How To Match Pitch

One of my guitar tuners, made by SNARK. I highly recommend them.
One of my guitar tuners, made by SNARK. I highly recommend them.

Today may well feel like we’re taking a step backward. But in order to sing harmony, a fundamental skill is that of singing in tune. If we know all the music theory and are acquainted with how the song is structured but we can’t land on the intended pitch with any accuracy, it will sound more like howling cats than pleasing harmony.

The first step is to master the art of matching pitch, that is, closing the gap between what you intend to sing and what you actually sing. Listen to the following example. You’ll hear a single, steady tone which is the target pitch. Soon you’ll hear a second, more abrasive tone enter, but it won’t be in tune. It starts out too high, then swings too low, then swings high again but not quite as far. The gap will get smaller and smaller as you listen, until a perfect unison is found.

Matching pitch with your voice is very much like what you just heard, it just happens faster. And in a melody that keeps changing pitch, this process has to happen for every note very quickly in order to move on to the next note of the tune. A melody like Yankee Doodle, for instance, has 55 distinct notes in it (more or less, depends how you sing the song) that all have to be sung in tune. And the whole tune is sung in just under 30 seconds!

Hearing It Before You Sing It

So matching pitch is important and has to happen quickly. It becomes much easier when we know what pitch is coming next, kind of hearing it in our head before we sing it (that’s called audiation, for any music geeks reading this. A quick yet accurate explanation of this process can be found here).

To make it easier to “hear” it before we sing it, we can practice singing certain patterns of intervals. In part 1 of this study, you sang (hopefully) Row, Row, Row Your Boat as part of a round. You were able to keep track of where you were in the piece by thinking about the words you were singing; and being familiar with the speed of the music’s beat, or pulse, you could remember what to sing next before you were even there. That’s what I’m talking about.

Now let’s sing up and down the major scale. Match each pitch as you hear it. The track will play the major scale three times, first slowly, then faster, then even faster.

What you just sang was a pattern of whole steps and half steps. More detail on those later. But you’ve heard the whole pattern over and over again throughout your life. It sounded very natural to you, and though it may take several tries, you should be able to anticipate how much higher or lower each next tone is even before you sing it.

Practicing A Song

Now for the test. You may have heard “My Grandfather’s Clock” (written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work). The tune is mostly made up of whole and half steps, but there are a few bigger jumps. I’m trusting that you’re familiar enough with this song that those jumps won’t seem too much of a problem. The first track will be a little slower, the second a little faster, and the third will be about as fast as it is usually sung. Lyrics are below.

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor.
It was taller by half than the old man himself
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short, never to go again
When the old man died.

Reality Check

How can you know if you are singing in tune? Here are a couple of methods.

1) Use your smart-phone. Play the recorded track and sing along, using your phone to record yourself. Video is always available, and free audio recorder apps are abundant.

2) Get another opinion. Ask someone you trust to listen to you sing and give their honest feedback. Someone who is already a musician would probably be the most helpful.

Let me know how you are doing with this! Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case