Fine Tuning the Sacred Machine Part 4 - Pitch

  • 10/4/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
“The tenor's voice is spoilt by affectation, And for the bass, the beast can only bellow; In fact, he had no singing education, An ignorant, noteless, timeless, tuneless fellow.” Lord Byron

As we continue our discussion concerning the numerous fine skills that must necessarily come together in order for us to use our voices in the most beautifully efficient and precise manner possible, we would certainly be remiss if we did not touch upon the topic of pitch identification. Pitch is defined as “the difference in the relative vibration frequency of the human voice” or simply “highness or lowness of sound...” (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., Springfield Mass.,1999;p. 886.). The word “relative” is critically important here as one's ability to cognitively and vocally differentiate between one note and the next semi-tone will likely determine his or her “relative” success as a professional singer.

Jumping Off

The ability to identify a particular pitch and sing on key with one's accompaniment (or even a Capella for that matter) is integral to the singing process and although each and every one of us will undoubtedly stray off key from time to time, the ultimate and inevitable goal is to come as close as possible to the target note. Most singers need a little help finding their way initially in terms of locating and verifying the pitch of the first note in the phrase at hand. Many use the piano to find their first note and the point at which they will be “jumping off” into their composition, while others simply use a pitch pipe (a small pipe made of reed or flue that gives a single tone ideal for tuning or establishing a pitch for singers). Others, like many performers I know rely on the first chord of the song derived from their guitars which gives them the key and pitch that they need to dive into the song.

Individuals possessing the capacity to identify and sing a note without the aid of an external source such as a pitch pipe or other instrument are recognized as having “absolute” or perfect pitch. This phenomenon is indeed rare and is believed to be prevalent in individuals who have had the benefit of early musical exposure, especially those who have been exposed to certain types of musical training at a very young age (see Otto Abraham). But most of us need an audible cue from an instrument to identify a given note and to use that cue as a jumping off point.

Amusia? That's Not Funny!

There are a number of reasons why one individual may hit their notes dead on day-in-and-day-out, while another struggles relentlessly over the span of their lives to sing on pitch. Almost every day I listen to the disheartened pleas of vocal students coming to me with concerns that the reason they are unable to carry a tune is that they might be tone deaf. Tone deafness or “Amusia” as it is referred to in scientific circles is defined as being... “relatively insensitive to differences in musical pitch” (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., Springfield Mass.,1999;p. 1242.) Tone deafness is not actual deafness at all and may not have anything to do with any actual form of hearing loss, although that may play a part as well. There are two general types of Amusia

1) Congenital-present at birth; studies have indicated that around 4% of the human population suffer from this type of Amusia or around 25 million people. Current studies are attempting to locate the specific gene which may carry the defect and most research has indicated that the condition is predominantly hereditary.

2) Acquired-there are a number of reasons why an individual might acquire Amusia throughout his or her lifetime including brain damage, over exposure to loud noise including loud music (how many rock concerts have you been to?) and even stress in some circumstances.

Generally speaking though, Amusia is simply the inability to differentiate between musical pitches, especially when those pitches are close together. Tones found further apart seem to be easier for Amusics (those suffering from Amusia, of course) to identify. People with pronounced forms of the disorder are also less likely to be able to discern rhythm and melody as well,and may also have difficulties processing the emotion associated with music. This deficit in processing can have devastating effects for the aspiring singer, but for other musicians as well, such as guitar or keyboard players who rely on the ability to keep time and follow even the simplest of melody lines.

The Brain and Amusia

Some interesting data has been unearthed concerning the nature of Amusia and its relationship to cognitive processes. It seems that those with “normal” brains tend to process music using the front and parietal (middle division of each cerebral hemisphere) regions of the brain in a fashion similar to a series circuit found in electricity. In other words, the information travels from the auditory cortex through various areas of the brain in a continuous looping fashion allowing the brain to recognize anomalies and correct them as necessary. Persons suffering from Amusia have a disrupted path for the same information and instead of having a looping mechanism for auditory signals, the mechanism is more comparable to parallel, independent pathways. Consequently, a note being sung by an Amusic “never makes it to the auditory cortex, while the information that does arrive at the front parietal cortex is never consciously recognized.” ( This data is particularly important in lieu of the fact that a person suffering from Amusia will likely not be able to tell that she or he is singing off key until they are told by another. This can introduce a powerful emotional element into the situation as many singers have strong personal associations with their voice and may experience trauma and loss of self-esteem as a result of hearing that they're constantly off key.

Memory and Amusia

Although Amusia is recognized as being a disorder characterized by the inability to recognize differences in pitch, it has also been classified by some researchers as a function of the lack of musical memory and recognition. Numerous studies have shown that those suffering from Amusia display a general lack of ability (relative to non-amusics) at short-term memory and recall of pitch sequences, yet their ability to recall series of words was unaffected. ( Other studies have supported this data as well lending some credence to the theory that tone deafness is not a simple disorder handed down throughout the generations, but rather a complex synthesis of numerous physical and behavioral facets culminating in the inability to detect minute changes in pitch.

Self-esteem and Amusia

Imagine a small child sitting passively in the back seat of her parents' luxuriously appointed Volvo sedan, gazing passively yet attentively at the passing trees and verdant shrubbery and singing “Silent Night” under her breath. Her mother turns partially in her seat to inform her daughter thoughtlessly, yet with good intention “no dear, the song goes like this...” and corrects the child. As is the case with many children, advice given even with the highest and most lofty of intentions can often lead to a decrease in a particular behavior. Many children are extremely sensitive and may avoid singing, or become disinterested in learning the behaviors necessary to become good singers after an event that they have perceived as traumatic to them.

Some interesting research was done in the 1940's with African-American school children who were found to have a higher incidence of Amusia compared to their Caucasian counterparts. The study showed that racially charged content in certain songbooks published from 1930-1995 ( yes,even as recent as 1995!), contributed to a decrease in self-esteem and a commensurate decrease in the black children's motivation to acquire the skills necessary to develop memory and other important facets of education. The study also concluded that these same children were less prone to sing during group music activities and that the negative content of the books in question had contributed to the children's loss of esteem and consequent loss of motivation to develop singing skills.

Assessment: Am I tone Deaf?

So you're probably asking yourself, how do I know if I'm really tone deaf and actually suffering from Amusia. The following link will take you to a test designed to assess a person's ability to discriminate between tones, as well as his or her musical memory. Please understand that this is just one assessment tool and the results are certainly not conclusive one way or the other as to your specific condition relative to tone deafness. There are a number of extraneous variables that can confound the results of the test including your attention span, noise in the room where you're taking the test as well as other distractions that may be affecting you at the time of the test. Hence to obtain the most accurate results it's important to take the test in a quiet and calm room away from others. Here's the link Keep in mind that if you're serious about finding conclusive results as to your condition it is of the utmost importance that you see both a medical professional as well a vocal coach in order that you may obtain the most accurate assessment of your hearing as well as your current singing abilities.

Here's another test geared towards distinguishing whether you're able to remember and identify a simple serious of pitches in a sample. This one is slightly different than the above test in that it uses predominantly familiar songs which most of you will know and be able to identify.

Other Causes of Poor Pitch Production

As stated earlier, there can be a number of factors that may be hindering the aspiring vocal student from acquiring the skills that he or she desires and aspires to. Actual hearing loss caused by either congenital or environmental factors, memory problems as well as self-esteem issues and lack of proper reinforcement of learned behaviors can all be contributing factors. In addition to the above mentioned factors, there is also the possibility that the individual has poorly developed vocal skills. Lack of sufficient effort (for whatever reasons), lack of proper education or the unavailability of musical resources can all be contributors to poor singing practices. One way to discriminate between actual tone deafness and poorly developed singing habits is to try this experiment:

Experiment 1

Listen to a piece of music or just a verse or chorus of the song. Now attempt to sing it and pay attention to whether you are astray from the melody. Do you notice that you're off? If you can discriminate between what you are singing and what you should be singing then you are likely not suffering from Amusia. Enlisting the help of a friend or loved one to help you with this process can be helpful but you'll need to insist upon them that they are completely honest with you about the results. Finding an individual who you know can sing is helpful as well especially since another singer suffering from Amusia will likely not he an objective party.

The good news is that if you are able to discriminate between when you're on key and, well, when you're clearly not then you likely do not suffer from Amusia and may be able to acquire the necessary singing skills by working with a reputable voice teacher.

Pitch Identification

Now that we have pinpointed the potential hindrances that may be impeding our progress, we can sally forth and work diligently like ravenous dogs into the night and throughout the day to improve our singing skills. And just like running scales over and over on the guitar to get a better grasp of melody and lead, the same process can help to hone our skills at pitch reproduction and make us better more precise singers. But since your memory also has a place in the process, it's important that we work on that as well in order that we're able to regurgitate the melody at hand accurately and quickly as well. Try this simple exercise:

Exercise 1

You'll need a pitch pipe, piano or a guitar for this exercise and be reasonably sure that whatever instrument you're using is in tune. This is extremely important in lieu of the fact that you're going to be memorizing series of notes and you want to get accustomed to hearing them in tune. Double check your tuner as well to make sure that it's calibrated to 440 Hertz as well.

Now play a note on your instrument somewhere in the middle of your singing range, and then hum it softly (see also vocal warm-ups in my Voice and Performance series). Now play another note a step or two above the initial note and repeat the same process. Now do the same process again but this time play notes all over the place, in different areas of your range making sure that you don't go too high or too low for your range. Remember, this is an exercise in pitch recall and memory development and you'll want to begin gradually, softly so that you don't cause any harm to your vocal chords.

Now go over the same process again, this time waiting 10 seconds before you attempt to hum the note. Now try 20 seconds and then 30. You should be able to recall the note you're playing but if you need to replay it and start the process again then do so.

Now we're going to go over the same process again only this time, play other notes while you're waiting the 10,20,30 seconds. Can you recall the original note? You'll find that the more you practice this simple technique, the longer and more accurately you'll be able to recall the note in question.

Now here's the test! Play some familiar music and listen to the first verse of the song. Now go back and hum (or sing; at this point you should be getting more warmed up) the first verse of the song making sure that you are indeed singing the notes that the singer is singing. Now listen to the whole song, then go back and sing the first verse. Again, it can be helpful to have another person, i.e. an experienced singer or voice teacher, who is trained in this type of exercise to verify that you're on target. Try this last part as well with music that you're not familiar with so that you will develop a new set of memories with unfamiliar sequences of pitches.

Listening Exercises

In addition to the above exercise, it can be helpful to simply practice active listening while enjoying music. Active listening is a term often associated with improving interpersonal communication skills between people with the goal of improving relationships. But the expression can also be applied to the topic of music and the practice of listening with purpose or listening with the intent of learning. Many people have music on as background noise or as a backdrop to do other tasks and chores that are not necessarily enjoyable. Consequently, most of the music is lost to the listener except perhaps the back beat which seems to slip into one's subconscious.

But active listening requires more attention and a closer connection with the music that many are either unable or unwilling to commit to.

Exercise 2

Sit in a room by yourself with as few distractions as possible. This can be difficult for those of you with small children, but if you can take 5 or 10 minutes and day and simply sit by yourself with some of your favorite music on. Practice listening to every facet of the music, the bass line, the drums, the rhythm, tempo and especially the vocalist. Really listen closely to what she or he is singing, the lyrics, the inflection, timbre of voice, phrasings etc. Give the music your full and undivided attention (stop thinking about bills, dinner, politics if you can!). This is the essence of active listening! Now using the technique from Exercise 1, do the same thing with the music you're listening to right now. You'll likely find that you can improve your listening skills substantially, even in a noisy room or on a crowded subway by making a conscious choice to actively engage yourself with music. The more you do this the more you'll find yourself learning new things from each and every composition you listen to, and improving and enhancing your musical memory.

Aural Training

In addition to being able to memorize a string of pitches that you've heard, it's also of the utmost importance that we're able to actually recognize and sing the pitches that we are hearing, as well as recognize the intervals between notes. This process falls under the category of what's known as “ear training” or “aural training” and is integral to proper vocal development. There are a number of ways to acquire this set of skills.

1) The Old Fashioned Way-for hundreds of years people have stood beside their piano instructor and recited notes, repetitiously, and oftentimes with the all of the excitement of watching water boil. Don't misunderstand me, this method can be highly effective but often loses the attention of the student, rendering the method less useful over time. But the method works like this: someone, either the singer or another, plays notes on the piano and the singer sings them back. Simple intervals are played (3rds, 5ths, octaves etc) until the student acquires the skills to identify those readily and then more complex intervals are attempted such as diatonic intervals, chromatic intervals etc. The level of difficulty is increased as the student becomes more proficient.

2) The Modern Era-this same process can be undertaken with software that works to train the singer's ear in the same manner as the Old Fashioned method. There are a number of products that can be obtained that do the same work, but at your convenience and at the tips of your fingers. I know a number of voice students who have tried both of the above techniques and the main difference, according to them is that you don't have the benefit of a teacher who can correct tone if you're off pitch, and help you to improve form. Yes, this is an important factor especially for some so there is most certainly a trade off for losing the human element. Go to for a sample of this type of ear training program.

3) Welcome to the future-the culmination of years of research and an ingenious application of modern graphics have been synthesized to create a new (relatively speaking) technique designed to help aspiring musicians to develop vocal skills and pitch identification. “Absolute Pitch Avenue” is a simple program embodied in four separate games that rewards the student for correct identification of tones and intervals while making learning fun. The games are progressive, becoming more challenging as they proceed through the various levels and becoming more and more educational as well.

The idea is based on principles of recognition that have been used for years with young children who have been adept at developing perfect pitch, and the concept of “chroma.” “Chroma” or color in Greek is a descriptive term which is sometimes used to describe the specific characteristics that make a particular tone unique or as the good people at The Ear Training Companion put it, a C-note's “C-ness” or a G-note's “G-ness.” Learning to recognize the specific traits, like its frequency and tone can help to acquire the ability to recognize and recite them on demand. Go to for more information on this groundbreaking ear training software.

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Obviously, human beings are a diverse group and as such, the needs of different singers aspiring to master their crafts will be diverse as well. There will be a scattered few who are actually the unlucky inheritors of Amusia, others who need to work diligently on their musical memories and some who simply need to step it up and spend substantial time working on their vocal skills and ear training. Ultimately, it is up to you to take the necessary steps to discover what obstacles you need to overcome in order that you may continue to fine tune your sacred machine.