On Matching Pitch

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Okay, so this is a huge topic, but I am going to see if I can keep focused on the specific thoughts that prompted me to write on the subject. These ideas arise from a combination of having read some of the scholarly literature, plus the practical experience of working with real people. So, I’d say they’re quite well-informed and well-grounded, but not comprehensive. I reserve the right, as ever, to revise them as I continue to learn.

It is a reasonably common question that choral directors come up with to ask how to help a member of their group who can’t match pitch. They will typically have worked with them at an individual level at some length, and continued difficulties lead them to seek advice from their peers.

Now, it strikes me that ‘matching pitch’ in the sense of being able to sing back a note heard from the piano is quite an abstract skill. And that whilst it may look to be the simple building block upon which successful participation in a choir is to be built, I suspect it is actually a more sophisticated level of activity that relies experience gained in more ‘real-life’ and less ‘laboratory’ musical situations.

Anecdotal experience: I sang for some years with an adult novice who when she first started struggled to find pitch. Her audiation-voice connection was initially very weak - that ability to hear a note in your head and then being able to reproduce it out loud. What she used to do to tune reminded me of tuning a radio - there was a sense of weaving up and down until she found the note that others were singing on. Tuning, in this sense, was a felt rather than listened-to quality.

So from this I learned several things:

  • The better the blend, the easier it was for her to feel when she had got her voice locked in - so the overall quality of the choral sound can help or hinder people’s learning here.
  • Timbral coherence was key: she could feel unity with another voice in a way she would not be able to with an instrumental sound
  • Having other people around her doing it right was therefore central to her skill development - taking her out to work individually made it harder rather than easier (as well as potentially increasing anxiety and self-consciousness)
  • She got better at this over time, but could still fall out of the music on occasion - if the cognitive load of new things to learn, or the speed of the music, or other distractions got too much, her pitch would go again. And when you think about it, isn’t that true of all of us? Just those who are more practised find this happens less often and are more fluent at climbing back into the flow without floundering too long.

Another thought is that single notes are also abstract things. You can get people who ‘can’t match pitch’ but who can very happily sing a tune. And of course, if they didn’t already take pleasure in producing melody, they probably wouldn’t volunteer to join a choir. But a note out of context loses its sense of meaning in a musical shape and they can’t find it easily. The go-to book on this is Jeanne Bamberger’s The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. Fabulous piece of music psychology research than has informed my teaching in really useful practical ways for years. I should have blogged about her ideas years ago, and will get around to doing so one day!

Third thought: vocal issues and musical issues interact. Joanne Rutowksi’s research on children’s singing shows how pitch accuracy develops in stages in tandem with increasing control over vocal registers. And it’s not just children: another anecdote of an adult novice, this time one who sings securely and expressively in her mid-range, but falls off the pitch in higher and lower registers.

I think the difficulties in this case are different high and low. It seems she can hear the higher notes okay, but struggles to access her head register, and so when the music climbs above a certain pitch, she falls back into her mid-range. In the lower register, it seems she’s finding it hard to hear what’s going on - she’s more secure in a unison context than a full harmonic texture.

So conclusion to this ramble: trouble matching pitch isn’t a single problem, but a variable combination of deficits in vocal and aural skills. And abstracting it out to work on away from the choir may make it harder rather than easier to develop. Immersion in vocal sound and musical meaning can give singers a lot more cues to connect with when developing these skills. Teaching novices to become effective ‘leaners’ may be a necessary first step on their journey towards musical confidence.

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