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Perfect Versus Relative Pitch

Often parents come to me wondering if their child could develop perfect pitch without being sure of what perfect pitch is. What these parents really mean to ask is,  “Will my child be able to play an instrument by ear and even compose his own music?”

Both perfect and relative pitch refer to the ability to recognise pitch. Perfect pitchers will be able to name a sounding note, relative pitchers will be able to identify the direction and the distance between a sounding note and the one before and after. Perfect pitchers will be able to discriminate every single note in a chord. Relative pitchers will be able to describe the chord by its character (major, minor, diminished, etc) and the internal intervals that compose it.

A person with perfect pitch is able to name a note on the spot, without any reference. They have the ability to give every note a sort of personality that they  can perceive. Because they don’t need any reference (another note to compare with) to perceive the sounding note, perfect pitch is also known as absolute pitch.

 

By contrast, a person with relative pitch is not able to determine the name of the notes unless another note has already been named. They will be able to distinguish the distance between two or more notes – intervals – even without knowing what note is ringing. They can easily perceive not only the distance but the direction of one note compared to the other, either when the notes are ringing at the same time or one after the other.

A well educated musician has usually developed a good deal of relative pitch. The presence of perfect pitch would be a bonus that is not always available for everybody, although a complete musician cannot get away without having trained his relative pitch. Some great composers possessed perfect pitch but all great composers had a very well developed relative pitch.

The absence of both perfect and relative pitch will still allow a person to perform, but the ability to experience the music will be compromised, and that will be reflected in the performance itself.

The confusion between perfect and relative pitch make parents want to have children who develop perfect pitch, while it would be better to work on the relative pitch for the following reasons:

-         Perfect pitchers recognise the notes in a isolated way, almost in a physical rather than musical way. This doesn’t necessary mean that they will be able to perform music or even understand it. Perfect pitch does not necessary go along with musical intuition, relative pitch does.

-         Perfect pitch as a skill has few chances to be developed. It not only  demands an early training but, research shows, requires a certain brain structure too. This special brain characteristic is only present in a small number of children. Meanwhile, relative pitch can be developed at any age, although it is usually best developed when training starts at a very early age.

Some children develop relative pitch without any systematic training but through a random natural exposure to music stimuli. By ‘natural’ I mean not exposed to pre-organised training material but by chance or other circumstances that allow the child to be immersed in some kind of musical environment.

At Stringnote we make certain that such exposure doesn’t occur in a random way and through research and extensive teaching experience, we have created an original method that offers children the possibility to experience a set of organised musical experiences that will develop the child’s relative pitch, amongst other crucial musical abilities.

Relative pitch is definitely the skill a person needs to be able to play by ear, to improvise and to compose music. Perfect pitch can complement relative pitch by  helping to discover combinations and sounds in places where chords or jumps get very complicated. Sometimes when perfect pitch is over-developed, it can even become a nuisance. For example, when instruments are not tuned at standard pitch, or when you need to share musical activities with slightly un-tuned beginners, or are using instruments that naturally don’t keep a consistent tuning in every part of their registry.

Because we work with note names from the very beginning (from 12 months) some of our students also develop perfect pitch. As long as the child is presented with the sound (on the correct tuning) and the name, a small number of children will nurture their perfect pitch even when our main aim is to work on the relative pitch. If a student follows our programme in the correct way, they will easily be capable of distinguishing in which direction voices are moving and how great the jump is between notes, supporting musicality and enhancing musical enjoyment.

Marcello Palace

Director of Stringnote Music Academy

Additional Research by Sylvia Corona