Relative Pitch vs Perfect Pitch: Which one will teach you how to play by ear?

So you want to play music by ear and you’ve been learning about ear training. And you’ve found out that there are two different ways that musicians play by ear. In this post (the first in our series on relative pitch) I’ll tell you about both of them and I’ll tell you which one will make it easy for you to learn to play music by ear.

The first is perfect pitch (or absolute pitch). A musician with perfect pitch can recognise any note they hear. If you had perfect pitch and I played an E you would be able to tell me that it was an E. It would be as easy as telling me that a stop sign is red (well they are here in Australia at least).

The second is relative pitch. With relative pitch you wouldn’t be able to tell me that you heard an E. But if I played a second note you would be able to tell me the difference in pitch between the two. This difference in pitch is called an interval. With relative pitch you can identify the intervals between notes rather than the notes themselves. With a good sense of it each interval would be as clear and obvious as the red colour of an Australian stop sign.

When I started with ear training I spent a lot of time trying to work out which one was the right approach. I was constantly asking myself “is it relative pitch or perfect pitch that will allow me to play by ear?”.

So in this post I’d like to answer that question for you and save you the trouble of working it out for yourself.

Perfect pitch sounds like the ideal solution. You hear a note and recognise it. Easy as that. And in an ideal world it would be. There’s no simpler way to identify a note when you hear it.

But there’s a huge problem with perfect pitch.

You won’t get it!

I’m not trying to be mean and I’m not suggesting that you’re not determined. But I feel fairly confident in making this prediction.

There is a lot of evidence out there that supports the theory that it is impossible to learn perfect pitch as an adult. The general consensus among musicians and researchers studying perfect pitch is that it can only be learned as a child because it develops while the brain is still developing.

There are people who claim that it can be taught. Are they telling the truth or making it up? I don’t know. Perhaps they’ve cracked the code. If you’re desperate to develop perfect pitch then by all means go for it. But from my experience you’re likely to waste a lot of your time and effort.

I’ve spoken to one musician who claims to have developed it as an adult. Here’s the funny thing though. Even he says that it’s not worth it. He told me it took so long to start making any progress at all that he doesn’t think it would be worth it if you were wanting to play by ear. You would be better off going with the other option.

The other option is of course relative pitch. Relative pitch is a different story. It’s not quite as simple as perfect pitch. There’s a system that you have to learn so you can recognise first the intervals in music and then work the notes out from there.

But there are two great things about relative pitch:

1. It works!

First and foremost it actually works at any age. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 7 or 70 you can develop a sense of relative pitch that will allow you to play by ear.

2. You can see results quickly

The danger of some of the perfect pitch methods out there (and some relative pitch methods as well for that matter) is that they tell you to work on a few exercises and hope for the best. This is a great way to waste months or even years waiting to see results.

When you approach relative pitch training in the right way (which we’ll get to soon) you will see results quickly. On the day you get started you will see how the system works and within a couple of weeks you will start to see the progress you’re making.

So if you’d like to play by ear I strongly suggest you start with relative pitch. Once you start to see those results you’ll know you’ve made the right decision.

Ear training problems aren’t reserved for perfect pitch however. A lot of musicians try to develop relative pitch with little or no success. When I started with ear training I started out by trying to develop relative pitch and it simply wasn’t working. Then I switched to perfect pitch and had even less success and wasted a few months in the process. When I switched back relative pitch I make a big change to the way I was approaching it and everything started to happen for me very quickly.

If you want to succeed and develop relative pitch quickly and easily I would suggest you find out about the mistake that I was making (that musicians everywhere are making with ear training) – interval ear training – so you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort and start making progress quickly and easily today.

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