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Thomas J. West Music

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Pitch Development: Exercising Your "Inner Ear"

"I can't carry a tune in a bucket" is a common expression of those who consider themselves unmusical. Having a "tin ear" is another common description. It is certainly true that individuals possess varying levels of aptitude in regards to their musical intelligence, however, just like mathematic or linguistic intelligence, every person can take their aptitude level as a starting point and work to build stronger skills in that area. These areas of intelligence are part of Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which I will discuss in more detail in a future article.

In working with public school students, especially choral students, I discovered that individual ability to distinguish different levels of pitch varied widely. Having a high musical aptitude myself, it wasn't until I got to my undergraduate years in sight singing class that I discovered my sense of pitch was developed highly enough to be considered perfect pitch. This had its advantages, of course, when teaching music students. However, in attempting to help a student with a weak sense of pitch, I often found myself at a loss.

There have been several students that I have sat at a piano with, played a pitch, and asked them to match that pitch with their voice, only to find that they simply could not do it with any consistent success. This confounded me - I found myself thinking, "Can't you hear that? It can't be any more obvious!" Sometimes this can be attributed to a person who can hear the pitches but is unaccustomed to using their voice to hold specific pitches (in other words, they have never sung for whatever reason they might give). Usually, however, these students genuinely can not distinguish individual pitches very well. For these students, playing or singing alone is not likely and they do best in ensemble settings where others provide a model for them to copy.

For the average music student, pitch matching is a skill that can be developed and is often neglected in ensemble settings. In choral settings, many choral directors rely on the piano heavily in order to keep things moving at a pace that gets their concert ready in time. The result is a great concert at the expense of individual development of the student. It is critical that choral directors program at least one a cappella selection for each concert, and warm-ups at the beginnings of rehearsal should incorporate voices-only exercises into each session.

The singing voice is very personal, as it is a part of the person's body and therefore a part of their self-image. Often asking students to sing alone immediately produces insecurity. Teachers must work with students in small groups of two or three and must model singing alone themselves in order to allow students the opportunity to build peace of mind when singing alone.

For instrumental students, matching pitch has the added stigma that the average student "doesn't sing. That's why I joined the band/orchestra!" Being able to match pitch with the voice is a critical skill, even if the student only matches pitch in one octave and stays within the comfortable range of the speaking voice. In ensemble settings, students should hum or sing tuning pitches and even full chords. More on this later.

Training the Inner Ear - Audiation

All music teachers must train students in the ability to audiate. Audiation is a term coined by Howard Gardner to describe the phenomenon of "hearing" sound in the mind only. In order for a musician to perform a piece of music, they must be able to hear the music within and learn the skills to perform it. This function of a musician's mind is so fundamental that it is often taken for granted by music teachers. Ask any self-taught musician and they will tell you "well, if you play it for me first, I can pick it up really quick - but I can't read it."

Learning to read music is a part of the process of building audiation skills. Having mental labels for sounds helps to interpret them. In my case, it wasn't until I got to my undergraduate work and got some music theory and sight-singing classes under my belt that I had enough labels to realize that I had perfect pitch. Learning to audiate and learning music notation go hand-in-hand.

As mentioned above, many music teachers struggle with this portion of music education because there are students in their programs who have very low aptitude. To this, I say to my colleagues with tongue in cheek, "Welcome to the real world." Ask an English teacher, Math teacher, or Elementary Classroom teacher about struggling to teach students in their classroom with low aptitude. The major difference between a music classroom and these other classrooms, at least in most public schools in the U.S., is that music is an elective course so music teachers must entice students to stay in their program and have to balance improving students' skills with keeping them feeling happy with what they are doing.

In my experience with choral students, learning solfeggio and sight-singing is a hard sell, because they don't see the benefits of that work until much later. To a lesser degree, instrumental students have the same reservations. It's a case of "when are we going to be done with this stuff so we can play/sing some songs we like?" Finding ways of working ear training into a students' routine is essential, and our culture makes it difficult to do so.

Fundamentals of Pitch

It amazes me how so many students have no idea of how to sing or play in tune. Matching pitch and playing in tune is one of the fundamentals of music common to every music performance, no matter what the instrument. (Only the pianist and the organist do not have direct control over their instrument's intonation, though we are all familiar with the sound of an out-of-tune piano). Even with intonation being one of the most fundamental parts of musicianship, it is a skill that is often saved for the secondary level in many music programs.

There are many reasons for this, however the main cause is a scheduling problem at the elementary level. In many parts of the U.S. elementary instrumental teachers are given little time to work with their students and are at the same time under pressure to produce a concert twice a year. They are forced to prioritize and leave certain aspects of musical development for their colleagues at the middle school to get to later.

As soon as a student can produce a quality tone on their instrument (including vocalists) and have a basic command of about one octave's worth of pitch, pitch development work should begin. For some instruments, such as strings and trombone, the need to develop the pitch matching skill is needed much sooner. Pitch matching is one of the key elements taught in the Suzuki method of violin instruction.

Some basic ideas for building pitch matching skills include:
  • Play a series of pitches for students and have them attempt to echo them on their instrument. Begin with only two or three pitches. Use scalar patterns to start, then arpeggios, then mixed.
  • Have the student learn a simple song such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by rote as a homework assignment. Give them a starting pitch using a scale they know.
  • Play "higher/lower". Play two pitches and have the student identify which is higher. For more advanced students, use this to identify intervals.
This is also the appropriate time to begin teaching students about intonation. Students need to have a basic understanding of sound waves and how beats are formed. Once they understand this, they must have direct experience with hearing beat patterns form when two sound sources play together. Once they have experienced and can identify the presence of beats, they can then be taught the procedure to adjust their instrument and create beatless tuning. Band Director Ed Lisk has written much on this topic, as well as other concepts I will present in this article. His series of Creative Director books outlines the procedure for beatless tuning in detail.

Teaching Pitch By Experience

Ed Lisk's methods work well, but they have a tendency to be too complex for many students to grasp. I took Ed's graduate course, and there were concepts in the class that stretched my musical mind, and I had been teaching for four years at that point! Ed is a very detail-oriented person and a stickler for procedure. He shared a story with us about how his band was so organized for loading their buses for away trips, people used to line the street to watch the well-oiled machine in the boarding process.

The basic concepts used in his material can definitely be applied to students at any level, and the great strength of his methods are that is is all experiential learning. For example, Ed teaches new notes on an instrument by a procedure of knowledge followed by experience. He first teaches the musical alphabet and has students recite the letters both forwards and backwards. He then teaches them the fingerings for those notes and allows them to experience not only the fingerings but the rise and fall of pitch with those fingerings.

This builds a mind-body connection between written notation (the letters) and the rising and falling pitch. Once students have learned a sufficient range (an octave to an octave and a fifth), they can begin learning scales. I have used Ed's method for teaching scales very successfully, which is to recite the letter names (with accidentals) of the scale both ascending and descending, recite the letters while doing the fingerings, then perform the scale. Most students get all of the notes correctly played on the first attempt regardless of the key signature.

Learning Pitch and More from the Circle of Fifths/Fourths

The other major contribution to music education is Ed Lisk's extensive use of the Circle of Fifths/Fourths in teaching multiple aspects of music. Ed's method uses the circle of fourths because it takes the ensemble through the flat keys first, which are more prevalent in band music. For choral groups and everyone else, I would recommend using the circle of fifths. Ed uses the circle to teach scales, key signatures, harmony, harmonic progressions, tonal production, balance and blend, dynamic layering, and any other possible concept you can think of. For more detail, visit Ed's website or buy his book for beginners or the extensive director's guide which contains an entire two semesters' worth of lessons.

Once a student can successfully produce an octave of pitch on their instrument, they can begin to play through the circle on long tones (starting with 4 counts and 4 counts of rest works well). The rest in between tones should be used for the beginner to prepare the next fingering in the circle. This teaches tone production, pulse independence, and trains the ear. The pattern of 5ths/4ths is a very recognizable interval and the cornerstone of all modern harmony. Students become familiar with this interval by playing the circle and associating the fingerings with the intervals.

Beginning students often have not learned all of the chromatic pitches by the time use of the circle becomes possible. Until they learn the full 12-note chromatic scale, using the circle up to the point they know is effective. One of the advantages of using the circle is that you literally can start on any point on the circle, which also teaches students flexibility in their thinking.

Special Notes for Piano and Vocal Students

Because of the nature of neural mapping for the piano, it is common for piano students to learn 5-finger position starting on middle-C and go from there. Most piano method books build skills from the key of C outward. This approach makes sense until you come to learning scales and arpeggios. Due to the fingering patterns used for major scales, it is easiest for piano students to start in the middle of the circle in the key of F#/Gb where they are playing mostly on the black keys. Students should still recite the letter names and accidentals as they learn these scales - it is very easy for a piano student to learn the motor skill patterns correctly without having the notation attached to it. Using a scale and arpeggio book such as this one is highly recommended.

For vocal students, the procedure is a bit different. They do not have a mechanical device to manipulate in this process. Therefore, singing through the circle is beneficial but not a starting point. More traditional vocalise exercises are an appropriate place to start (scales, arpeggios, cadential patterns). It is absolutely imperative to training the vocalist's sense of pitch that they receive regular training in the use of solfeggio and sight-singing systems. There are many methods available - I used this one with my choruses with great success.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Incorporating the development of audiation into any music instruction is critical, and it is often taken for granted. The end result in many music programs are that those with high music aptitude figure it out for themselves, those with average aptitude pick it up from the high-achievers, and those with low aptitude hide in the 3rd clarinet section, or something similar. If music teachers truly want to improve the education of each and every student, they must find ways of incorporating ear training into what they do. I know from personal experience that not all public school music programs are geared this way, especially programs with high-achieving high school performance ensembles. The very best programs of this kind find a way to get it all done, but they are an exception to the rule.

This article (c) 2008 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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