How to Identify Notes I'm Playing

by Dan Stone

There are three basic ways to identify what note you are playing on a musical instrument: looking at the instrument, relative pitch, and perfect pitch. Looking at the instrument is the easiest to learn and perfect pitch is the hardest to learn--so hard that even extremely talented musicians may never fully develop the skill. Relative pitch identification also requires extensive practice.

Items you will need

  • Instrument note chart
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How to Identify Notes with a Chart

Step 1

Play the note you want to identify on the musical instrument and leave your hands, mouth and/or feet in the playing position.

Step 2

Examine the position you are using when playing the instrument and determine where you are pressing on the instrument.

Step 3

Refer to the instrument's playing chart to determine what note you are playing.

How to Identify Notes with Relative Pitch

Step 1

Play a reference note on the instrument that you can identify and are familiar with--if possible, play the root/tonic note of the scale the song uses.

Step 2

Play the note you want to identify on the musical instrument then play the reference note again and compare the two.

Step 3

Play the two notes back and forth until you are familiar with the pitch difference between the two.

Step 4

Measure the difference between the two notes mentally and determine how far along the scale the note-to-be-identified is. The chromatic scale--all notes between note repeats--repeats the same note on the 12th note while major and minor scales repeat after eight notes. The note steps are approximately 12th the difference between each octave and can be measured accordingly.

How to Identify Notes with Perfect Pitch

Step 1

Play the note you want to identify on the instrument.

Step 2

Listen to the tone of the note.

Step 3

Identify the note based on the tone.

Tips & Warnings

  • Every type of musical instrument has a different note layout. Instruments that allow you to adjust intonation usually--but not always--have fingering or notation charts that identify which notes you produce depending on where your fingers or striking device make contact with the instrument. Some instruments like the trombone change notes by sliding a piece of the instrument and use a different type of chart. Many instruments have a playing pattern that repeats every 12th note, making it easy to learn the pattern.
  • If you have memorized the chart you can tell which notes you are playing just by looking at the instrument.
  • The Relative Pitch identification skill can be acquired through practice. Practicing the skill involves doing the Relative Pitch identification technique and estimating the correct note. Use the chart to identify the note to see if you are correct. Keep repeating the process for different notes until you have mastered the skill.
  • This guide will not work for abstract instruments or instruments that do not have a defined tone.
  • Perfect pitch is a highly advanced note recognition method that can take years of intense practice to develop. From a statistical standpoint, chances are you will never be able to develop the skill.

About the Author

Dan Stone started writing professionally in 2006, specializing in education, technology and music. He is a web developer for a communications company and previously worked in television. Stone received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Master of Arts in communication studies from Northern Illinois University.

Photo Credits

  • Polka Dot RF/Polka Dot/Getty Images