The term relative pitch may denote:
- the distance of a musical note from a set point of reference, e.g. “three octaves above middle C”
- a musician’s ability to identify the intervals between given tones, regardless of their relation to concert pitch (A = 440Hz)
- 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 absolute pitch (sometimes inaccurately called “perfect pitch”), relative pitch is quite common among musicians, especially jazz musicians who are used to “playing by ear”. Also unlike perfect pitch relative pitch is common among non-musicians and there’s no doubt that it’s possible to develop through 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, examples of which may be found at ear training. 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. North Indian musicians learn relative pitch by singing intervals over a drone, which is also described by W.A. Mathieau using western just intonation terminology. Many western ear training classes use solfege to teach students relative pitch, while others use numerical sight-singing.
Intervals are more difficult to hear the larger they are or the more octaves they span. Compound intervals are significantly more difficult than simple intervals.
The recognition of intervals allows musicians with very good relative pitch to easily identify complex chord types (even if they couldn’t tell in which key a piece of music was in) and to be able to quickly and accurately tune an instrument with respect to a given reference tone (even if the tone is not in concert pitch).