Strengthening Your Sense of Key

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When I posted a while back on the subject of not messing with pitch, I received the following response from a reader:

I think I must have "a weak sense of tonal centre" but have no idea how to correct that.

And I thought: that sounds like something that could usefully be blogged about.

The first thing to say is possibly ‘correct’ isn’t necessarily the most useful verb - it’s not a binary thing whereby you either have a sense of key or you don’t. It’s a bit like reading music or breath management - however good you are at it, you are always aware that you could be better, but work at improving your skills always pays off.

Probably the most direct and efficient way of working on this would be to go and get some training in Kodàly musicianship. You will find it brain-bendingly intensive: it’s basically a boot camp for your inner ear. Everybody I have met who has done this comes away feeling both freaked out by the experience and empowered by their new skill levels.

If that’s not going to fit into your life just yet, here are some other things you can do to build a more reliable and secure sense of key.

  • Games based on solfège syllables or scale-degree numbers:
    • singing scales, missing out given degrees
    • working out random scale degrees from a given tonic (“if this is 1, sing a 5”)
    • working out the tonic from random scale degrees (“if this is fa, sing doh”)
  • Whenever you hear some recorded music, identify and hum the key note - then develop to identify and hum the 5th and 3rd degrees of the scale
  • Sing some music, and periodically stop and sing the tonic
  • Mentally rehearse music to build your inner ear
  • Sing a piece toggling between singing out loud and singing inside your head
  • Sing a piece, but make every note except the tonic silent - i.e. sing the key note out loud when it occurs in your part, but have everything else inside your head
  • Sing a piece (and indeed do the above exercises with it) in lots of different keys so you have to use your brain to remember the tonal centre rather than relying on habit

These are all activities that work well with a group, but can also be adapted for individual or pair-work practice between rehearsals. The goal is always to know where ‘home’ is. The more everyone within the group maintains this awareness, the easier it is to keep ‘home’ in the same place.

You may still experience some slippage on occasion. For example, Magenta drifts sharp when I am over-excited, and has the occasional dramatic drop in pitch if confidence gets dented, but these stand out as symptoms of some other issue within a generally stable tonality. Strengthening your sense of key is not the magic bullet that will solve all your pitch issues, that is. But it will go a long way in sorting them out, and give a secure basis from which to deal with the residual vocal and psychological factors that also play a part in a wandering tonal centre.

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