… at least when it comes to musical pitch.
Musical pitch is the frequency (rate of vibration) of a note. More technically, it’s a psychoacoustical attribute of sound, because it requires a listener! There are 88 keys on a standard acoustic piano, and each one has a different pitch, despite having names in common like “C” or “F.”
A simple and useful way to think about this is that the pitches on the piano are much like the colors in the visual spectrum. The eye takes in blue, red, and yellow; the ear takes in C3, C4 (Middle C), and C5, among others. (See this handy list of the piano keys, their names, and their frequencies.)
Most people, except for the truly colorblind, can tell the difference between blue, red and yellow. But it takes a trained eye to discern and name subtle differences in the blue spectrum such as azure, indigo, and violet. Similarly, nearly anybody can discern the difference between high and low pitches played on a piano. And just like a trained artist can detect the difference between small gradations in color, trained musicians can acquire the ability to hear a specific pitch (note or key) and know exactly what it is. Some people are gifted with this ability without even trying. This ability is called perfect (or absolute) pitch.
Some of the skills bestowed by perfect pitch include the ability to name the key of a piece of music that’s being played, the ability to sing a given (named) pitch, and the ability to name an individual pitch (e.g. F4) when played without reference to another pitch.
The natural occurrence of perfect pitch in the general population is estimated to be one in 10,000 people. Are you one of them? Probably not! But don’t worry, perfect pitch is not important for becoming a skilled musician. (Most professional musicians don’t have it.)
If you really want to develop perfect pitch, there are methods out there that claim to be able to teach you. Perfect pitch is, after all, a useful way to amaze other people with your ear skills. And to be fair, people with perfect pitch will say that notes or keys of pieces have their own “color.” Still, jazz, rock and pop musicians usually don’t think about choosing the right key for a tune based on its “color,” as there are usually more pressing factors to consider, like the instruments that are playing or a singer’s vocal range.
Much more important for creative and performing musicians is the ability to hear the relationship between two pitches or notes. This is called relative pitch.
Unlike perfect pitch, relative pitch is easily acquired by nearly anybody with practice. Why is relative pitch such an important ability for every musician? Here’s a few reasons:
- You’ll recognize mistakes when you practice more easily.
- Melodies are sequences of pitches. Once you know the first pitch, you can easily figure out the remaining notes and play the melody by ear.
- Chords are pitches or notes stacked on top of each other. A chord is created by the relationship of its pitches to each other. With good relative pitch, you can more easily distinguish different chord qualities (dominant 7, minor 7 etc.).
Developing good relative pitch is an essential ability for every pianist. Not convinced? Read 10 reasons to train your musical ear.
Want to go further? Try these two simple exercises to train your relative pitch skills.