When you learn to play by ear, most people learn to hear the music in either ‘relative’ pitch, although a few people are able to hear the music in ‘absolute’ pitch (sometimes known as ‘perfect’ pitch).
Relative pitch is where you can identify the melody (and usually the chords also) relative to the musical ‘key’ or scale being used, without being able to identify what the actual ‘key’ or scale is. For example – if you listened to a recording of the opening melody of Three Blind Mice, you could express the melody in relative terms as:-
Mee Ray Doh – Me Ray Doh – Soh Fah Fah Mee – Soh Fah Fah Mee or in numbers:-
321, 321, 5443, 5443.
By being able to identify the melody in relative terms, you would be able to walk up to a piano, select a key to play in eg C and play the melody so that other people would recognise the tune. Whatever key you choose to play the tune in, may or may not the same as the key in which the original recording was played.
In contrast, if you were able to identify the tune with absolute pitch, you would be able to identify the original key and the actual notes, rather than just the relative notes eg if the original key was C – the notes of the melody for Three Blind Mice would be E D C – E D C – G F F E – G F F E
Or if the key was G – the notes would be B A G – B A G – D C C B – D C C B
Practice Makes Perfect!
Some people believe that the skill to identify music with absolute pitch (perfect pitch) is a skill which requires certain genetic qualities or ‘natural abilities’ whilst others believe that like relative pitch, it is a skill that can be learnt. Ether way, most agree that both skills require practice to improve accuracy and ease at which you can play by ear.