Relative Pitch is more important, but that doesn’t mean Absolute Pitch is useless

On our web pages you may get the impression that absolute pitch is less useful than relative pitch. On several occasions we do point out that relative pitch is indeed more important than absolute pitch.

Examples of the importance of relative pitch

Example for relative pitch

  1. That’s because, in recognizing melodies, only relative pitch changes from note to note are relevant. Thinking in terms of absolute pitches is not as useful. For example, we can recognize the melody of “Silent Night” in different contexts: say, when it is sung by a children’s choir or by a men’s choir. The absolute pitches will sound higher in the children’s choir than in the men’s choir, but the the melody remains “Silent Night” in either version. Hence, the positions or pattern of notes, the pitches in relation to each other, stands out to our ear as more important than identifying their notes individually, or with absolute pitch.

  2. Relative pitch is more important, not only on a note-by-note basis. My favorite example illustrating this is to consider the following setup: say you are a guitarist accompanying a flute playing a lead melody. Assume also that the flute cannot be tuned on the fly (e. g. pan-flute). Imagine also that, unfortunately, it is a very hot day. The temperature influences the sonic speed of the air and thus the pitch or tuning of the flute: the increase of sonic speed by the temperature makes the flute produce higher frequencies. The length of expansion of the flute’s bamboo tubes compensate for this effect to some degree by making its air-pipe longer, thus this effect lets the flute produce lower sounds. But the effect of the expansion is not enough to compensate the pitch increase through the increase of the sonic speed, and thus the flute deviates from perfect tuning. Since all notes of the flute are affected, all notes will sound higher.

    The guitar on the other hand tends to produce lower pitches, since the expansion of the strings is larger than the expansion of the neck.

    As demonstrated with the product Listening Music Teacher, differences between simultaneously played notes can be easily heard because the interactions produce an overlapping dynamic effect. So when the flute and the guitar play the same note (the flute a little bit too sharp and the guitar a little flat) you will recognize an increase and decrease of the loudness of the combined sounds with a low frequency. If these effects are small it does not seem to hurt the overall experience of the music. But if as a musician you can hear such subtle differences, you are advised to tune your guitar to the flute (even so the flute is off the equal tempered tuning). Instruments that harmonize in tune sound much better than those not in tune. A tuning fork, perfectly pitched to the equal-tempered scale, will not solve a tuning problem between instruments. You must listen instead to the flute when, because of the weather, it has gone off its equal-tempered tuning.

    A side remark to avoid confusion: The increase of the sonic speed of the air does not change the frequency during transportation of the sound. That is a source producing a sound of 390 Hz will be heard at a distance of 10m still as a frequency of 390 Hz. Just a little bit earlier since the sonic speed bring the sound waves faster to the remote point. But for the production of the frequency within the flute, the sonic speed is important. Because the knot of the sound wave reaches the reflection point in the tube faster the produced frequencies will be higher. On the guitar the strings produce the frequency. The guitar body has the task to resonate and amplify the sound, thus is not responsible for the production of the intended sound. Therefore, the sonic speed has little effect on the frequency generation in the guitar.

    The example above demonstrates how relative pitch tuning is overall more important than absolute pitch.

  3. Absolute pitch is difficult to acquire if not learned in early childhood. Because of the above-mentioned preferences of relative pitch over absolute pitch, the brain finds it less important to keep track of absolute pitches. Thus the brain itself considers relative pitch more important and gives up on acquiring absolute pitch in early childhood.

Why then acquire absolute pitch?

Absolute Orientation points give you confidence. Absolute Pitch gives you confidence in musical expressions.

While I agree with the first two points, I agree only partially with the third. Yes, it is difficult to acquire absolute pitch. However, it is possible to acquire absolute pitch with the right tools and training (e.g. the Singing Funnel method and the Octave Anchor Pitches method). Acquiring absolute pitch after childhood is similar to learning a foreign language (see How To Recognize Pitch).

But still, why should you learn to recognize absolute pitches? If you do any research, you will find many benefits of perfect pitch. However, I think there is only one good reason: Orientation. Let me explain what I mean:

Where am I, in the scale or in this piece of music?, you might ask. Absolute pitch helps you to orient yourself. Compare this to locating a place. If you have only relative directions, e.g. “after four intersections turn left,“ you could still get into trouble if it is possible to go left at a third road that turns out to be a very small one the directions did not account for. You would be unsure if this version of a road should be counted as an intersection or not. But if you have absolute orientation points, such as a church, railway crossing, or warehouse, then you will have more confidence in the directions and following them correctly.

Any additional information you have about the relative description, e.g. the distance in miles, or approximate walking distance, helps you to make the correct turn.

In music, absolute pitch means you know where you stand. This is especially important for a cappella singing. If you are given a starting note, then must sing notes randomly presented, and you rely on relative pitch, there is a greater chance you will miss the correct pitches. Especially, if you have a tendency to go a bit flat in your sense of relative pitch. Let us assume you sing every note 5 cents flat. After 20 notes you would be 100 cents flat, or a semitone off. If you are not oriented absolute pitch, you would not realize that you are off a semitone. If you have absolute pitch to a precision of 20 cents, then after 5 notes you would realize your deviation from the correct pitch. Fortunately, we seldom sing or play without an accompaniment, so most often we synchronize with the accompaniment, and avoid drifting off key.

Even so, if you do sight reading in your head it may not be important that you end up on a different note than you started, as the quality of pitch is not the same. The total experience, or the one pictured in your imagination, is different when you can close the piece on the same note as you started. The main tenet in music is listening, as either musician or audience member, and explains why ear training is so important. It doesn’t have to be our courses: Any ear training will increase confidence–– for that matter, any accomplishments we make through learning will increase our confidence.

Absolute pitch is a goal that makes a difference in your listening skill. Not in trying to help others, but in gaining the ability to hear the notes in advance and the freedom that ensues in knowing (if you are improvising) that the next note you play fits best in the overall musical experience.

Training methods to improve absolute pitch

Any practical musical training will help you associate pitches to note names. Prerequisite is that your instrument is correctly tuned; otherwise note associations easily go off the mark.

Of course, a teacher who gives precise feedback is the best solution, but private lessons require financial means, so next best is software-based training. Unlike a teacher, software cannot give you feedback on all aspects of music-making, but in specialized areas such as ear training it may easily surpass a teacher. Software never grows tired and is always ready for an exercise. Reading books and listening to recorded sounds is not as effective as doing activities with instant and appropriate feedback.

For absolute pitch training, we have developed the Singing Funnel method, which highlights the strong relationship between hearing and speaking. The program Listening Ear Trainer also includes the Octave Anchor Pitch method, in order not to limit the training to just your individual vocal range.

Learning absolute pitch follows a similar track as learning a foreign language. One difficulty in learning a foreign language lies in the recognition process. Listening to radio and watching TV brings the sound of the language nearer to us, but we must also understand the words, so we can build meaningful associations between sounds and words. Like learning a foreign language, recognizing pitches in daily training sessions is better than longer but fewer sessions.

Learning to recognize as a process yields no simple, perfect match, but allows for many variations in hearing pitches. We can recognize handwriting we have never seen before because our brain is capable of extracting its important attributes despite the enormous diversity that exists.

Depending on your musical background, it can be as difficult to learn to recognize pitches as learning Japanese or Chinese. You may never reach a perfect level, but the goal is to improve. Most ear-training programs will increase your relative pitch. And yes, we agree that relative is more important than absolute pitch. Relative pitch is easier to learn and to improve on, since the brain is predisposed to relate sounds and find patterns. Nevertheless, ear training for absolute pitch will increase confidence that your ear is spot-on. If you play an instrument, don’t give up your technical training; it gives you the ability to play fast, while freeing up space in your mind to listen to other players.

Some remarks on the idea that “absolute pitch can be disturbing”

There are people who have absolute pitch and complain that they have problems as soon as they hear something out of tune. These people may have problems, but not because of having absolute pitch. It is difficult for them to be flexible, and they may even become intolerant because they perceive absolute pitch as a limitation. Such people certainly don’t seek such a limitation, or become inflexible on purpose; they just can’t let go. If such behavior shows up in too many situations, often therapy can assist them in overcoming their discomfort.

Let me explain by example:. Let’s imagine playing “Silent Night“ while reading from the original version of the score, as written by Franz Xavier Gruber. “Perfect!“ says the person with absolute pitch. Now, let’s play “Silent Night“ starting a whole tone lower, reading from the same score. If the person with absolute pitch is not happy, then she/he may be said to be very intolerant. That person wants to hear the original starting pitch of Silent Night; only what Gruber wrote. But what if you (or someone else without absolute pitch) hears it the first time played perfectly, but a whole tone lower? Assuming you did not know the score, you would not recognize it as a whole tone lower (or “wrong“), since you’ve only heard the one version. But then later you, when you developed absolute pitch, you might classify the original version as “wrong“ when reading it while listening to the version a whole tone lower. Even though both versions are correct in terms of relative pitches, you are deemed “intolerant“ if you do not accept other starting notes. Now, let’s play ‘Silent Night“ not a whole tone but only 20 cents lower (a version with the entire orchestra if we can find one). Now, the people with absolute pitch can say this version is “wrong“ because they do not hear the exact notes of Gruber’s version. But it will sound perfectly correct to most of us, just as in the previous case but on a more subtle level.

The problem for those with absolute pitch is a tendency toward inflexibility, because their sense of pitch lies within the limited range of acceptable tones. Remember that A4 swinging with a frequency of 440 Hz was an arbitrary decision. There were other definitions used for A4 in other historical time periods and no physical or biological reason influenced the relatively recent choice of standardizing A4 at 440 Hz.

So the problem is not having absolute pitch in itself, but the inflexibility it can foster for those who have a precise aural sense of 440 Hz. Now, these people can say, “I only complain if someone’s instrument is not tuned to the others.“ In such a case it is not their absolute pitch that is disturbing them: it is actually a relative pitch problem, and they are right that the instrument relative to the others is out of tune. Everybody plays a little out of tune. Even His Holiness cannot tune an instrument to the arbitrary precision of 440 Hz. It is therefore a problem of tolerance. And by limiting oneself to exact tones one misses out on what is best in music, which gets its liveliness from small variations (within an acceptable tolerance): too low, too long, too loud, too much vibrato … If every piece of music was always played precisely in tune to the Hz measurement, we would soon be bored with the monotony.

Now you might say, I have listened to the same record over 100 times and I still like it. I guarantee you that recording has deviations from the norm in tuning; otherwise it would sound very robotic and dull. Most likely you would stop listening after a few times. I have never seen a robotic song long in the top charts (except perhaps “Popcorn,“ from Gershon Kingsley, but at that time electronic sound production was very loose). Even if a robotic song does invite multiple hearings, one must remember that the recording and reproduction processes themselves introduce errors.

Now, what does “acceptable” tolerance mean in terms of tuning? This depends on the setting. If two violinists prepare a piece with piano, then the argument that they agree on their tuning weighs in more heavily, since we can assume the piano will be tuned to the cent. In such a situation, the tuning is much more important than if the two violinists played just for fun, in which case the tolerance limits should be much looser, as they should be allowed to experiment and enjoy. Music is relative; absolute concert pitch (A = 440 Hz) is not given by the laws of nature. A relative deviation from an absolutely perfect fifth may give a piece a transcendent richness. Musicians and listeners alike, therefore, must decide on acceptable tolerances depending on the situation and personal comfort and taste. In my opinion, those who accept larger tolerances are more likely to experiment and discover new things. Only for a performance is it important that the musicians agree on common rules.

Hence, we should not let the argument “absolute pitch can be disturbing” be an excuse to avoid ear training. Ear training with a goal of achieving absolute pitch has its usefulness in orienting our ear to the sounds and tuning around us. If you take this as a goal, our products can help you on your way.

Pitch feedback leads you to Absolute Pitch

 

As a musician, one of the questions that is likely to daunt you frequently is whether absolute pitch is useless. What do you have to say, “Is absolute pitch useless?” Many people are of the view that to reproduce melodies, just the relative pitch is important. Yes, it is true that relative pitch is important but it does not automatically render absolute pitch useless. Both absolute pitch and relative pitch have their places in music.

As a musician, you should first learn to appreciate the importance of pitch without which it may not be able to make any progress because ‘pitch’ is the lifeline of any genre of music and it is vital that you have a very good concept of this musical concept.

It is not sufficient to have a clear understanding of the importance of pitch but you should delve further to understanding the dynamics of various pitches in creating and in reproducing music. This is where we are faced with two other important concepts that we have mentioned above, namely relative pitch and absolute pitch. The problem area for many is the absolute or the perfect pitch. For an untrained ear, achieving absolute pitch or perfect pitch turns out to be a very big challenge. Despite what views are posed about the usefulness or uselessness of absolute pitch, you cannot run away from this vital concept. We cannot attain harmony without absolute pitch. Our ear training software or absolute pitch training software will aid you achieve absolute pitch.

The singing funnel method used by our software is one of the most effective ways to reduce the gap between your actual pitch and the absolute pitch. If you are looking for the most cost effective program for training your ear then you will find here what exactly you have been looking for. Our listening ear training software is as good as having your personal trainer that gives feedback. You will also be able to track your progress using this software program. Our absolute pitch training software is priced very nominally to make it easily accessible to everyone.

Rather than being in a dilemma whether absolute pitch is useful or not, download our ear training software to achieve absolute pitch so that you will be able to appreciate correctly whether absolute pitch is useful or useless. We have the best ear training software available in the industry just for you.

 

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For another ear trainings method see our product Listening Music Teacher:

To do ear training to the cent without singing we have made exercises in our product: Listening Music Teacher. For example the exercise “Ear training 12 cents” will present you with a sound, which is perfectly tuned, and a second sound, which is 12 cents higher or lower or is the same. Your task is to find out if the second sound is higher or lower or the same. For small deviations this task gets very challenging. Especially if a longer pause between the sounds is made, the task gets really ambitious. With Listening Music Teacher you can also learn to hear triads and seventh chords, something not taught by Listening Ear Trainer. Visit www.listening-music-teacher.com

Want to learn to sing with feedback on pitch and rhythm? Visit www.listening-singing-teacher.com

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Macintosh and OS X are trademarks of Apple Computer Inc. IBM PC is trademark of International Business Machines Inc.Windows XP/Vista/7 is trademark of Microsoft Inc. Listening Singing Teacher, Listening Music Teacher, The Listening Ear Trainer, The Red Pitch Dot, The Colored Pitch Line, The Counting Hints Line, The Half Step Change Hints Line, The Notation Hints Line, The Half-Step Brackets, The Precision Listening Method, The Singing Funnel Method, The Octave Anchor Pitches Method and The Interval Overtone Method are trademarks of AlgorithmsAndDataStructures, F. Rudin. All other company and product names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.