How to teach someone to match pitch

This topic comes up a few times a year on the various forums that I belong to. It’s time for me to write a fairly “permanent” piece on it that I can point people to. I have had good success with teaching people to match pitch, and the principles are not difficult. The problem seems to be that experienced singers make too many assumptions about how a nonsinger hears and processes pitch.

Main principles for beginning:
  1. Progress will be faster if you have the student make a sound first, which you then find on the piano and in your voice, then expand from there.
  2. People match to other singers more easily than to a piano.
  3. Stay away from register breaks at first.
  4. Many people will have an easier time starting with a pitch near their speaking range.
  5. Some people don’t know what up and down feels like in a voice, and must be drilled in that.

A typical first lesson in pitch matching would be to have the student say a simple sentence such as “The sky is blue.” Then I may have them stretch certain words while I poke around on the piano to see where their speaking voice is. Then I find the pitch of a certain word and we start going stepwise from that. Stay in a diatonic key. So, if their speaking pitch on the word “sky” or “blue” is Bb3, stay in the key of Bb for now. Going chromatically or in whole tones or skipping around will lead to chaos. They are used to hearing tonal music, and working within that environment will be most constructive at first. Sing the note with them after you have identified it.

Now we are ready to move away from the first note, always making it singer-centered and not piano-centered. Let’s make their first pitch the tonic for these exercises. (It doesn’t really matter to the student as long as the first note fits in a diatonic scale that you then use for the following exercises.) From there I would try patterns like do-ti, do-ti-la, do-ti-la-so, with me singing at their pitch and then us singing together, while playing the notes on the piano at the same time. You may not be able to go as low as “so” because many people speak near the bottom of their range.

Then I go up in patterns like do-re, do-re-mi, do-re-mi-fa. All these patterns start with do. I do not use solfege syllables with students! I’m just using them here for ease of communication to you musicians. Use the word they originally spoke or a very easy syllable like “mum” or “buh”. No all-vowel vocalises yet; they are harder for new singers.

I also have them do sirens. These are important for all voices. They need to know what sliding up and sliding down feels like so they can make adjustments as they find new pitches. They will also learn where their breaks are, if they have them. Some beginners do not have breaks! If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Generally you should do these exercises so that they do not cross register breaks. Often they can handle making sounds in both low and high parts of their voice right away. Many men are better at matching pitch in their falsetto than in their chest voice at first.

Having the singer get their pitch directly from the piano is a more advanced skill. This is because the piano has very clangy overtones of octaves and fifths that do not line up with the sound of a voice. It can make which octave to sing with unclear until the student is used to listening to, and matching, the fundamental when a piano key is played. Playing a chord with the pedal down can be especially overwhelming to the new singer. You then have many overtones reinforcing each other and competing for the singer’s attention. As humans we are programmed from birth to respond most readily to other human voices.

If you want to teach pitch-matching you will need to be prepared to demonstrate a lot vocally, in their octave, at first.

I have not failed to help a student match pitches better with this approach, and improvement usually occurs immediately. There are very few truly tone deaf people out there. The big challenge is creating a connection among ear, mind, and voice.

24 thoughts to “How to teach someone to match pitch”

  1. Thanks! It occurred to me earlier today that I would have no idea what to say if somebody who was (in their mind) "tone deaf" asked me for help on matching pitch.

    Great post!

  2. This is a fantastic starting point! I'm already seeing great improvements out of my "student".
    Great ideas, and thanks for sharing them!

  3. Congratulations! Good observation. For those who do not have access to a voice teacher, there is a program called Listening-Singing-Teacher (free trial), which is useful to drill people to recognize what up and down feels like in a voice. The program gives immediate feedback on pitch and plots a curve on the screen. In this way the student can experiment with his voice going up and down and see the effect of his attempts.

  4. Amazing post, please keep them coming! I am taking over an afterschool a capella group, and though I have sung in them before I have absolutely no clue how to organize a group (nevermind one with such a wide variety of skill levels). Some students need instruction as to how to match a pitch while others can sing Pentatonix arrangements or basically any a capella arrangement, and I’m trying to figure out how to get the absolute beginners to a place where they can hear and match pitches so we can really get started.

    Any more advice you are willing to give will be received with a shout of joy and extravagant thanksgiving.

    Thanks!

  5. Hi Brian,
    I love your post. Thanks for allowing us to learn from your experience!
    I am struggling, however, because I cannot often sing the pitches these young boys can sing. I am female, and therefore cannot even phonate that low! Do you have any recommendations when a live voice is not available? (I’m referring to helping the boys match someone’s sound, instead of the piano)
    Thanks!!
    Sarah

    1. Do you have a keyboard with some kind of sound that sustains on it? Like choir, violin, or flute, NOT any organ sound, since they usually have weird overtones that confuse the beginners, and do not use sounds that die away, like piano, guitar, harpsichord, etc. Sing a scale downward as low as you can go, then play the keyboard from there downward, so that the student can hear the keyboard as an extension of your voice. In the beginning you need to use your voice as much as you can, and integrate it seamlessly with a sustained sound on the keyboard so that the student can hear the continuum of pitches.

  6. Thanks, this helped me know where to begin to teach my near “tone deaf” boy friend (who is amazing at spitting spoken word) to match a pitch instead of singing a very modern dissonant harmony. I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.

  7. Thanks! I’m really excited about trying this with my students. I get adolescents who have never really sung, don’t know what it feels like, and on top of that are terrified of others hearing them which of course compounds the problem. You have given me a lot of hope that I will be able to help these kids.

    1. Thanks, John. If you can develop the skill of finding the pitch THEY are making quickly, you will find working from that home base very helpful. Cheers.

    1. That’s a great question, Anne! According to some experts, due to the recurrent laryngeal nerve being connected to the right ear, better results might be obtained with that side. You might want to read “The Voice and the Ear” by Dr. Tomatis.

  8. Very helpful and informative. I’ll be using this method for helping my friend learn to match pitch for our school musical in 3 months! Haha…

  9. so I have a student who is not tone deaf. “I had him take on online pitch test” but is really struggling matching pitch. He constantly over shoots the note by about 3 or 4 half steps. I feel its because he has this idea that notes are very far away from each other. This is not sharp singing, he really is singing mostly the 3rd. Im feeling that he hears harmony better than the lead part. What do you suggest to a student who constantly gravitates toward a harmony part and then insists he is singing the right note?

    1. Are you working voice to voice or is he trying to match to some instrument? The piano, especially, has an overtone structure that can lead to confusion about which note to sing. An online pitch test will be more difficult than in-person, using pitches in his comfortable singing range. You have to go where the singer is both pitch-wise and instrumentally (voice to voice matching, not with instruments at first). If he is still always singing harmonies, then you probably need to teach him about harmonies and chords so that he can learn to hear unisons and intervals.

  10. I’ve found success using a similar method. The only real difference I use is having their “found pitch” be the sub dominant (or the 4th of the scale) instead of the tonic. That way they can expand in either direction.

  11. I’m wondering how this affects how you would structure these lessons. In classical voice, we generally structure them with half vocalization and half applied repertoire. But if a student is not matching pitch well, it might prove to be fruitless diving into the singing of the repertoire.

    1. Hi Julie,

      Yes, if they aren’t matching pitch yet, they aren’t really going to be having “classical” or any other specific genre of lessons yet. For severe pitch matching problems, folk songs, hymns, or chants with a very small range work well, with the key customized to whatever pitch they gravitate toward.

      Brian

  12. I have a middle school choir that has just grown a lot in size. I am happy for the increase because the program is growing, but with the increase and enthusiasm, I have taken on more students who are struggling to match pitch. I am the music teacher for the whole building K-8 and work a lot in the younger grades matching pitch, but I have not been here long enough yet to see that pay dividends in my choirs. I do not get time for private lessons with anyone, unless we go to great lengths to find the time. With several people not matching pitch, I have devised a preliminary plan to use these principles during warm ups and while teaching the actual music. Do you have any other suggestions for doing this with groups of students so I can make effective head way during my regular choir period?

    1. I’m just brainstorming here. I used to teach MS instrumental music, but not choir, so I know the population. You might think of pitch matching games you could do, like have one person make pitched sounds (wouldn’t even have to be a “song”) and then have a group echo that person. This would capitalize on: 1) pitch-matching is easier voice to voice; and 2) MS kids are such social animals. They might enjoy imitating each other’s patterns, within a reasonable framework. This is in the family of “call and response” of which there are a thousand variations that you can invent. For example, you can divide responses into “up” “down” and “stay the same” which are not dependent on precise pitches, but start to give them a feel for what “high” and “low” mean. You can use a very small pitch set and require responses to fit within that. You can require that they make a “tune” that is completely different from what they have just heard. Or you can try for “exactly the same”. At the individual level, pitch matching comes a lot faster when the singer gets the ability to make their voice go up and down and knows for sure that they are doing it.

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