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Flat! Sharp! Pitchy! What Does It Mean To Be 'In Tune'?

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Most of us have a pretty good sense of what “singing in tune” means.

We know it when we hear it, just like we know “flat” and “sharp” when we hear it. Mostly.


Have you ever tried to explain that concept to someone who is not a musician? If you have, you’ve probably demonstrated the voice’s impressive ability to accurately recreate pitches that are between pitches. That demonstration was probably good enough for the non-musician, but for your students and clients it may not be enough. They need to have a better understanding of what pitch is, and how singers - with our uniquely flexible and accurate instrument - relate to pitch.

 

Here's the broadcast about this article. Watch here or click HERE to go to YouTube.

 

For those of us who read music - whether fluently or just enough to be dangerous - we tend to think of pitch like this:

We think of a pitch in the way that we think of it printed on the page or played on a piano key. A spot or a dot. A frequency with a name. But in reality a pitch looks more like this:


The distance from point to point on a continuum like this would be measured in hertz (Hz), which is a way to measure frequency. Hertz measures cycles per second, and if you think about how oscillating vocal folds look, it makes perfect sense. If you’ve ever referred to “A-440” you were referring to the cycles per second, or hertz, a given instrument was producing to create that specific pitch we call Concert A.


If you’re playing a percussion instrument, like a piano, an A is an A is an A. Each ascendent A is twice the hertz of the previous A. And the A you get is whatever the piano gives you.

 

If you’re playing an organic instrument, like a violin or a voice,

then the whole pitch issue gets a lot more squishy.

 

The human voice is capable of phonating on any one of those points along the continuum, which is very cool, but can be problematic.


This short article is not meant to solve the problems that organic instruments have with pitch. It is meant, however, to provide a way to think about pitch that may be more serviceable than the ol’ Dot On A Page concept.


If you take a few minutes to look at the following two pictures, you’ll notice a few things:

  • The distance between one pitch to the next is a given number of hertz

  • The continuum of hertz increases as the pitch gets higher

  • The numbers (basically) double from octave to octave




When we refer to singing “in tune” we are saying that the singer is hitting the pitch they intend anywhere in the middle of a given pitch continuum. Outside that middle area is considered flat (too few hertz) sharp (too many hertz), or just plain wrong (outside the continuum).