Relative Pitch: A Skill You Can Learn

March 12, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about why adults can’t develop perfect pitch. In that piece I wrote that music teacher and producer Rick Beato said that while it was great to have perfect pitch, in his opinion relative pitch was possibly more important. So for those mere mortals who don’t have that seemingly superhuman ability to instantly recognize any pitch they hear, there is still hope. Just because you weren’t born with superhuman hearing doesn’t mean that you can’t develop your ear to a high level.


In this video, Beato gets into the specific differences between relative and perfect pitch and why developing good relative pitch is so important. Today I’d like to share a little of what Beato states in his video.


Let’s begin with a little refresher. Beato offers these definitions of perfect and relative pitch:


“Perfect pitch is the ability to identify or re-create a given musical tone without a reference note.”


“Relative pitch is the ability to identify a musical note by comparing it to a reference note.” 


So, in other words, a person with perfect pitch can instantly recall the name of any pitch they hear. A person who has developed the skill of relative pitch can identify the intervals between pitches—they have a good aural understanding of how pitches relate to each other.


What is really critical to understand here is that perfect pitch is an ability that one has to develop during infancy or they will never have it. Relative pitch is a skill that can be learned and developed. Like any skill, some people have a more natural aptitude for relative pitch than others, just like some people have more natural affinity for learning math than others. Just as almost anyone can learn math to some degree of competency, almost anyone can develop relative pitch and improve their hearing. 


Beato points out that the real benefit of relative pitch is that it allows a person to put what they are hearing into context. They aren’t just hearing isolated pitches; they are accurately hearing how those pitches relate to each other as a sonorous unit. Beato’s young son has perfect pitch, but he also has relative pitch, and he had to develop that skill through ear training. Without good relative pitch he would only be able to hear the individual notes of a chord. Relative pitch gives all those notes meaning. That’s where the real value of relative pitch comes in, and you don’t need perfect pitch in order to develop and benefit from relative pitch.


When I was learning to play guitar, I recall walking into my guitar instructor’s studio as he was writing out a chord chart for a song he had to play that night on a gig. He was listening to the recording and writing down the names of the chords as they went by. I thought he had perfect pitch. He didn’t. He just had highly developed relative pitch, and this allowed him to instantly hear how all the pitches in any given chord related to each other. So once he knew what key the song was in, his reference tone, it was easy for him to know whether a given chord was a C sus 4 or a D7, and so on, enabling him to write out the chart in just one listening. 


Relative pitch is a skill that almost all great musicians have, and it’s a skill that can be learned. This skill allows musicians to understand musical notes in a context. That’s why relative pitch is actually more important than perfect pitch. It lets musicians understand and recognize the relationships between pitches. And honestly, isn’t that what music is all about any way? 






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