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Some people set a lot of store by "perfect pitch" but I feel that really good relative pitch is more important. What exercises can you suggest to improve this ability?

EDIT : perhaps I am not clear enough. I don't mean ear training - naming intervals, or playing back melodic phrases by ear. I mean - becoming better at noticing when you are perhaps 20 or 30 cents out on a note. For instance if I play certain octave intervals on saxophone they do tend to be slightly wide. It is all to easy to get used to that. I am interested in how to become more aware of it.

EDIT 2: Thanks to all the people who recommended ear training and sight singing exercises. My apologies if my original question was a bit unclear. Let me now clarify and say that this is not basically what I am after. Let's try to think a bit more deeply.

If someone is (for instance) singing out of tune, there can be multiple causes:

  1. simply not hearing the note they should sing at all (not knowing the material or perhaps simple not knowing anything abouit intervals).
  2. technical issues with voice production (they hear it, but vocal control is lacking for some reason).
  3. They are getting to what they think is close, but not close enough - perhaps they are 30 cents flat. They are still closer to the right note than any other, but - not close enough. This is pretty common! Probably they can sing the correct pitch but they are not even aware that they are a bit off.

Now I am aware that tuning is far from an absolute anyway - there are various systems, and a minor third in a blues band may be a very different thing from a minor third in a barbershop quartet (and even depending on what its function is in the chord also).

But even so - everything depends on having a well developed sense of "relative pitch" - far more than just being able to name intervals, but a really fine tuned sensitivity to fine variations of pitch, relative to the rest of the musical setting.

I expect that some instrumentalists (violinists for instance) might develop this far better than (say) keyboard players, simply because of the requirements of their instrument.

(It would be extremely interesting to investigate this ability scientifically by means of a note produced electronically and adjusted with a slider or similar. Maybe it has been done.)

Are there any exercises or practices that are known to help sharpen this ability?

Thank you for your patience.

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    On screen right, you'll find plenty of thoughts on this issue. – Tim Jan 17 at 16:28
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    but many related questions come up when entering 'relative pitch' in the question title – Michael Curtis Jan 17 at 17:18
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    there's lots of apps for that. check out the 'scale degrees' section on tonedear.com for one. – foreyez Jan 17 at 17:46
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    For me "relative pitch" is not the same thing as "ear training". If "being more in tune" is not "relative pitch" - what is? – danmcb Jan 17 at 23:11
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica Perhaps we should use the energy to carve the question OP is trying to make, instead of discussing semantics? It's not like concepts are rigid in music theory anyway, and a lot of times we use words on who knows which one of several languages, and wikipedia is particularly and notably inconsistent in music theory related subjects. – Von Huffman Jan 18 at 13:31
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I don't mean ear training - naming intervals, or playing back melodic phrases by ear. I mean - becoming better at noticing when you are perhaps 20 or 30 cents out on a note. For instance if I play certain octave intervals on saxophone they do tend to be slightly wide. It is all to easy to get used to that. I am interested in how to become more aware of it.

You mention that you are not talking about traditional interval, transcription, or melodic dictation ear training exercises. You also mention that you want to improve the ability to notice differences in expected intervals, like noticing if an interval is out of tune, in which direction, and by how much.

I've found that tuning a string instrument (in a particular way, which is what this answer is about) is a great way to develop and improve that ability. Just doing it once at the start of each practice session will cause a noticeable improvement, so it can be a small part of your ear training or overall practice routine and still be more than worth it.

You use both your ear and a tuner. Your ear first to tune as accurately as you think you can, and then the tuner to see how much you were off and in which direction, if at all. You can do this on a string by string basis, or only one time once you finished with all strings.

Just tuning it in any random way isn't very useful though, at least for the purposes of the question and exercise. Even if you only use your ears, tuning using unisons and octaves exclusively has very limited usefulness and results. It's better than relying on a tuner, but not by much (in my opinion, anyone disagrees on this one?).

What I do is grab any guitar-like instrument I see close (or the one that I'll be practicing with at that time, or whatever), then:


  1. Detune each string randomly. Ideally you want some strings to be sharp and others flat, so you can practice all directions, so don't be so random about it. Don't overdo it, be careful. You just want to be at most two semitones flat or sharp. You can go flatter if you want to, but going sharper can put excess stress on the guitar, so avoid going beyond two semitones sharper than the usual tuning the instrument is designed for.

  2. Use a reference to tune one of the strings. I use a tuning fork (normally an A fork to tune the 5th string of a classical guitar) but you can use audio, another instrument, or whatever you like.

  3. Tune all the strings using the string of step 2 (or other strings you already tuned in later iterations) as reference.

    • First select which string you want to tune next. It's easier with strings that are adjacent to the reference string of previous steps, but you can practice with any string once you feel comfortable tuning the adjacent ones.
    • Don't use the 5th fret method (for strings tuned in fourths) aka the octave / unison method, or the harmonics method yet.
    • Play the two strings. Using the reference string, well, as reference, is the target string in tune? Is it sharp? Flat? By how much? On a typical guitar, using the 6th and 5th strings as example (E and A respectively) you should be hearing a perfect 4th interval if both strings are in tune. If the instrument is tuned in fourths and you consciously tuned some strings a little sharp and some strings a little flat semi-randomly, you'll be hearing some tritoneoid and some major thirdish intervals. If the string is not in tune (most likely scenario), make corrections. Repeat this step until you feel like both strings are in tune (the first times there will be a big range at which you will not be able to tell, that's ok).
    • Now use the unison or octave test (5th fret test on typical guitars) to do smaller corrections. Now that you are comparing a note with itself in two different strings, it'll be much easier to hear if the target string is out of tune. Make further corrections if needed.
    • Now use the harmonic test. Pay attention to the pitches, but also the speed of the beatings (which are easier to hear using harmonics, and are the actual beauty of the harmonic method imo, but a lot of teachers skip the beating part, I don't think beatings are even mentioned in the article I linked for the harmonic method, but I'm mentioning them here anyway). The beatings become slower as the strings become more in tune, until they become so slow they are infinitely slow at perfect tune (no beatings at all). The beatings become faster as the strings become more out of tune, until the beating enters the pitched sound range around 20Hz. Make sure you notice both! Make further corrections as needed.
    • You can now check how close you are with the tuner. Or you can wait until all strings are done to do the tuner check. Make last corrections with the aid of the tuner if needed.
    • Very important: Pay attention to the continuous interval change, the complete gradient. Notice how a major second turns into a minor third, then slowly into a major third, to then arrive in the exact mid (hopefully!) of the target perfect fourth. To achieve this play the string continuously and rhythmically at the same time as you make changes in tuning. Notice how slightly sharp or flat stuff sounds like. Notice how all degrees of sharpness and flatness sound like. Notice how it feels to slowly and eventually arrive to a pitch that is in tune (this sense will develop and improve with time). This is the heart of the exercise.
  4. Repeat step 3 until all strings are in tune.


This can be a tiring process for some people (I find it very relaxing and therapeutic, because of the amount of concentration you can achieve, meditation-like if you get really into it), so once a day should be more than enough. As always, if you do it 2 or more times a day you'll improve much faster, but at the same time it increases the chances of a burn out. Consistency is better than brute force in the long run.

Eventually you'll become pretty fast, that's the moment you really want to start thinking about doing it multiple times a day, and with different tunings: drop-n, thirds (open), fifths, whatever, the point is to target different intervals. You can also practice different intervals by fretting a reference string, and using that new fretted pitch as reference.

Now I am aware that tuning is far from an absolute anyway - there are various systems, and a minor third in a blues band may be a very different thing from a minor third in a barbershop quartet (and even depending on what its function is in the chord also).

If you use a 12 tone equal temperament instrument and tuner, you can use those as base or reference from which you "measure" other temperaments. Flatter in some cases, sharper in others, but you have an actual base that can be used to identify and compare differences.

But even so - everything depends on having a well developed sense of "relative pitch" - far more than just being able to name intervals, but a really fine tuned sensitivity to fine variations of pitch, relative to the rest of the musical setting.

Do you want to avoid interval training? Or are you doing it already? Because it is the base in which all classical ear training is based upon. Intervals are part of our most basic measurement system, that we'll use to communicate, classify, abstract, and more importantly: reason about aural relationships between pitches.

In other words, you first need to know how a perfect fifth sounds like, before you can objectively judge how sharp or flat a potential perfect fifth might be. In the case of the proposed exercise above, and assuming a typical guitar with standard tuning and adjacent strings order, if you want to tune the strings without the unison, octave, or harmonics methods you need to at least roughly know how the perfect fourth and major third intervals sound like. Otherwise you go directly to the other methods that rely on unison, octave, and beatings; which is ok, but music is made of many other intervals, so relying only on octaves makes no sense.

It would be extremely interesting to investigate this ability scientifically by means of a note produced electronically and adjusted with a slider or similar. Maybe it has been done.

That's exactly what we are trying to achieve with this tuning exercise, but acoustically.

One way to take these type of ear training exercises to a completely other level fairly easily (as in, make them much more efficient, improve much faster and accurately, without much more effort) is to sing them too. At least the larger intervals, since at the start singing anything smaller than a semitone can be very challenging, but trying to sing smaller intervals that are out of tune (like slightly out of tune unisons) is very fun!

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  • Thank you. Some good ideas. No, I'm not trying to avoid ear training - I did plenty in the past. I just installed one of the apps recommended here and did the first 120 questions with one error (which was more just hitting the wrong button). I am a semi pro musician and regularly play gigs where my ability to work from my ears, with no charts or rehearsal, is a reason I get hired. I'm not saying I have nothing to learn here - of course there is always more to learn. I am just taking a somewhat finer approach to "relative pitch" here than the usual one. Thank you for your thoughtful response. – danmcb Jan 18 at 11:42
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    @danmcb I see! Glad to read that's the case. This is how I normally start practicing any stringed instrument, sometimes do it 2 or 3 times in a row if I'm on a good mood. I started doing it more systematically once I noticed the improvements of tuning by ear alone, and tuning intervals other than unison and octave has given me much better results! But yeah, not an exercise for complete beginners. – Von Huffman Jan 18 at 11:48
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    it's a good idea _ i'll give it a try right now. Indeed tuners make us lazy! Another one I invented was singing - play a note on piano, close eyes, sing and try to match pitch, open eyes, look at tuner ... – danmcb Jan 18 at 12:04
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    @danmcb Lazy and sometimes can return to bite us! Many folk scenes I know tune everything around one semitone flat, and you are supposed to tune when you arrive using the music that's currently being performed. That's what all musicians in the event are expected to be tuned to, not something specific like A = 440Hz. If you rely on a tuner, you need to ask someone else to tune your instrument for you! Ouch! – Von Huffman Jan 18 at 12:28
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    I once jumped into a trad session in Ireland which was an Eb session - playing alto sax. I couldn't transpose the tunes I'd learned a semitone at such short notice - but my ears got me out of trouble, I could play stuff that made sense and we had fun. They must have liked me, I got taken on a tour of local bars and ended up drinking brandy in the guys' house at 3am ... happy memories. – danmcb Jan 18 at 12:39
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The absolute best exercise to train your relative pitch is to sing music on some kind of movable system.

This is because movable systems—like movable do and scale-degree numbers—teach you the function of what you're singing, which is ultimately exactly what relative pitch is. (Fixed systems, like fixed do, do not teach function, which is why I believe it's an inferior tool for teaching/learning relative pitch.)

Find a book of sight-singing melodies (maybe try to find an old, cheap version of Music for Sight Singing by Ottman and Rogers online) and work through it, singing all of the melodies on a movable system. As you do this, you'll slowly cement for yourself the functions of all of these scale degrees; you'll learn, for instance, that scale-degree 7 has a very particular sound, not to mention a tendency to resolve a particular way. And when that scale-degree 7 is lowered a half step, suddenly it has a very different sound and function.

Consistent, devoted practice with this will soon result not only in your ability to sight read melodies, but also to hear the scale degrees of the music you listen to.

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    glad to read your comment about fixed do, I never understood why there would be such a think, always assumed it was part of historic development – Michael Curtis Jan 17 at 21:57
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    Richard - thank you for your answer, but this is not what I am asking about. I already do transcribe quite well, and I recognise intervals very well. I play back melodies by ear generally quite quickly. I've transcribed jazz solos for saxophone and so on. I sight sing reasonably well. I recognise a major 7th from a dom 7th from a sixth with ease. What I am looking for is how to play or sing more accurately. I wonder how (for instance) violinists address this - must be one of the hardest instruments, tuning-wise. – danmcb Jan 18 at 10:30
  • @MichaelCurtis It's another way of thinking about pitch differences! A more abstract, less numbery, way to express and reason about intervals. Very useful in internalizing intervals if stuff like "diminished fifth" isn't doing the trick. – Von Huffman Jan 18 at 13:26
  • @VonHuffman. I don't understand your comment. I was asking why there ever was a "fixed" do system, as it seems inferior to "moveable" do. (Actually, I was just agreeing with Richard's comment about it being inferior. I assume fixed do is just pre-equal-temperment history.) – Michael Curtis Jan 21 at 15:34
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I agree with Richard learning and training solfege (movable do re mi) practicing all scales and modes and intervals from the same tone. But there is another training that was the greatest benefit to me: By trying to play or notate melodies, tunes of well known songs, and controlling my writing with an instrument. Later you can continue with your own inventions and your own songs. I most profited when composing e.g. a quartet or a small piece for piano when humming and writing what I heard with my inner ear.

The advantage of this system is: you don‘t need any teacher or partner who for dictating, correcting and controlling your writing. You can start with children songs or the national anthem. And if you have problems with the rhythm transcription you can ignore it but you will certainly also make progressions in this area.

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I concur with the other answers that you are looking for movable system ear training, even if all you want is to improve your internal tuner. As Richard pointed out, a movable system teaches you the function of each note within the context of the scale. Once you have a feeling for this function, you will have a much easier time recognizing when you are not hitting the note properly.

It is still worth noting that relative pitch is not absolute pitch; you still won't be able to play a random note and just know that you are 22.5 cents sharp. You will, however, develop a decent idea of whether or not your note is off in the context of the scale/song that you are playing.

As for resources, I highly recommend this app if you have an android device, or the orginal web based version. There are plenty to choose from out there, but I have been using that android app for a while and it seems to be working!

For a more personal example that this should do what you are looking for, after playing with the aforementioned app on and off for the last few months, I made a New Year's Resolution to learn a new instrument. I settled on the harmonica because I thought it would be nice to have an instrument I could bring anywhere. When I finally started learning an actual song, one note sounded particularly "odd". I pulled out my trusty tuner and found out that I was playing it flat! Not 30 cents, nor 20 cents, but about 10 cents flat. I was very excited because not only had I detected that I was flat using only my ears, I had accidentally figured out the first step to bending on my harmonica!

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    Thank you - I may well check out this app. – danmcb Jan 18 at 10:42

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