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leopardgecko123's avatar

What is it called when you can tell if a note is off key?

Asked by leopardgecko123 (777points) February 20th, 2011
22 responses
“Great Question” (0points)

I play violin and I can tell exactly when a note is off key and once I listened to my friend play guitar and I could tell she played a note wrong (without looking at her face) and I never heard the song before. Is there a name for it?

And does it relate to this?:

I can play a song on my violin once I’ve heard it without looking at any notes. I think that’s called playing by ear, but I’m not sure.

Thank you!!!!!! :):):):):):):)

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skfinkel's avatar

Having a good ear. You might have perfect pitch. A gift!

ette_'s avatar

+1 for perfect pitch—as far as playing a song once you’ve heard it without looking at any notes, that’s probably something more like musical prodigy…

jazzticity's avatar

Off key isn’t specific. Do you mean hearing a wrong note or a note out of tune? Two entirely different phenomena calling on different skills. It sounds like you’re talking about hearing “wrong” notes, although you need to be careful about this. How do you know what note was actually intended?

If you can play a song after having heard it once, you have a decent sense of pitch and good tonal memory. Any trained musician can do that. If you can play complicated songs that way, you have special abilities.

Ladymia69's avatar

I have this ability as well, but I don’t know how to read music. I should probably learn, because it is frustrating not to be able to translate. Perfect pitch is the only term I have heard to describe it.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

it’s called relative pitch. you have perfect pitch only if you can hear a note and name it, or be able to sing a named note.

leopardgecko123's avatar


I mean that the note sounds like it wasn’t the right one and/or it sounds out of tune. I have no idea how I can do this, it just sounds wrong. I can’t tell what note what supposed to be played unless I was told or I am playing it, though.
Hope that answers your questions!;)

jazzticity's avatar

@leopardqecko123 obviously some early aural experiences wired your brain in a musical direction. The fact that you can’t explain this tells me that it did not come from deliberate training. At that early period in infancy when brains are disassembling themselves like mad, leaving only the connections you’ll need for survival, your listening experiences wired your brain for music. Good for you.

What sounds wrong to you can be for entirely different reasons. If someone plays a note, say on the violin, that is out of tune, a trained musician can hear this. The best musicians can hear pitch variations of as little of 5 cents. The public will normally tolerate variations or 20 cents or more before anything bothers them. We’ve all heard the sound of an out of tune piano or guitar. Even if the performer plays all the right notes, the performance will be flawed.

Hearing a wrong note is something else. If someone is playing a passage in the key of Bb and plays an E natural by mistake—most everyone will notice. But some wrong notes are much harder to hear. A master conductor can listen to a performance of a Beethoven Symphony, and in measure 154, if the second clarinet plays an F instead of an A, he will hear it. That is the kind of hearing that only years and years of study, in addition to “natural ability,” can produce.

Having said that, the real gift for music goes beyond both of these abilities. I have known famous singers who had a tin ear. Couldn’t count, couldn’t find the key unless someone played their starting note, and had no clue what the musicians behind them were playing. But their gift was hearing phrasing and interpretation that brought the music to life.

Music involves a complicated skill set!

One last comment: no such thing as perfect pitch. No musician has perfect anything; we all work to expand and grow, and even the masters had their limitations. Hearing pitches is divided into two abilities—absolute pitch and relative pitch. Wiki has informative articles on each.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I agree with @quarkquarkquark. It sounds like relative pitch. If this is a completely natural ability, however, you might try learning the names of all the notes to see if you can come to recognize and name them by sound (just like I assume you can name colors at first sight). Perhaps you have a latent capacity for perfect pitch.

@jazzticity “Perfect pitch” is just another name for what you are calling “absolute pitch.” Even the second clause of the Wikipedia article you recommend says so.

jazzticity's avatar

@SavoirFaire yes, “perfect pitch” is what people use when they describe absolute pitch. But the term is clearly flawed, and is not used by musicians. A person with relative pitch can have a better ear than a person with absolute pitch. And more important than either is tonal memory. Can you hold the melody in your head? How long? Long enough to analyze it? Long enough to remember it hours later? When Mozart wrote out the full score to Allegri’s Miserere after hearing it just once at the Sistine Chapel, what was really the operative skill here? Would anyone have cared if he wrote it in the “wrong” key? Absolute pitch is overrated, which is why we don’t use the term “perfect pitch.”

Axemusica's avatar

Violins and guitars are quite different instruments. Both of which require understanding of how a Luthier does their job. Both have points through out the neck that require precision, both in how the instrument was made; maintained, & depending on how the player actually frets the notes. I’m quite sure that violins are often built quite better due to the popularity the guitar has accrued over the centuries.

I am no violinist, I am a guitarist going on 17–18years of play. I can listen to the radio and mimic it with a guitar, but I couldn’t tell you what notes they were. What I can inform you of is my personal experience with Intonation. In my experiences with guitars, majority of them are off pitch. This being because of age, player, string type & size, ect… & on with several variables. I often check with a tuner after I restring one of my guitars to make sure that the 3 octave notes are the notes they’re supposed to be on each string.

Most guitars are mass produced with little to no, adjustment to their intonation before being bought. I often offer to fix others guitars after playing them, lol. Don’t fret it. Your friend probably was playing it right, but she was either pressing too hard or too lightly or the intonation wasn’t accurate enough to her play style or that far off. (off, being either sharp# or flat♭)

seazen's avatar


SavoirFaire's avatar

@jazzticity Thank you for telling me what I don’t do. Also, I didn’t say anything about the relative value of perfect pitch.

jazzticity's avatar

@SavoirFaire, good, just so we’re in agreement. Perfect pitch is not just another name for absolute pitch and is a term that should not be used. It misrepresents the complexity of what musicians do and the training required to learn aural skills.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

@jazzticity, that is an awfully ideological point to be making over musical semantics.

jazzticity's avatar

It’s my job. Sorry. Someone has to watch over the nomenclature and that’s what we do.

chocolatechip's avatar

@jazzticity Perfect pitch is just another name for absolute pitch. That’s all there is to it. The term “perfect” has no other implications in this context.

Don’t be such a pedant.

jazzticity's avatar

It sounds like you have some citations to refute me. Good. Love it. Bring them on. But you’d better go beyond wiki, because many of their musical citations are of my publications.

chocolatechip's avatar

Really, nobody but yourself would care to engage with you in some kind of citation war over something so trivial. Do you also take issue with the term “blackboard” in reference to chalkboards that are not black, but green?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@jazzticity I fail to see where I agreed. What I did was call you out for your presumption. I am a musician, too (a classically trained composer). You do not speak for all of us when you say that musicians do not use the term “perfect pitch.” There was a young woman in my ear training classes who had perfect pitch, and every single professor referred to her skill as “perfect pitch.” This was at a rather good school, for what it is worth, and no one blinked at the term. I see no problem with the term either.

Where I agree is that perfect pitch is not a skill that is valuable above all others nor one that makes the rest of one’s musical training easier or superfluous. The young woman I mentioned had that attitude at first and learned her lesson in a way that was both quick and harsh.

jazzticity's avatar

Look at it this way. There is a reason why doctors presently use terms like “Alzheimer’s” and “cerebral infarction” instead of the antiquated term “senile.” The same has happened in music. To just say “What difference does it make?” doesn’t help. I mean, at some level it doesn’t matter. But that’s not what this site is about. it’s about getting an authoritative answer to a specific question, not just getting in the ball park. You’re right in that many musicians still use the term. But they shouldn’t. Scientific inquiry doesn’t allow for such loose terminology. Among the many references, I will cite Oxford Online:

“The popular term ‘perfect pitch’ is misleading. Musicians claiming tone-AP are not necessarily better at discriminating tones of almost the same frequency, or at perceiving small deviations in intonation, than other musicians (Bachem, 1954; Burns and Campbell, 1994). AP possessors can typically tune pitches to within 20–60 cents of target frequencies (Rakowski and Morawska-Büngeler, 1987). In passive tasks, they regularly make semitone errors (Lockhead and Byrd, 1981; Miyazaki, 1988), and are not necessarily better than other musicians at identifying octave registers (Rakowski and Morawska-Büngeler, 1987; Miyazaki, 1988). There is nothing ‘perfect’ about absolute pitch.”

SavoirFaire's avatar

@jazzticity I’m not sure this site is about getting an authoritative answer, particularly since so many of the questions are matters of opinion. Regardless, the question asks what a particular skill is called, and the skill involved sounds like relative pitch. Therefore, the question of “perfect” vs. “absolute” pitch does not arise. Were that question to arise, however, the answer would still need to mention both terms since the latter skill goes by both names and the question would be about what the skill is called. Any other answer would be less authoritative in that it would not cover all the terms by which the skill is called.

As for Oxford Online, the reasoning there is flawed insofar as it applies equally well to absolute pitch. Given the meaning of “absolute,” the studies cited by your source equally support the claim that there is nothing “absolute” about perfect pitch. Thus both terms are misleading on those grounds, and therefore stand equal.

28lorelei's avatar

Yes, listening to a piece and playing it is called playing by ear.
You might have perfect pitch. Do different keys have different qualities, like e.g. is E major brighter than say, Db major? Do notes themselves have different characteristics that you just can’t explain? These would both be possible indicators. You can test it by having someone else go to a piano and ask you to name notes they play when you can’t see the keyboard.

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