc, sharps are dièses and flats are b-mol but when they sing in other keys they don’t attach these extensions as far as I know. This must be confusing. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 26 '19 at 10:27
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    @AlbrechtHügli If I understand you correctly, then this is exactly why I suggest singing scale-degree numbers instead of movable do: if someone has absolute pitch, they likely have experience with fixed do. So instead of teaching them another system with the same syllables (which will only lead to confusion), I prefer the scale-degree number system. In my experience, this system is always tricky, at first, for students with absolute pitch. But if they want to learn relative pitch (like the OP asked), I really think this is the best approach. – Richard Sep 26 '19 at 10:38
  • Yes, I agree. That’s why I gave 1+. I also trained the intervals this way singing the names from the root tone the prime the third the fifth like do do do me do so etc (the root tone was for the article THE and intervalname was the upper tone. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 26 '19 at 10:42

I suppose you haven't been trained in the tonika-Do system. The tonika do-system with a movable do is the ultimative help for musicians with no perfect pitch like me. If you don't know this system you should learn it you can look it up. There are many youtube videos and links of wiki explaining how it functions. Also in this SE site you will find many helpful answers. In fact you learn to analyze each music to the tonal centre when you read it. I can believe that this is more difficult to do if you only listen to music. But if you practice this method you will learn all intervals and will be able to identify them without counting:

You'll have to sing all triads and tetrads in all inversions with the names of the doremi, and all augmented and diminished tones, always concentration to the function of the tonika and the other degrees of the cadence, especially minding the functions and tensions of leading tones.


If one says for a perfect pitch gifted person this system will be torture ( s. Comment below) I can see the problem for all who identify the doremi names with the scale of C.

Therefore I have to add my comment in this answer:

This will be correct if you are french or another latin language speaking! I didn’t mind this aspect. But in English, German and for others who read in CDEFG it is nothing else as naming the underlying scale of whole and half steps with names that are fitting to all keys.

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  • Speaking as someone who does have perfect pitch, and whose brain works in fixed-do, I would say that learning movable-do is torture and overkill for learning intervals. It's like being asked to read the word "green" written in red lettering, for every note you hear. – 200_success Sep 26 '19 at 4:34
  • This will be correct if you are french or another latin language speaking! I didn’t mind this aspecr. But in English, German and for others who read in CDEFG it is nothing else as naming the. underlying scale of whole and half. steps with names that are fitting to all keys. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 26 '19 at 4:47

Just like your brain probably developed the ability to instantly recognize images, most people's brains developed the ability to instantly recognize fifths. Sinousoidal waves make a narrow range of hair cells in the ear resonate and register in the brain as just a single pitch. All continuous periodic functions can be expressed as a constant plus an infinite sum of sinousoidal waves each of which has a frequency that's a multiple of the frequency of that function. Most people's brains picked up the general pattern of each frequency regularly going with double and triple that frequency and have the ability to instantly recognize a given tone at one frequency as being a fifth apart from a note 1.5 times that frequency. 2^19 ÷ 3^12 is very close to 1 so we don't notice a fifth not being exactly a ratio of 2 to 3. Their brains also built up the result that going up a third is the result of going up a fifth twice then going down an octave then going up a fifth twice then going down an octave. I don't know about you. I don't know whether your brain is missing those senses of fifths and octaves but most people sense something special about a fifth and an octave automatically.

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