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.
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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).
A singer that has great pitch is a singer who, for a great majority of the notes they sing, hits the pitch they intend on the same spot along the pitch continuum. It does not mean that the singer hits the middle every time.
Some singers do hit the middle (or darn close) every time.
Some singers hear pitch just a little on the low side, as the picture below indicates, or a little on the high side.
When a singer is consistent and within the range of what we subjectively hear as “in tune” we consider that they have “great pitch.”
When a singer is described as “pitchy” it can mean any number of things, since pitch is both objective and subjective.
It can mean that the singer is unable to discern when they sing flat or sharp, and that they are therefore unreliable.
It can mean that the singer sings pitches at different points along the continuum; that they do not have a sense of where the pitch should land.
It can mean that once they've hit a pitch within the acceptable range of “in tune,” they do not “lock” the pitch, but rather move around within a given pitch continuum.
As a voice teacher or coach, or even as a singer, it doesn’t make sense to address the issue of inconsistent or “bad” pitch without knowing the source of the pitch issue. Pitchy singing can result from:
technical issues like tension, alignment, holding their breath, etc.
brain-training issues such as the things we explore in Neuro-Vocal classes
underdeveloped ear/larynx coordination (which is also a brain-training issue) which is typically a result of the singer not being exposed to music and/or singing when they were little.
Educating both yourself and your clients and students about the nature of pitch can be a powerful first step to correcting pitch challenges in singing. If you want a great toolkit for addressing pitch problems, join the next Neuro-Vocal class!