Absolute pitch (AP)—an ability to identify an isolated pitch without musical context—is commonly believed to be a valuable ability for musicians. However, relative pitch (RP)—an ability to perceive pitch relations—is more important in most musical contexts. In this study, music students in East Asian and Western countries (Japan, China, Poland, Germany, and USA) were tested on AP and RP abilities. In the AP test, 60 single tones were presented in a quasirandom order over a five-octave range. In the RP test, ascending musical intervals from 1 to 11 semitones were presented in four different keys. Participants wrote down note names in the AP test and scale-degree names or musical interval names in the RP test. The conservatory-level Japanese students showed the highest AP performance and more than half of them were classified as accurate AP possessors, but only 10% were classified as accurate RP possessors. In contrast, only a small percentage of participants from Poland, Germany, and the USA were identified as accurate AP possessors, whereas many more were accurate RP possessors. Participants from China were typically intermediate on both measures. These noticeable contrasts between AP and RP performance in different countries suggest influences of the underlying socio-cultural conditions, presumably relating to music education. Given the importance of RP in music, the results suggest that more emphasis should be place on RP training, particularly in East Asian countries.

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