Every singer can learn to sing in tune. There are only two main causes for out-of-tune singing: lack of aural training/ear-training skills and lack of vocal technique. Usually, the issues are a mixture of both.
The first step to singing in tune is the ability to match pitch. If a singer cannot match pitch, they cannot sing in tune. The complete inability to match pitch is often referred to as “tone-deafness” or clinically called “amusia”. I believe it is almost never true that someone is tone-deaf.
The misconceptions of matching pitch
I believe the problem with “matching pitch” is that most choral directors view it to be an all-or-nothing skill; either a student can match pitch or they can’t. This belief system aligns well with easily turning students away and calling their lack of pitch-matching as a “tone-deaf” diagnosis. Many of these same choral directors are quick to point out that between 2-5 percent of the population have amusia.
If you want to give your singers a quick “amusia” test, check out this link:
In 20+ years of teaching, I have yet to come across any student who couldn’t learn to match pitch. I’ve had students who struggled for a while but never had a student who remained in choir for a full year who did not replicate pitches in their range, sing a folk song or Italian aria relatively in tune, and sing a section of choral music by themselves relatively accurately.
Pitch-matching is not an all-or-nothing skill. It is a skill that comes naturally to some but requires some training for others. Just as any other skill, there are steps any singer can take toward improvement. By breaking pitch-matching into a series of skill subsets, we can create a system to help all singers learn to match pitch. In fact, the same subset of skills is the starting point for singers who struggle with intonation.
This information is part of my Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric, intended to demystify sight-singing and revolutionize the way in which we understand the needs of our weakest sight-singers.
Here, we are going to breakdown the skill of matching pitch into 5 levels or steps.
1. Singer cannot match pitch at all.
This is what most of us say about our students when they haven’t perfected this skill. The reality is that it’s quite rare that someone cannot match pitch at all. In order for a singer to be at this level, even a pitch that they consistently speak cannot be reproduced after we play their exact pitch back to them. This level means there is no comfortable area in their voice and certainly no 2-5 note range where they can fairly frequently duplicate a pitch.
If you have singers who “can’t match pitch”, find the note that comes out of their mouth and/or play the exact pitch that they are speaking. Once you find that pitch, have them repeat that pitch with the awareness of what they are doing. Then have them sing that same pitch and one pitch up or down. Even if they can’t sing a second pitch, see if they continually start on the same initial pitch. If they can, they are NOT at the lowest level of pitch-matching.
The lowest level of pitch-making, Level 1, means they cannot find any pitch anywhere in their voice.
2. Singer only matches pitch in a very small range of notes and is stuck in either chest voice or falsetto
Once we match a student’s exact spoken pitch or the “one” pitch they are singing, we can begin moving their voice up or down by half or whole step. As we focus on breath support, and continue to return to their one “magic note”, we can get their voice to move off that note to another note. One note may lead to another, and even another, but eventually they will lose it and head back to their “magic note”. When this happens, I try to bring them to a completely different area in their voice. I bring males into falsetto and try to get them to produce anything, ignoring tone quality of accurate pitches. For women, I bring them into their opposite register. If they are stuck in their chest voice, they should sigh up high and try to create some sound. These contrasting exercises tend to relax the soft palate, larynx, and vocal folds; I then go back to the “magic note” and try to gain further flexibility.
3. Singer matches pitch but struggles to find pitches when switching registers (low/mid/high range).
A singer may have relative consistency with certain areas of their voice. For male voices, it could be their lowest area and then in falsetto. With women it could be that they get stuck in their head voice or their chest voice and a song that moves beyond a specific area in their voice leads to sudden loss of pitch. This is a basic flexibility and coordination issue. As singers move between their upper and lower ranges and develop a flexible soft palate and solid breath support, they will experience better coordination.
4. Singer can match pitch but has holes in their voice
When a singer is in one register, they can easily match pitches and move between notes. They can sigh and siren throughout their voice but there are areas of their voice with missing notes. The singer can generally navigate around the holes in their voice but this in itself hinders their ability to sing consistently.
5. Singer has mastered this skill.
A singer has mastered the skill when they have control over their low, middle, and upper range. They can transition between registers. Also note, that this doesn’t mean they can remain in tune.
Once they can match pitch, why can’t they stay in tune?
After they can match pitch, it’s time to move through the entire aural training system. In fact, all singers will benefit from these rubrics as they develop the independent skills necessary to sight-singing and successfully sing throughout their voice.
After pitch-matching, singers must:
2. Learn to sing a scale in tune using the Scale-Singing Rubric. This is a clear place where you can recognize a singer with range who still can’t stay in tune. By using this rubric, every singer will be guided toward singing their scale in tune.
3. Sing basic alternating solfege patterns (do, mi, sol following by do, re, mi) using the Simple Alternating Solfege Pattern Rubric. This rubric ensures a singer can differentiate step-wise motion from skips. They must be able to sing a triad in tune and move back to step-wise motion with perfect intonation.
4. Master the Aural Training Sheet using the The Best Aural Training BUNDLE. This is where singers learn to sing every diatonic interval. This can only happen when the singer has reached the top level of the previous three rubrics. When a singer has mastered the previous three rubrics, they will sing these intervals perfectly in tune.
All four rubrics are available together below:
Last words about Singing in Tune and Matching Pitch
If you are struggling with helping your singers to match pitch, my online course, How To Teach Anyone To Match Pitch, is your answer. The course teaches a 7-step pitch-matching process that gets every singer to match pitch. If you don’t find this course helpful, I will personally Skype with you and your struggling singers to ensure success and/or refund your investment. The first step is believing that every singer can learn to match pitch!