Why do some people find it difficult to pitch notes?
What’s happening when people sing out of tune?
Let’s break down the question of tuning and start with what “pitch” means.
Pitch as we think of it is a regular oscillation of airwaves. If the airwaves are oscillating at 220 times per second, we hear the A below middle C (A3). If the airwaves oscillate at 440 times per second, we hear the A above middle C (A4). Each doubling of the oscillations creates a note one octave higher (880=A5 etc). It doesn’t matter what causes the oscillations (guitar string, vocal folds, ruler on the desk…), if the vibrations are regular we’ll hear it as a pitch.
When we’re learning about pitch as children, we need to be able to distinguish different pitches we hear and apply those pitches to our own voice. This requires an awareness of pitch direction, the recognition of broad melodic patterns and shapes, awareness of their own personal voice and vocal range, and a process to find the notes.
Tuning (matching pitch)
What we think of as tuning is actually a form of matching pitch. Children go through four stages of pitch matching to sing in tune. The difficulty lies when a child gets stuck in one stage and doesn’t progress, even in adulthood. Here’s a description of the four stages of pitch matching that children go through, taken from Gillyanne Kayes’ introduction in the Singing Express series.
Phase 1: Words rather than melody are the centre of interest, singing is likely to be chant-like with a restricted pitch range: falling melodic patterns occur more often.
Phase 2: Developing awareness and conscious control of pitch; able to follow larger melodic contours of a song; sense of musical ‘key’ is phrase-based; vocal pitch range for song singing expands
Phase 3: Increased accuracy of melodic shape and intervals, but may change ‘key’ whilst control of vocal range is still in development
Phase 4: No significant melodic or pitch errors when singing relatively simple songs of own culture
(Four stages of development, adapted from Welch 1998)
In the Singing Express series we created a number of different exercises to help children progress through the stages of pitch matching, including:
Gliding and landing
Finding your note – stepping and jumping
Finding your note – singing together
Gliding and landing is a great way to introduce the concept of moving and holding pitch. Allow the child to slide their voice around on any vowel or humming sound, then land on a pitch, either by stopping or holding one note. If possible, get the child to land on a note first, then match it yourself. This has two great effects – the child feels a sense of achievement when you match their sound so easily, and it also requires them to sustain sound for a little longer than in their speaking voice, to give you the chance to match it.
By the way, it’s tricky for inexperienced singers to pitchmatch to a piano or a guitar. The timbre of both instruments is very different from a voice, and you may experience children latching on to a harmonic in the sound rather than the fundamental note. In all the Singing Express video and audio demonstrations we asked our adult performers to sing with minimal vibrato. Singing in a straighter tone helps children identify the note more easily.
A word about scale patterns. Anyone who has studied classical music knows about scales (major, minor, diminished etc). But most popular music is based on modes rather than classical scales. And almost all vocal riffing (very fast patterns of notes used extensively in pop/R&B) is based on modes. If your students have grown up with popular music and haven’t had much exposure to classical music, the patterns of classical scales may confuse them. If you are going to use scale patterns as part of your singing, start with the pentatonic mode (it’s usually pretty easy for people to learn).
Breathing and pitching
Let’s talk breathing for singing. In order to maintain a pitch, you have to keep a stream of air constant. We don’t normally use a constant stream of air while speaking – all those stopped consonants, voiced and unvoiced fricatives, and the normal speed of speech means it’s not necessary. So sustaining a constant airflow for one extended pitch is an unusual act. Coupled with that, the lungs work as a dynamic system that overfills, decreases in size and ends up underfilled, causing you to take another breath (to overfill again). This means that you can be only halfway through a note but heading for negative air pressure already. So singing a single pitch is a complicated balance of vibration, air pressure and lung elasticity. If that’s how complicated breathing can be, it’s astounding that we sing at all!
Assuming you have progressed through the four stages of pitch matching, and you have some ability to maintain breath pressure, what problems might you face?
Finding your start note. In order to find the starting note of a song or phrase, you have to extrapolate from a heard sound where it is in your voice. Even adult singers can find this a challenge. Any female choral conductor working with a male choir will tell you that they have to alter their pitch range and vocal timbre to get the men to match the starting note they give.
Try this experiment. Record yourself singing a short melody, then play it back. Is it easier to pitch the first note when you’re listening to your own voice? This tells you that we don’t just listen for the number of vibrations per second, we’re also listening to the timbre of the sound and the context of the note. Even if you have never listened to your recorded voice before, you can usually tell where in your pitch range the first note lies just by hearing your own voice making the note.
The word resonance is a wonderful catchall for timbre, projection, depth, tone, beauty and quality. Your vocal tract is very flexible, partly due to the ability of the tongue, jaw and soft palate to swallow and chew. The voice is the only instrument that can actually change size, shape AND texture while producing sound. By moving the surfaces inside your vocal tract you can enhance or subdue different harmonics, causing changes of vowel/consonant, and changes of tone quality. This means that once you have set your vocal folds in motion with their regular vibrations (whatever pitch you want to sustain), you have a massive number of choices of space/shape in your upper vocal tract to play with.
And these resonance adjustments can cause you to sound “in tune” to your colleagues, or sound as if you are under or over the note. This depends on the context of the note, the habits of the person singing, and most important, the beliefs of the person listening. We’ve had many classical singing teachers on our training courses who say that a musical theatre speech quality sounds flat to them, because it doesn’t have the same harmonic pattern as the timbres considered acceptable in classical singing.
Here’s an experiment you can do with your singing groups.
1. Get the group to sing a note or chord on an EE vowel. Now get them to keep the feeling of the EE (so the tongue stays high and wide) and change vowel to an ER (a schwah). You’ll get an ER with a flavour of EE. You’re boosting the brighter harmonics inherent in an EE vowel.
2. Now get the group to do the opposite. Start with a standard AH vowel (the tongue is low in the mouth and slightly backed). Keep the low and backed tongue position and change the vowel to a schwah (ER). Now you’ll get an ER with a flavour of AH. It’s not the same ER you had in the first part of the exercise.
3. Now divide the group into two. One half will sing with the EE vowel flavour, and the other with the AH vowel flavour. Get them to sing a line of a song, stand back and listen to the tuning!
4. The fun really starts when you begin to allocate vowel tunings between the parts. We’ve used this successfully to change the sound of a choir in 60 seconds. So for example, basses and altos tune to an AH, tenors and sopranos tune to an EE. Then reverse the choices. The sound of the chorus changes instantly.
You can see us working this exercise with a 100-strong choir on the Vocalprocess YouTube channel here
The great thing about this exercise is that you get to choose which tuning you prefer, since none of them are “wrong”, they’re just personal choice. Also, some tuning combinations are better for certain styles of music. Musical theatre tends to prefer an EE tuning since clarity of text is important, whereas classical romantic music tends to prefer an AH or even AW tuning since warmth and roundness of sound is important.
In your own singing, if you find that you occasionally sing out of tune, or there’s a particular note or phrase that bugs you, try altering your underlying vowel tuning for that phrase and see/hear/feel if it makes a difference. You might surprise yourself!
Groaners to Glee
Which brings us to Glee. This television series has highlighted one major change in taste concerning singing and music perception: Autotune. Every song on Glee is autotuned to within an inch of its life, and young singers are now used to hearing and revering this unrealistic impression of singing. Ironically, since Autotune tends to remove a singer’s personality, it seems clear that a voice’s individuality is often revealed, and celebrated, by the slight mistunings or changes of resonance.
Think of your mistunings as being expressions of your personality and celebrate them!
Resources and suggested reading:
This Is A Voice – 99 Exercises to Train, Project and Harness the Power of your Voice (Wellcome Trust)
Singing Express books 1 to 4 (Harper Collins)
Vocal Process Webinars 1 and 2 – How We Diagnose
Nasality and the Soft Palate – The Techniques DVD
Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education – ed: Graham Welch and Leon Thurman
The Singing Neanderthals – Prof Steven Mithen (Phoenix)
Inside the Singing Voice – Vocal Technique Unpacked (weekend vocal Retreat)
A version of this article first appeared in The Music Teacher Magazine, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing