Pitch patterns in vocal exercises

I’d like to follow up my post about rhythm with one about pitch selection for a vocalise. This is also an area in which I see a lack of creativity on the part of teachers and singers.

In 99% of vocal exercises that I have been given or witnessed, there are these characteristics:

  • Major tonality for all arpeggios and scales
  • Triads as the only type of arpeggio, very occasionally combined with a V7 chord
  • Scales to the 3rd, 5th, or 9th step, in duple subdivisions

Now, let’s look at expanding the palette and why we might want to do that.

Scales are combinations of half-steps and whole-steps – usually. However, we sometimes encounter bigger steps in harmonic minor, pentatonic, and music influenced by Eastern sounds. Contrasting harmonic minor and pentatonic is interesting. Harmonic minor is full of “leading tone” tendencies. The 7 wants to go to the 8, the 6 wants to fall to the 5, and 3 has to live very close to 2. In pentatonic scales, however, all the notes have a more equal footing, and there are no half-steps. This is why pentatonic scales are so kind to people just learning to improvise. As long as you stay in the scale, no one note stands out as “wrong”. Vocally, it’s good for advancing singers to play with coloring notes of scales that need to do that (like harmonic minor, melodic minor, and phrygian), and freely riffing up and down on freer patterns like pentatonic and even whole-tone, if you feel like being exploratory.

Also, not all music has neat scales that start on tonic. There are many scalar sections in songs that start on other steps of the scale. One practical alternative to the modulating 123454321 exercise is: 123454321, 234565432, 345676543, 456787654, etc. all in one key.

With arpeggios, we can branch out into minor and augmented triads, all kinds of 7th chords, which are mandatory for aspiring jazz singers, and then even to 9th chords, which fit very well in a quadruple pattern when sung 135797531. After singers have sung these for a while, they start to get a feel for them, and can identify and reproduce them more easily when they are improvising.

One other note on pitches in arpeggios, before I get more long-winded – The jump from 5 to 8 in the typical 1358531 is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing. We have very uneven pitch progressions in terms of the stretch of the folds in this case – major 3rd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th. There may be times when a more even distribution of intervals might be better exercise for the larynx. Fully diminished 7th chords fill the bill nicely in such a case. Once a singer has done it a few times, it’s not difficult mentally or aurally. It is a sound we all have heard many, many times. Augmented chords will also do this, but they are usually harder at first.

Dominant 7th arpeggios have a more even progression of intervals from big to little – major 3rd, minor 3rd, minor 3rd, major 2nd. In the higher part of the voice they can be good for flexibility, compared to lunging up from 5 to 8 all the time. On the other hand, if a voice does not have its registration in order, a dominant 7th arpeggio can encourage squeezing if the upper notes have too much weight in them.

I have only had one teacher who broke out of the simple scale patterns, and he used patterns that occur in classical singing. 132435465768798 – and descending similarly. Also 121232343565, etc. in triplets which is practical, interesting, and good exercise for the voice.

Related to the section on rhythm, why not try scales in one direction on triplets? 1234321 and 1234567654321 appear in real music all the time, are not hard to hear, and have a very different feel from the usual 123454321 and its derivatives.


4 Replies to “Pitch patterns in vocal exercises”

  1. I keep things VERY simple with most students. Only after they are really secure and have a solid technical (functional) foundation do I venture into other patterns – rhythmical/melodic/harmonic! Occasionally a student comes along with a solid background in another instrument (usually piano) and once they’ve developed some technical solidity, I’ll introduce minor scales and arpeggios and Hanon type patterns for agility. But I find that the KISS principle gets me much further much faster with the majority of students. After all, they want to sing songs and not spend time learning complicated patterns just for the sake of learning complicated patterns.

    With jazz singers, those planning university entrance auditions or TAP assessments, we work on the specific requirements (other chords & scales + swing patterns if required) once they have good functional security.

    1. Thanks, Craig. I agree about keeping it simple. I seem to have touched a nerve with some people about this. I do not advocate learning complicated patterns “just for the sake of learning complicated patterns”. I give more complicated patterns to people who need to prepare to riff, improvise, or move their voices in complex ways. I do not use the fancy patterns with all students.

  2. Good suggestions. I totally agree and recently started doing some of these on my own (prior to reading this, you’ve given me some more ideas I’ll be applying too though) just cause I shared your sentiment that doing all these major scale exercises was getting really dull and boring. Plus there’s plenty of music I’m inspired by which features intervals and scales which were not included in my practice. It can be a bit harder to do as you have to have better knowledge of the piano to walk yourself through those exercises. As such one good one that I didn’t see listed here is just to do 7 chords in the key of C. Plus that gives you variety as you have the major 7’s, the minor 7’s a dominant 7 and a minor 7 flat 5 and requires basically no proficiency on piano where as moving those chords chromatically across all tones does require some thinking or proficiency on the keys. I’d also been doing 8 tone scales of all the modes in C for the same reason which you suggested but with a 5 tone. Moving into other keys is worthwhile, just takes more commitment and time on piano.

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