Relative pitch and perfect pitch (or absolute pitch as it’s also known) are the two different ways in which any person can recognize which notes are being played when they hear music. In this article I’ll explain what they are, and discuss the benefits of each.
Relative pitch, as its name suggests, involves recognizing each note relative to the other notes in a piece of music. With relative pitch, you’ll be able to identify the relationships between any two (or more) notes. In order to identify the notes themselves, you’ll need a reference point. If you know what one note is (or the key centre of a piece of music) you can use your knowledge of the relationships between the notes to work out the rest.
Perfect pitch will allow a musician to identify the pitch of any note without any reference point. A musician with perfect pitch can identify the pitch of any note as they hear it, even if they haven’t heard any other note to compare it to.
Do I Want to Develop Relative Pitch or Perfect Pitch?
If you were to develop either relative pitch or perfect pitch, you would achieve one of the most important goals of ear training: you would be able to identify which notes are being played in any music that you heard. If you can identify the notes that you’re hearing, you can play them, or write them down as you wish.
Considering this, it may seem that it’s best to strive for perfect pitch. After all, it will allow you to identify music without needing a reference point. In an ideal world this would be the case. The problem with perfect pitch however, isn’t in it’s ability to improve your playing. The problem with perfect pitch is that it’s extremely difficult to develop. Most musicians with perfect pitch develop it as small children, and I don’t know of anyone who has developed it later in life. I believe that it’s possible to develop some level of perfect pitch as an adult, but I’m skeptical about whether it can be developed to a point where it can be useful. Music is made up of a lot of notes, so you need to develop a very fast sense of perfect pitch in order for it to be useful with music.
This is why relative pitch is the focus of most ear training. Relative pitch gives you most of the benefits of perfect pitch (you can usually get a reference point easily enough in most situations) and it’s entirely possible to develop in a realistic amount of time. With effective guidance, most musicians can start to develop useful relative pitch in a matter of months, which will stay with them for life.