Having trouble staying on pitch? Developing your ear – even if you’re convinced you weren’t “naturally” born with the skill – can do wonders for your singing. Read on as Raleigh, NC teacher Cameron F. explains…
As a vocalist, nothing is more important than a well-trained ear. This is all we have to depend on to tune ourselves! We have no frets or keys, no strings and no tuning pegs, only our vocal cords to create the sound and our ear to focus the pitch. We have to make sure the tools we do have are well crafted and reliable. This is where ear training comes in.
We have to listen to what is happening in the music around us and change ourselves to fit it. Even those lucky enough to have perfect pitch must abide by this rule. If the ensemble is playing a little sharp or flat, the singer has to move with them. So you can see how important ear training is! Highly trained singers are able to sing well and on pitch with the most challenging ensembles. So, let’s take a look at a few things you can do to train your ear. There are two main techniques that I will be going over, one of which is very basic, the other much more advanced. Let’s start with the basics.
As a beginner, the most important skill to develop is the ability to match pitch. This is the cornerstone to singing in tune, and is the ability to hear a note and recreate it with your voice. Many people are able to do it naturally, but if you can’t, don’t worry! You are not out of luck.
A very basic way to begin matching pitch is to start by creating it yourself. Sing any note you want, and ask someone, preferable someone more musically experienced than you are, to find it on a piano, or any other instrument. Ideally, another singer would be best. When choosing your pitch, make sure you sing in a range that is comfortable and relaxed for you. Once they have found your pitch, stop singing. Listen to the note they are playing, and remember the note you had chosen (they should be the same). Now try to recreate the pitch while your assistant continues to hold your original note. Do this with many different pitches, and eventually you will be able to switch roles. Your assistant will chose the pitch, and you will be able to match it!
It is important to mention something about the physics of sound here, as this bit of knowledge will help beginners hear when they are close, but not quite on the right pitch. In scientific terms, a musical note is referred to as a “frequency.” When two frequencies are very, very close – but not identical – you may notice volume swells (or “beats”) in the pitch. The further away from each other the two pitches are, the faster the swells. This is how most musicians tune their instruments by ear.
For singers, this can be helpful in many ways. Many who are just learning to match pitch complain that they have a hard time telling if they are too low (flat) or too high (sharp). If you can get close, than listening to the beats will help you figure that out. Change the pitch in one direction and see if the beats speed up or slow down. If they speed up, go back in the opposite direction. If they slow down, then you’ve got it. Remember what it sounds like when you have to move up, and vice versa. Eventually, you will figure out which is which just by listening.
From there, you can move on to slightly more advanced exercises. Have your assistant play a few different notes on a given instrument and try to sing them back to him/her, as a warm up. After doing this for a while, have him/her play two notes at the same time. Listen very carefully, and try to separate them. Your assistant should ask you to match one of the two notes, and then the other. Once you are comfortable with that, have your assistant play three notes at a time, and repeat the process. This will be more difficult, but the benefits are huge. Being able to separate chords is a great skill for any singer to have, as it will allow you to feel more comfortable and knowledgeable within any musical setting, as well as help you improvise, should you need to.
That is it for the beginner’s lessons. Next week I will cover an exercise that is extremely useful for more advanced musicians: transcription.
Cameron F. teaches bass guitar, singing and music theory lessons to students of all ages in Raleigh, NC. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Music Recording and Production from Appalachian State University, and he joined the TakeLessons team in February 2013. Learn more about Cameron, or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by petercastleton