Can you identify individual notes?

Can you identify individual notes?

Just curious. If you are listening to a piece of music, are you able to think to yourself, for example, "This is an F?"
I started taking piano at a very young age, and my college voice teacher last year said that I have perfect pitch and that not everyone has it. (She also teaches people who haven’t done much singing before). I was going to mention it on the musical abilities thread, but then I was thinking… if you grew up around music from a very young age, do you have a better chance of being able to identify notes? Especially considering that there are a lot of people who play by ear rather than with sheet music.
The reality is, I can identify some notes off the top of my head when listening to music, but mostly the ones that would be considered "white notes" on the piano: I have to think more and/or play it myself to identify "black keys."
Just curious as to others’ thoughts on this? Hope I’m making sense!
Thanks!

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When listening to Irish tunes, I can usually tell what key something is in by the way it sounds. I don’t necessarily identify individual notes when I’m doing that, but you learn clues about what notes sound what way on certain instruments. (The most obvious would be the bottom D on pipes, but you can hear open strings differently on stringed instruments, etc.) So I probably use them subconsciously as clues.

So I wouldn’t say I have perfect pitch in the same regard as you. But there are occasional things that surprise me. I can restring a banjo and can tune it up to pitch without a tuner. It might be a few cents off, but I know what each string should sound like on my instrument, so I can just feel when the A string sounds right to me (and then I will double check it with a tuner…) And even a tune I’ve never heard before, I can just automatically reach for the right notes, partially because I’ve probably at least subconsciously figured out the key — and I’m good at hearing intervals.

I think that may come from being exclusively an ear learner… I’ve never had someone sit down and quiz me by playing two notes and asking what the interval is between them, but I do that a lot when learning tunes, obviously. The greater the interval, the harder it is to identify (except things like the obvious full octave…). So tunes that do a lot of large-arcing arpeggios up and down can be hard to just pick up by ear in sessions, and I’ll sometimes have to go look them up to see what they’re actually doing…

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That’s great, Reverend. It makes sense that when tuning your banjo string you are able to tell if it "sounds right".
I wonder if learning by ear makes it easier to identify what key something you are listening to is in.

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For me its pretty much the same what reverend wrote:
At least on flute, Whistle and pipe I have a good feeling what note is played by the way it sounds (think about the rather weak c natural on the wind instruments and compare it with a hard bottom d)

I think there are also many phrases I can identify quite fast because they are so common - but guessing what note singer sings in Rock music or what note is played from an "exotic" instrument in any style I am not familiar with, is very hard for me.

I guess that matches with the experience of many Irish trad musicians I know: Learning ITM by ear doesn’t necessarily enable a absolute hearing. You learn to recognize common phrases and what note is played if it has a lot of character.

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And pretty much the same for me. I am pretty accurate when I tune up my fiddle, even when I restring it, and if I hear a new tune, or even just have it in my head, I generally know where to start on, Even more surprising to me is that the note held in my head when I think a tune more often than not matches exactly with the correct one on my fiddle. But the thing with me is that I very rarely give thought to the names of the notes. I know them alright, but I just don’t give them thought unless asked. I play the tune and can jump fairly accurately between odd and wide intervals (even right up the neck), as long as the tune is in my head.

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This is really interesting. I guess I have always found that I need to know the name of the note before playing it, since it was always a part of me playing when I was younger (such as, OK, play the E next." It’s really interesting to see how we all think.
I guess you don’t really have to know the name as long as you know the positioning.

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Yes Whimbrel, I was also taught at a young age to read the notes, but I soon learned that it was faster for me to just listen to the tune being played in my school recorder group than it was to read and play. I then had the misfortune to be chosen as one of two kids to represent the school in a recorder duet competition, but when the teacher put the notes in front of me for some tune I didn’t know, my obvious reading incompetence got me kicked out of the group. For years I felt guilty, thinking that I’d cheated. Still, it didn’t stop me ‘cheating’ on a range of other musical instruments.

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I can hear a guitar and tell if it’s not being played in standard tuning, or if open chords are being played with a Capo on. And I can usually hear an F tune when played on a B/C accordion. I can pick it(usually) if the music is being played a semitone higher. I have some accordion friends in Melbourne who play B/C system but they can hear when someone is playing a C#/D system. Funny thing is I can still remember back many years ago when Johnny Connolly released his first CD and we all thought he was a pretty handy accordion player, until it was pointed out that he was playing a single row!

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This is kinda what I mean when I refer to developing an intimacy with your instrument or even voice. You hear a note and know where it is on your instrument even without knowing what that note is by name and no conscious thought as to where to put your fingers. Over time then, as our Rev mentions it’s relatively easy to identify the key and that makes it easy to know what the other notes are and even pick out accidentals. Knowing the key first makes the process even easier. For many interval training means that you can know a tune with no idea what the key is. I once took a piano class in college where only interval was taught. If the notes were written they were written on a blank page .. no staff lines. An ex-brother in law with 2/3 of a lifetime of playing piano that way gives note names no thought at all. Just as we (some anyway) can play a tune without knowing its name we can learn to play it without any thought to the names of the notes.

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edit:
(Almost) No comment. I wrote out a long reply & realised this needs to be discussed in a place unlike the internet. i.e. ~ In person. It’s my gut feeling. I mean no disrespect to the forum nor this thread so I’ll give the shorthand version of my deleted reply; because it provides the gist of what I wrote.

"Yes."

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"For many interval training means that you can know a tune with no idea what the key is"…..
Thanks for that Ross. I didn’t want to admit that I hardly ever know or care what key a tune is in;- at least I don’t think about it. I was reluctant to admit this because I thought it was just down to my ‘laziness’.

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Gobby, I definitely don’t think you are "lazy" for not necessarily knowing what key you are playing in, as long as you are enjoying playing it. And I’m sorry to hear about what happened with the recorders.
Learning individual notes was engrained to me from an early age. I couldn’t sight-read, so would have to be told what the next notes were, and being able to play a piece required me to memorize the sequence of notes and chords. This is just how I initially had to learn, but I can totally understand how people may not need to.
I should also mention that I don’t think about keys all the time when listening to music, but occasionally I will think, for example, "Oh wow, this set is in the key of C major and that’s one of my favorite keys!"
And thanks, AB. You’re right, this conversation is likely better in-person, and I mean no disrespect to anyone at all on here.

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Cheers, Whimbrel! I’m sure you’ll learn from the other replies while I sit this one out but continue to observe.
If I ever meet you I’ll be happy to share my personal experiences about this with you & listen to yours.
Take care!

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Re: Can you identify individual notes?

When I hear a note, I have no idea what note it is. What I can identify are intervals. So I play flute the way others whistle. Once I start, I can play any tune I know. Now, before you get too impressed, I’m talking melodies to popular songs or ballads, not jigs and reels. If I could do the latter, I’d be out playing gigs, not writing this.

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Ailin, I think you are identifying individual notes but you’re using your flute to find them. It doesn’t matter that it’s the interval which gets you there. You’re still using timbre cues from a pitch you know on flute. You don’t even need to play the first note, much less name it. Still you know if the interval goes flat or sharp. You know by how much, even if you cannot instantly name it.

When you hear the first note on something other than flute, your primary instrument, the timbre is different. But the interval to the 2nd note can be interpreted relatively, not absolutely, and the brief period of time gives your brain time to catch up. It gives you time to translate the input timbre to flute timbre. It gives you enough time to play the intervals (& the notes) as you hear them which can even happen without the familiar flute timbre cues; once you are kick started.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2978713/

Capisce?

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Re: Can you identify individual notes?

Agreed

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I’ve always been able to identify pitches accurately. As a child of maybe 2 or 3 years, my mom made a game of it with me standing next to the piano looking the other way, and she at the bench. I thought it was great fun and remember it vividly. Little wonder I’m obsessed with music and sound as an adult. I’m the guy in my band who learns everyone else’s parts, sometimes doing it on the spot, and then teaches them to the people who need to play them. I create arrangements for people who can’t read, basically. And usually, they can’t read.

‘Having’ an ear for tones is an interesting topic, because I believe we all do, although we use our ears, and will acquaint ourselves, mentally, with what they hear, in different ways. Moreover, some of us through training and study have learned a specialized, codified language for describing the tones and rhythms of music. It’s a clumsy process if you try to come at it backwards, but that doesn’t preclude anyone who doesn’t have formal musical training from having an excellent ear for music and placing the heard notes exactly where they belong on his instrument. Nor does it guarantee that everyone with formal training will be able to pick up and play a melody by ear.

The subconscious mind (my other obsession) communicates almost entirely, or perhaps entirely, through messages of what the conscious mind would call symbols. Humanity shares the medium and content of that subconscious experience individually, and each will consciously express the rumination of their subconscious mind uniquely. Making music with a group of people is a bit like that, a microcosm of much larger phenomena.

What color is a G natural?

Re: Can you identify individual notes?

@Ailin
That is neat!
@Gravelwalks
That game your mom had you play sounded like fun! As to your question about what color a g natural is… I don’t experience notes as colors, although I do experience synesthesia in other ways (if that’s what you mean.)

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"What color is a G natural?"… well it’s an idiosyncratic experience, but it’s commonly orange I think. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromesthesia
@Whimbrel, I am interested when you say that you don’t experience notes as colours but that you experience synesthesia in other ways. Have you been blind from birth, or have you once experienced colour? And when you say that you experience synesthesia in other ways, are you able to explain that experience to sighted people? I have always been intrigued by this. And I hope that this isn’t too distracting from the thread, it all seems related to me. How I wish that I could hear music in colour.

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Oh, they’re very much colors, for me! Although they’re never the same, and constantly changing, nor could I describe them.

I remember the first time I heard Brahms, at school, I was 6 or 7. Our music teacher played a cassette. I was spellbound and experienced a huge, overwhelming surge of colors physically happening nowhere in the room!

The senses are all wrapped up together, and contribute to each other in a mental picture, even if ‘seeing’ is really just ‘perceiving’ and ‘perceiving’ is the mind’s reaction to a stimuli. It’s the differing degrees of awareness that Ailin and AB were discussing; she ‘knows’ the notes even if she can’t name them, and she certainly knows when one of them is a clam. Articulating that knowledge and transferring the acknowledgement of understanding through language is what trips us up. I think most musicians can do and do accomplish more with their ears than they give themselves credit for. Who needs an alphabet?

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@ gravelwalks, I find it easy to agree with your sentiments, but not at all with your final question.

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Tongue in cheek. Technology is important!

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A question for Whimbrel and others with "Perfect" ie absolute pitch sense.

If you hear a tune that you know well played in a different key from normal do you think "that’s XXX played in the key of YY" or does it sound like a different tune?

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Ear training is a cultivable skill that has many levels. Although I don’t have perfect pitch, over the years as a piano player, I’ve learned how to identify…

…Individual notes
…some overtones
…scales, key signatures, and accidentals
…intervals
…triads
…7th and suspended chords

and

…how many notes are in a harmony
…whether a harmony is major, minor, dimimished, or mixed
…whether a harmony is inverted

and even other skills like…

…how many voices/instruments are in the music
…re-arranging and reimagining the music in other forms

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Gobby wrote "How I wish that I could hear music in colour."

Well you could if you’re brave enough, although I wouldn’t be. Synesthesia is a comnon experience with psychodelic drugs or anything else that suppresses the Default Mode Network in your brain, causing connections between other parts of your brain to go haywire. See the book How To Change Your Mind for more info.

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Some interesting comments here. Over the years I have come to think of specific keys as having colours. So for me, D is blue, G is brown and A is red. Am is a lighter red and Em is pale yellow, E maj is orange (I won’t bore people with the full range). I don’t think this is synesthesia, since it doesn’t apply to individual notes, but somehow it helps me keep tunes is some order. Does anybody else experience anything similar?

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About 2% of the normal population have some form of synesthesia but about 20% of people with perfect pitch have synesthesia, suggesting they may share some common cause.

@Borderer - If your associations are a) automatic and b) consistent, then it would be classed as a type of synesthesia.

By automatic, it means that you experience the colour whether you like it or not, and it takes no effort to. By consistent it means that the same trigger elicits the same colour each time, and you have no control over what colour it is. I have worked for many years with a lab researching synesthesia, so I know a little bit about it 🙂

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I do not have absolute pitch, but I can jerry-rig my way around sometimes. If I’m practicing a piece in Eb, for example, I can more easily recognize any of the notes in that chord (Eb, G, Bb). I can also hit a D every time because it’s the first note of a piece of music I’ve listened to a million times and love (a Hildegard of Bingen tune). And everyone tunes to an A, so I can usually pick that out of the air. And from there I can usually hop around and produce anything needed. Need a C? Grab an Eb, then go a minor third down. Need an Ab? Get a G, then go a half-step up.

But that’s not really the same thing; it’s a fake form of absolute pitch and usually only goes one way — I can produce a requested note by dancing around notes I know. It’s extremely hard for me to hear a note and name it, because hearing a note from the outside "drowns out" what I’m trying to produce in my head to compare it. In other words, in a quiet place, I can dance around and end up on an Ab. But if you blare something in B Major into my ear and ask me to generate an Ab, I haven’t got a prayer. I need quiet.

Oddly enough, I am slightly synaesthetic, but only about languages and math — not music. So it’s no help at all.

I have to admit, absolute pitch mystifies me. Show me a picture of Mt. Fuji, and I could recognize it instantly, because I know its relative contour. Absolute pitch sounds to me like I’d be unable to recognize it until I knew where sea level was. Not having it, I can’t tell what it’d be like of course, but it sounds kind of limiting, like recognizing the forest ONLY as individual trees and not as a larger object of its own. Again though, not having it I can’t know what it’s like.

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I really like reading this discussion. Thank you for everyone participating. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of nuance.

To answer Tom’s question, no, a tune or melody that I hear in a different key from usual doesn’t sound like a different tune. Not typically, anyway, or at least I wouldn’t confuse them as a result of the tonality alone.

I had an interesting experience once at a science museum with my kids. They had a huge tube of water about 8 feet up on the wall, visually demonstrating standing waves, and wave forms of sound. You turned a wheel below it to elevate the pitch being pumped through the water that changed the wave in the tube tank. I turned it slowly with my head down until I felt like I was comfortable. “There we go, that sounds pretty good,” I thought. Then I heard the guy behind me shout, “You’re in tune!” I looked up and the wave was standing at 440 Hz. I do that when I string up a guitar or mandolin, too.

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Gravelwalks, I just whistled what felt to me like a nice, cozy note, and then walked over to the piano only to discover that it was a middle C. 🙂 Once a pianist, always a pianist, it seems!

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I don’t have perfect pitch, but as a fiddler I can often hear from the sound quality/timbre/texture whether a note is on an open string or not and what string it is, especially when the tune moves over to the e string. So if I pay attention I usually know what fingers are being used for what note and what key we’re in etc.
But if it’s an accordion or something I have no idea.
I might recognize a bottom d on a flute and extrapolate from that, although I’m not sure if that’s from the tone or from the ornamentation or what exactly.
And obviously if a piper is playing to a drone I can tell what key they’re in.

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Also when I was busking around and didn’t have a tuner or a tuning fork I would just tune to myself. I could tell from the sound quality and the responsiveness under the bow when my fiddle was drifting up into e flat or down into C sharp territory, or maybe a hair further, and adjust it back closer to where it was supposed to be. (Usually I’d find a music shop with a piano to check, and I’d be in the right ballpark.)
I think this is how musicians must have done it for centuries before absolute pitch came in. I seem to remember someone quoting an old text on tuning the lute that said you should tune the top string to just shy of breaking and tune the rest of the strings to that. I think I’d be pretty nervous adopting that approach now, but I can imagine that with experience it would be reasonably easy.

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No, but if someone plays note on an instrument I am used to hearing in a session I can often match it on mine at first or second attempt; usually first if it’s another flute.

Similarly if something is not in ‘the usual’ key the final note is often long enough for me to get it in a couple of goes. I think many people can do that. I can usually tell if a tune is being played on a C whistle rather than the usual D but won’t spot an Eb whistle until I try to join in. So in a favourable situation I am maybe OK for a couple of semitones.

An "A" happens to be my lowest reliably useful singing note, but there is probably a couple of semitones variation on that. Maybe enough not to break a string.

I definitely don’t have any strong attachment to absolute pitch - tunes are not in any particular key in my head and once I have found a starting note I can usually learn a tune phrase by phrase from a recording in the ‘wrong’ key. So long as I don’t try to play along.

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Very interesting about the connection between perfect pitch and synesthesia that some people have!
Gobby: I have been blind since birth and have never seen colors, but I know what many colors are, from learning about what others say. So I normally don’t experience synesthesia with colors, but for me it is more to do with foods, and has always been that way. For example, thinking on some words I have used in this post, the word "do" reminds me of a honeydew melon (after all, that word is sort of in there). And the word "more" for some reason, reminds me of porridge, probably because at one point someone asked if I wanted "more porridge" when I was very young. My mom believes I connect things this way because I had to figure out how things worked when I was younger. Definitely no psychedelic drugs… I’d have been way too young to start, anyway!
As to hearing a tune in a different key: I can usually almost immediately recognize it as the same tune, unless the variation is really different. But usually, unless it’s one of my favorite keys, I don’t usually think much beyond that.

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@TomB-R - I am usually with gravelwalks in that a familiar tune in a different key just sounds like the familiar tune in the different key, not a different tune. Now I have a question of my own for gravelwalks and the OP. Can you play whistles in different keys? Have you ever tried? I can’t, even music that I’ve learned entirely by ear; where my fingers are and what sounds come out don’t match and I fall all over myself every time. I have to play a D whistle. My son, who is also pitch perfect, can play a b flat clarinet and an e flat alto sax and a d-that’s-really-in-C whistle, with sheet music *or* by ear. It’s never really bothered him.

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Hi, Tdrury. Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question. I played piano and I sing, but much as I enjoy listening to whistles, I have not played one yet. So I wouldn’t be the best person to advise, but am also curious about Tom’s answer.

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Whimbrel, have you ever used the transposition function on an electric keyboard, where you push a button and it plays in D or F or whatever? It’s the same effect.

Also, I forgot to mention earlier, I believe research does show that if you get musical training from a young age, you are likelier to develop absolute pitch. Another factor is that speakers of tonal languages, like any of the varieties of Chinese, are much likelier to develop it.

A final note: I too didn’t so much discover that I had perfect pitch, as discovered that other people didn’t…

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Hi. I might have heard of it, but I haven’t had much experience with keyboard transposition because most of my practicing was done on an upright. But I suspect that if I did hit the transposition button, and the notes sounded different, I would probably be distracted by the notes sounding different. If it was a piece I knew very well, I would probably be able to play some of it, if I memorized the pattern of my fingers as they went on the keyboard.
I remember a very very out-of-tune piano at a pier once, where it was initially difficult to figure out which notes were which.

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A professional jazz musician with Perfect Pitch told me

"There’s no mystery to Perfect Pitch, it’s just memory. If you were raised in a place where you never heard an A=440 you wouldn’t know what it was when you heard it".

Oddly, I used to know a fiddler who had Perfect Pitch for just one note: A=440. She could tune her A string perfectly from memory, then tune the rest of the strings to the A string.

Some top Highland pipe "tonemeisters" and piping judges seem to have a sort of Perfect Pitch: they can pick up a pipe chanter and mouth-blow it and tune it correctly to whatever the prevailing pitch their particular Pipe Band is using. When they hear a piper or Pipe Band play they immediately know if they’re in tune, or sharp or flat of what their ear considers to be the "right" pitch.

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Very interesting, Richard! I had no idea that it was possible to have perfect pitch for only one note. Maybe it was her favorite note!

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Also, while we’re on the subject of keys, I’ve noticed that sometimes when a tune set or song is re-mastered, it sounds like it’s in a different key than the original. Has anyone noticed this? It seems like re-mastering can improve sound quality but sometimes darken the sound to the point that it sounds like it’s in a different key.

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There is one weird thing I’ve noticed: I don’t have absolute pitch in that I can’t name notes out of thin air (with limited exceptions). However, when asked to sing a tune or when I work it out from memory on the piano or flute, I will almost always do so in either the key it was written in or an extremely predictable half-step flat. I’ve known more than a few fellow relative-pitch folks who are like that, though. There seems to be a spectrum.

It can be a pain sometimes because I really like arranging Baroque music for piano (opera), so everything has to be arranged a half-step flat because if the tune isn’t in the "right" key, I get lost sometimes. Nevertheless, I definitely don’t have absolute pitch.

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Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m working and have an ear worm tune going in my head, when I pick up an instrument to play it, there’s a pretty good chance that I had it running in my head in tune. Not always, but it’s surprisingly often… I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising, but I’m always surprised.

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Same, Reverend. But it’s got to be at least a hummable chunk of a tune or melody. If I can hum it, I can commit to some sort of pitch memory. One disembodied note out of context, though? Pinning that down to a single point is like asking how high is up.

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Interesting topic! in my case I cannot recognise notes, no way. I find that so amazing, that is a very interesting skill. Me I learnt to play 100% by ear. And I played different instruments for a good few years. I never knew the notes I was playing and where the notes were in the instruments I played. I got to know the notes just when I started to get involved in thesession in the year 2019.

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Hi Fernando, and thanks for sharing. That’s great that you’re able to play multiple instruments by ear and it’s really interesting how we have all learned differently.

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Until the scourge of Meniere’s Disease hit my inner ear and disrupted my sense of pitch, I had pretty close to perfect pitch, so could easily work out which key a tune was being played in, or indeed if someone was off key/out of tune.. Partly also thanks to my long hard years doing piano exams, (of which oral exams were always a part) I could also pick up intervals, which, as I said in another thread, were a big part of my learning process of tunes.
It is also enormously useful if you are a singer and want to sing a song which has a wide range of pitch: I would usually sing (in my head) the highest and lowest note of the range to make sure that it fits my own range capabilities, just so that I don’t end up squeaking on the high notes or growling on the low! I did suggest once to a singer I know that she should write down that she she sings this particular song in A when she was struggling to start it and continue in a key should could sing it in: she retorted "I know nothing about keys"! "But other people who do could give you a happy start note or key" sez I!

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Thinking of this thread, I had an unexpected experience yesterday.

I was walking along in a quiet place, and asked myself "I wonder if I can remember what the tonic pitch of the Highland pipes is?"

I thought of a pipe tune, singing it in my head, then when I landed on the tonic I sang it out loud, pulled up a tuning app on my phone, and looked to see what pitch I was singing.

The note I sung was midway between B flat and B natural, just where the modern Highland pipes are tuned!

I had no idea I could do that.

What I’ve always been able to do is know what note a piper is playing, but that’s merely Relative Pitch, hearing that the chanter is a Major 6th above the drones, etc.

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@Richard D Cook - Among other things, I am piano accompanist for two college choirs. One year the women’s choir did a piece where they all began together on the same note. After two months of rehearsal, somehow we discovered that, as a group, they no longer needed to be given the starting pitch. I haven’t observed anything else like that before or since. I really think the perfect pitch thing exists on a spectrum.

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We had a similar experience with the Gaelic choir I sing with; we had the common problem of drifting flat through a performance, but when we started rehearsing by immediately repeating the beginning at the end of a piece, it was really obvious when we had drifted, and somehow we almost overnight became much better at holding pitch throughout.

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For me when singing in a acapella choir it’s not so much what it sounds like as what it feels like. Throat not ears.

Something well-rehearsed then shifted a semitone either way is different work, all the more noticeable if the melody uses most my range. Similarly when drifting flat.

Do audiences notice the brighter sound a pipe band playing a tiny bit sharp? I could with examples (from decades apart) played on the radio, not being told which was which - but that could be the chosen examples, or luck.

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Sol-Fa with a movable Doh will allow you to play any scale and intervals by ear
Stick a few of the hand signs (called solf edge I think) in and you are of and running
Works for me