Relative Pitch is a recognition process based on awareness and understanding of complex pitch interrelationships from within a musical context (dynamic recognition).
Absolute Pitch is a process of pitch awareness based solely on memorization (static definition; musical context irrelevant).nition; musical context irrelevant).
‘Absolute pitch’ memorization is a static conception (i.e. ‘A’= 440 Hz) which is prized only in the area of music. It is interesting that this type of memorization is irrelevant to the visual arts (i.e. ‘Red’= 440 THz). I wonder if this is due to the fact that chromatic music is a 12 note system (A-G), whereas color theory encompasses hundreds of named colors, each with exponential perceptible variations of contrast, hue and saturation; and it also encompasses an awareness of the impact of the surrounding visual context on the perceived color.
The static concept of ‘absolute pitch’ can become meaningless at best, or an impediment at worst, in situations where A440 is not the pitch standard or in non-chromatic, non equal tempered, and micro-pitch scale systems. Because relative pitch perception is a dynamic concept and process (a practice of developing awareness of pitch interrelationships) it can be carried forward and adapted to other musical systems..
I trained with both transposing (Bb, Eb) and non-transposing musical instruments, so the concept of ‘absolute pitch’ has always been arbitrary in practice. However, pitch recognition is not. For example, I notice the pitches of my phone’s ringtone when listening to music, wind chimes and other unrelated sounds. I don’t try to memorize the pitch names. Instead, it increases my awareness of a vivid differentiation between pitch memorization and pitch recognition. Pitch recognition is a perceptual skill that can become more refined as a musician’s micro-pitch (pitch color) and timbral (tone color) awareness is developed.
The development of good intonation (relative adjustments of each pitch within a harmonic context) is very different from the memorization and reproduction of the pitch definitions established in an equal temperament system.
A fundamental difficulty arises for a musician trying to develop simple, static pitch memorization when a more complex understanding and awareness of the contextual relativity of pitch has already been acquired. This difficulty is conceptual more than technical, and results from an awareness of the complex interrelationships existing between the pitches and intervals within many different musical systems and methods (i.e. Just Intonation, Raga, Maqam; micro-pitch scales). This awareness makes the concept of ‘absolute’ pitch seem arbitrary and not widely applicable as a musical skill.
‘Absolute pitch’ is dependent on a quantified reference standard, which is itself based on the conception of each chromatic pitch as a separate (discrete) entity, not affected by its musical context. With musical training and exposure to different music systems, a recognition arises that any ‘absolute’ conception of pitch is a reductive simplification. That is, musical pitch is a process within an integrated context (verb; relatively defined) rather than a discrete, static definition (noun; absolutely defined).
Interestingly, there is another related type of static pitch recognition which occurs, for example, when a person can begin singing a song in the correct key without knowing which key it is. Or when someone recognizes that a song is being played back in a different key from the original rendition.
The establishment of a cultural standard based on a numerical definition of pitch leads this type of circular reasoning: an absolute ‘A’ is 440 Hz because 440 Hz is defined as ‘A’.