Apr 012019
Two men with bad pitch awareness singing out of tune, two women covering their ears

When Gillyanne and I were writing our book This Is A Voice, this question appeared in an email from our (non-musician) editor. And it got me thinking. What is pitch and how do we think of it?

In the acoustic/scientific sense pitch is defined as something creating noise that has a regular number of vibrations per second. Anything that can vibrate regularly can create pitch – the ruler on the end of a desk, a guitar string, a vocal fold. So far so peachy.

WHERE is pitch?

No, I’m not referring to a badly sung parody of that song from Oliver… As a singer you have to create pitch inside your body so that the sound that emerges is recognisable as a note. So how do you think of pitch, what makes it and where does it “live” in your experience of singing?

When I ask singers to show me where pitch is, they usually indicate in front of their body a line that goes up for higher pitches and down for lower pitches. This reflects the way music is written – further towards the top of the page for high notes, further towards the bottom of the page for lower notes. We even use the words “higher” and “lower”.

How instrumentalists find pitch

Think about this for a second. If you look at a piano keyboard, pitch is experienced as on the left for lower notes and on the right for higher notes. If you watch a trombonist creating pitch, on the whole the slide handle gets further away for low notes and closer to the mouth for high notes. Same for woodwind players (more fingers covering holes further away from the mouth for low notes, less fingers for high notes). And on a violin the closer the left-hand finger on the fingerboard gets to the head, the higher the note.

So the position in space for pitches is relative, depending on the instrument’s makeup.

Things are different again for a singer. The vocal folds themselves create pitch and to create a higher pitch the folds need to vibrate faster. For a lower pitch they vibrate slower. Pitch is therefore not defined by their positioning in space but by their speed of movement.

Do the following pitch experiment:

  1. Choose two notes an octave apart. Stick with a comfortable range as you’re going to be doing this interval several times.
  2. Slide between the notes up and down using your favourite vowel (the sliding is important, no jumping!).
  3. Now repeat the octave slide up and down and use the following hand gestures:
    • up and down – the higher is above your head and the lower note is around waist level
    • up and down – the higher note is level with your eyes and the lower note is around chin level
    • left to right – like a piano keyboard
    • right to left – the opposite of a piano keyboard
    • far to near – like a trombone slide
    • near to far – reverse trombone
    • from in front of your body to behind your body (over your shoulder) – like a horizontal line that runs past your ear
    • rotating on a dial – rotating anticlockwise is lower, rotating clockwise is higher
    • rotating on a reverse dial – clockwise is lower, anticlockwise is higher

I guarantee that the notes will feel different to sing, and that you will discover at least one that feels more comfortable than the others.

Congratulations, you just discovered the best way for YOU to think about pitch when you sing. And your singing just got a whole lot easier.

If you want to find out more about your pitch perception, where pitch “lives” for you and how to improve your pitching, book a 1-1 consultation with Jeremy online or in person.

  26 Responses to “What is pitch?”

Comments (26)

    Thanks, Jeremy, good food for thought as ever, and stuff to play with! Interesting that not only are there some that are helpful, but also some that seem much more difficult than others, too. For me, the trombone ‘normal’ direction was harder and I ‘cracked’!


    For years I have done similar things with my pupils when it was helpful to do so, or needed in some way. The voice is an amazing instrument and it, and how it is played is utterly fascinating. I had never tried the dial before! The trombone in my own case was a cello, as that was my first love.


      Good to use your experience of the cello Mary-Jane, and that’s a different direction again (on the diagonal in front/below to past/behind the ear). Such a useful exercise.


    Love these Jeremy! I use the reverse trombone a lot and often with a rubber band. One end is held at the upper end of the sternum and as the pitch slides up, the student stretches the band straight out in front giving them both a kinesthetic and visual representation of the vocal folds stretching and thinning as pitch ascends.


    Cool thoughts Jeremy – I too like the reverse up and down – never thought of this before.


    Very interesting. I found that for me the best version is hand up and down in front of my body in the REVERSE direction (i.e. lower notes at the top)! I shall see what my students feel.


      Hi Philip, yes one of my classical students likes the reverse vertical. It’s great to give people the choice – get your students to close their eyes when they’re doing each move too.


    So interesting! I’ve used the trombone slide ever since you demonstrated it on a course and it’s wonderful to see how it can help pupils with pitching. I’m encouraged to try the other alternatives with a singer who finds pitching accurately particularly challenging. Another great thought provoking article, Jeremy!


      Thanks Kate. It’s one of those exercises that sounds bizarre but once you do it with your students, you realise it’s a great tool! Glad you like it and thanks for the feedback. See you soon.


    I tried it as it had a full teaching day yesterday! Fascinating! You can really hear a difference… also, each student
    1. Looked surprised when the high notes became easier
    2. The freedom was amazing
    3. Each person had a different favourite!

    Many thanks, you were credited


      That’s excellent Chip, and a great confirmation that the techniques work. Same happens when I do this exercise with the singing teachers on courses – high notes become easier, people feel freer to experiment, and people have different favourites!
      So glad you were able to share your experience.


    Just tried with myself and right enough, one in particular does fit better than the others (up/down from chin level to eye).Jeremy, are there any specific teaching situations that you find this especially useful for?

    I’m interested that you give reverse trombone as an option; you introduced this to me as a tool but I was always distracted by the fact that I get it the wrong way around so couldn’t make it work for me. It’s nice to have my counter-logical instinct legitimised!


      Such an interesting exercise Gerry. I don’t have any specific situations that this fits into, I just keep an eye out for indications that the singer isn’t processing pitch well. Usually things like the head bobbing up and down or ‘reaching’ for the high notes or frowning for the low notes. And mispitching, of course (please welcome to the stage, Miss Pitching!).
      I had my very first student on Monday (experienced opera singer) who, having tried most of the list here, preferred to have the high notes above her head and out of her eyeline. It’s why I give people as many different versions as I can – I can’t predict what’s going to work!


    Really interesting. I shall try it with mine.


    Another gem Mr Fisher. I’ve often tried getting students to visualise pitch horizontally when I see physical attachment to those higher notes. But your ideas here are brilliant – thanks for sharing!


    Thank you Jeremy, I shall try this out with singing students in Norway and report back! I am still using so much of the excellent material from your different videos I bought back in 2009.


    Found some new ones! How brilliant is this? Yes!


    This is fabulous. The students love it.


    Excellent! I shall do this later Jeremy.

Leave a Reply