Encyclopedia > Relative pitch

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Relative pitch

The term relative pitch denotes either:
  • the distance of a musical note from a set point of reference, e.g. "three octaves above middle C"; or
  • the skill used by singers to correctly sing a melody, following musical notation, by pitching each note in the melody according to its distance from the previous note. Alternatively, the same skill which allows someone to hear a melody for the first time and name the notes (relative to some known starting pitch).

Unlike perfect pitch, relative pitch is quite common among musicians, especially jazz musicians who are used to "playing by ear". Also unlike perfect pitch, there's no doubt that it's possible to develop relative pitch by practice.

Some music teachers teach their students relative pitch by having them associate each possible interval with the first two notes of a popular song. Here are some examples:

  • Second: Frere Jacques
  • (Major) Third: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  • Fourth: Auld Lang Syne ("Should All...") or Taps
  • Fifth: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001), or Hey There, Georgie Girl
  • Octave: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Another good way to develop relative pitch is to simply try to play melodies by ear on a musical instrument. As you figure out more and more melodies by trial and error, you will eventually start to recognize some of the more common intervals. Then all you need to do is start associating these intervals with their names.

Intervals are more difficult to hear the larger they are. Any interval that stretches more than a single octave is significantly more difficult than one under an octave.


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