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Beginning singers: What about Adults who can't match pitch?


I'm overwhelmed.

Thanks to all who wrote me with help about my three college guys who
couldn't match pitch.
I received many responses, and MANY requests for the information I gleaned.
I decided since there was such a need, I'd post these. Some took the time
to write some in-depth thoughts which I appreciate, and so will the readers.

What I was trying to actually get was not procedural information, but
recorded material (tapes, C.D.s, CD rom, etc.) to help them WITHOUT me.
What I found out is that it probably won't help them. It's the "one-on-one"
that is necessary. Why don't some of you techie types reading this create a
software program which addresses this need? There seem to be a LOT of folks
who are trying to help a lot of people with their pitch matching needs. And,
there seem to be a lot of people who WANT to sing, but cannot. There's a
market out there . . . . (you could retire on the profits . . . . :-)

I have not listed the names of the contributors since I did not know who
would like to be acknowledged and who would rather not be acknowledged. I
thought I'd err on the safer side, here, and apologize later for those
wishing recognition.

I'm glad to know that there are MANY out there who share the problem and try
to conquer the problem. "I hear America singing!"

Richard Garrin
rg_mateo(a) wrong address

I work with a girls' chorus (ages 5-18) and I've been quite successful in
teaching a number of girls how to match pitch. I've seen two different
situations: 1. They grew up in a house that NEVER sung anything and now
after 5, 10 or even 15 years they want to learn how to sing. OR 2. Their
ears do not hear pitch the way we do, so they do not realize they are off.

With the girls that have never sung before, I've found that they just need a
lot of one on one practice because they muscles are underdeveloped.

With the girls who cannot hear if something is in or out of tune, I teach
them what it 'feels' like to be in tune and what it feels like when they're
not. Basically I teach them to sense the vibrations of singing unison (or
eventually consonance) verses any form of dissonance.

With both sets of girls, I have found the following exercises/techniques

1. Sometimes they are able to match a sung pitch verses a played pitch - for
those, we begin with them matching my sung notes. Then I have them practice
imagining the piano pitches as a voice. Sometimes they will listen to a
single note played on the piano for up to 30 seconds - then finally hear it
inside their heads as a voice instead of the piano AND be able to match it!

2. Most students can already sing SOME note on pitch, it's just up to you to
find it and say - hey, you are singing this note! Do you feel what it's
like when you and I sing it together? Then try to get them to move down or
up just a couple other notes from where they began naturally.

3. Practice with half steps. See if they can hold out their note while you
sing the half step above or below. Have them make a mental note of what
that felt like, then slide your voice back down to their pitch. Again, have
them remember what this feels like when you are both in unison. Once they
understand this, have them try moving while you stay on the single pitch.

That's basically what I use and then just do it over and over again. With
most of my girls, after working on a weekly basis, they can get it within 6
months to a year. Of course if you met with them more often, or they had
someone else to practice with, I'm sure it could go faster.

The best of luck to you! Let me know if you have any other questions. I
know many voice teachers who believe that someone who doesn't understand
singing on pitch will never get it...well, I like to continue to prove them
wrong! A couple of my used to sing off-key girls are now the strongest in
the group because they understand what they are doing as opposed to the ones
that have it naturally and don't have to think.
First, Have them choose a pitch to sing. YOU match their pitch so they can
hear what it sounds like to match. Some people just don't get this. Then,
when they are able to hear the match, YOU give the pitch(same pitch) and
have them "match" it. Then try giving them a pitch 1/2 step higher or lower
and have them match it. Have them sing a simple tune that they know, but
LET THEM PICK THE STARTING PITCH. Then, sing along, so they can hear what
"matching" sounds like. The closer you match their timbre, the better. You
can evolve more challenging exercises after this. Make sure, as well, that
each has had his hearing tested so there's no problem there. This could be
part of it! Also, encourage them to "sing" the pitches silently before
trying to match: this makes them listen better. Hope this helps!
I have used a couple of ear-training software programs, although not
specifically for male voices having trouble matching pitch. MusicLab Melody
by Musicware has several modules: Name, Analyze, Sing, Echo, Play, Notate,
Write, Read. Some are listening exercises. The Sing and Read modules have
students sing into a microphone using solfege or numbers (per your
designation)the computer shows them where they are over or under pitch. It
has a variety of levels, ranging from 1-20, as well as a basic and advanced

The other program which I just got is based on Edwin Gordon's Music Learning
Theory. The program is called Audiation Assistant and is based on the
premise that there is a specific sequence in which tonal sounds should be
introduced. The program, called Audition Assistant seems like a good
program and I will begin using it soon. It is available from gia
publications at MusicLab is available from most
retailers. I think I got it from Lentine's at
Both programs retail for only around $50.00.

Good luck. I would love to see what other responses you get.
For what it's worth:
Teaching younger kids, I've come across a great many monotones who simply
don't get it. However, getting them to figure out how to use the
different registers in the voice is where I start. Whimper like a puppy,
or meow like a kitten, or moo like a cow. Then we try and find the pitch
on the piano, and bump it up and down as far as we can. Sometimes it
comes pretty quick (days) sometimes over a year, but every single one
eventually gets it.

Your cases being so much older, they may have an even more difficult time
breaking free, but I have every confidence it can be done.....eventually.
How much effort is it worth to you? I gues my best advice is if they
can't match your pitch, then have them sing a note and match theirs.
Once that is found, try to have them sing up or down one step. Try
having them sing (I usually just do it on AH) do-mi-do, or some simple
pattern which starts and ends on the same note. Have other people with
similar sounding voices sing the same thing before them and/or with them.
Tell them to go home and listen to recording of vocal music,
particularly solo vocal. Be persistant, I believe it will come!
Good luck!
Most of the time, I've found that students such as this, have never matched
pitch with an instrument before.

Some successful things I've used, is to have them match pitch with another

Another effective technique is to match pitch with THEM, instead of matching
pitch to YOU or the instrument. They can't DO it, until they know what it
sounds like, and feels like.

Try having them match pitch with a piano, then whatever pitch they sing, YOU
match THEM...explain to them the concept of 'higher or lower'....telling
them, when you've had them hear what pitch they are actually singing,
whether they were higher or lower than the pitch you first played.

It's worked for my students.

That...and patience. When they get the hang of it, all the time you spent
will be worth it.
There are some really good ear training software programs available through
West Music or any other music supplier, that would probably be most helpful
(rather than tapes). You need to diagnose a couple of things. Are they
matching the contour of the melody but singing to low, are they droning on
one pitch but keeping accurate rhythm, or are they in left field (the notes
have no relationship to the melodic contour). If it's the first or second,
pitch training may help. If they're droning is it vocal damage? and
finally there is a rare hearing disorder called depicutis in which the
person hears more than one frequency being produced with one pitch. The
person can't distinguish what is the true pitch and therefore produces
melodies that seemingly have no relationship to the intended melody.
I suspect that this is developmental. They missed a "readiness" period
sometime early in their lives. Unless there is physical or neurological
damage, they can learn. Whether they can learn within a reasonable time
frame and whether they have the desire to keep working at it are different

When my wife has run into this in an adult, it has generally been because
at the very early childhood age when they could have developed pitch
matching, nobody was working with them and nobody was singing to them.

The key is to take them back through the developmental procedures that they
missed. Approaching it intellectually won't do any good. The inner ear
didn't develop, and it has to before the intellectual explanations will
make any sense.

I recommend that you find a really good Kodaly teacher who is willing to
work with these young men and take them through the early childhood
routines that are designed to develop the inner ear. When Susie has done
this, it has worked.

Best of luck!!
I have worked with a lot of developing voices, especially males. This may
work for you. Often, it is also extremely helpful to ("gasp") put them in
a choir surrounded by two or three strong singers. It takes time, but they
may get there.

In addition, try to have them learn to play one instrument. Try a tenor
recorder. That can help them "hear" head voice.

I bet a compilation on this topic would be fun to post!!

Best wishes. I would love to consult anytime you wish if my suggestions
seem to help.
Have you tried to have them close their eyes?
That may short circuit a brainwave that's getting in the way.

Also, if you're playing the pitches in what you might think to be their
register, try playing them an octave higher.

I don't know the magic answer at all, but I'd be interested to know if
either of these work. Theyve helped me.

99 times out of 100 the problem is psychological with no physical basis. I
don't know if you have tried this very different approach.

Begin by asking them to sing any note. Find it on the piano and get the
student to come over and place his ear firmly against the body of the
instrument. Now get the student to sing the same pitch and you then match it
with the piano. This might not work first time but DO NOT be put off it will
work. The vibrations of the piano will allow the student to literally 'feel'
the note. Once the first note they have produced has been matched. Get them
to sing another pitch and you match it. Keep repeating the process until
they have sung three or four notes.

Then go back to any of the pitches you matched with the piano. Ask the
student to repeat one that you play. If they can't repeat as above it will
happen. When a pitch has been matched tell them that you are going to change
the note on the piano down a little. Tell them to listen to it three or four
times and get them, then to match it.

This process needs absolute patience and a positive approach even when
things go wrong as they undoubtedly will. What happens to adolscent boys who
don't sing during their 'change' period is that the brain sends vocal
messages related to what used to be the case (I call it 'the little boy
voice') but the vocal folds are changing like the rest of the bosy and they
cannot respond in the same way. You have to help the psychological
processing of information for the student to enable him to bring his vocal
equipment back into use.

I hope this helps. It has done for dozens of seemingly hopeless students of
I have taught alot of these guys over the years and I must admit I really
love these students.

I finally figured out not to have them try to match any pitch at all. The
first thing that I do is find any way to get them to make any kind of
musical sound themselves. Along the way, I will match their tone with my
voice , or with another male (in tune) student in the class to give them
aural feedback about where their voice is ( i.e upper, middle, lower
register). Usually though, the voice class will just give them feedback
about what kind of sound (i.e. smooth, gentle, loud) they are making (
having absolutely nothing to do with matching pitch).

We frequently use props while singing on " fla" or "noh" (or any single
pitched sustained vowel): we use tennis balls ("pass" the sound, "toss" the
sound) a large bouncing ball (bounce the sound from the breath to another
individual). Also, any other physicial movement is really helpful because
these non-singers are so full of tension ( pretend to throw a frisbee, hit a
tennis forehand, a golf-stroke) . Anything will work as long as the movement
gives them a healthy relaxed breath & sense of moving sound. Any
distraction (away from the voice) is key.

Also, I try to observe where their greatest tension lies. Last week a
student (in his 50's) who has extreme lower back pain and tension did a
little hip sway to "let the sound" come from his lower back and suddenly he
was matching pitch more accurately. Shoulders, hands, backs, knees, lots of
places hold tension and when released allow these singers to match a pitch.

After many of these kinds of playful activities, I start to work in little
songs like ("It's Raining, it's Pouring"). Make up words or use no words,
but I find that the SOL-MI combination is quite natural to adults just as it
is to young children. Also, I stay away from any keyboard and we just work
voice to voice. Because these guys really haven't developed past early
childhood in their ear and vocal development.

Well, these are the things that work for me. Good luck-- And let me know
how it's going.
I am not an expert, but I have some experience in elementary music where
we had success in "really small steps". Because I don't know what you
have done, I want to encourage you to sort of reverse the process:
match them. Whatever pitch a guy sings, match it by singing and by
using the piano. Match his pitches for a few minutes for several
consecutive days. The next step is to see if by starting with his pitch
you can go up or down by step (with you guiding him). Again, move
slowly but consistently everyday. Eventually you will build a small
range. Add some sort of system like solfege or whatever. Now comes the
piece that I reiterate as a high school teacher, "One day in February,
as this kid is taking a shower, it happens for him." The important
thing is for you and him to be patient! Accept the small victories.
Don't stop because of the defeats. Everyone can match pitch. We speak
in pitch (inflection). Good luck to you.
Since you didn't outline what you did with them individually, you may
have already tried this, but from what I read, it sounds like the
problem is you are trying to get them to match your pitch, not the other
way around. In my experience, the best course of action is to start
where they are. Have them sing any pitch, then you should match them on
the piano. Start from there to see if they can sing 3 or 5 note
patterns. Once you've found a starting place, you can gradually add
more notes to their "vocabulary," again starting with where they are and
working outward. I've had quite a bit of success using this technique.
I'm no doctor, but it's frequently a matter of getting muscles to work
which aren't used to being used. (For example, can they touch their
toes without bending their legs? Maybe not now, but they could if they
worked on it a little every day stretching their muscles.)
Work with them for quite some time where they speak only. If they can
speak "hello" (and I'm sure they can), then have them sustain a pitch on
the "o" part of hello. Consider that there current range (2-3 notes,
maybe). Have them say "kitty, kitty, kitty," somewhere else in their
voice (higher or lower). Have them siren up and down (with no thought of
singing). They might siren only three or four notes away from their target
(comfort zone where they speak). Be patient. They are in what Gordon
calls the "babble" stage. Hope this helps some.
I would suggest that you match their pitch before you try to have
them match yours. Have them sing any note, then either sing it or play
it back to them. Have them sing another note, repeat the process, and
point out that their second note was higher or lower than the first.
Once you have them recognizing that the pitch they are singing "matches"
what you are either playing or singing, then you will have broken down a
big barrier. Many people cannot "hear" a pitch nearly as well if it is
played on a piano rather than sung, since the sung pitch comes much
closer to the resonance their own voice produces.
Now that you have them "singing" a note that is matchable, play or
sing step-wise patterns, such as do-re, do-re-mi, etc. In almost all
cases, they can now match some pitches with you.
I once had a student who seemed to hear pitches a fifth higher than
generated, but could repeat the direction, etc. Perhaps you are dealing
with someone who has a similar situation.
I believe there are people who have not developed much of a vocal
range. Have them do Sirens, puppy whimpers, etc. so they feel pitch
change. Finally, never discount the "fear" factor of doing this in
Lots of luck!
I don't know of any published material on this subject, but I have had
consistent success teaching non-singers in two churches I have served to
sing on pitch. There is no "magic formula", but here are some thoughts:

The key lies in the speaking voice. I'm convinced that "hearing" the pitch
is not the problem, since "hearing" is a mental process. Producing the
pitch is the issue. Most non-singers have never experienced producing their
own sounds in head voice. Speech intonation generally lies in the upper
part of the lower third of their potential range. Even expressive speakers
seldom venture too far from that area.

Spoken vowels occur on specific pitches (not to state the obvious), so start
where they are, tonally speaking. Have them read something dramatically,
with stretched vowels, while you sit at the piano and find which tones they
are speaking on. They can match pitches where they speak. Once you zero in
on where they are, start with the Kodaly "child-hood chant" (5-3, 5-3, 5536
5-3) using any text. This will demonstrate to them (and you) that they CAN
match pitch. Move it around a little bit, but don't worry about going too
high, yet.

Help them discover their high voice with the "yawn-sigh" warm-up exercise.
The point is to discover and energize their high voice without regard to
pitch. It is important, especially with men, to get them up over their
break. Once they are comfortable with this, move them to a descending 5
tone scale, still staying above the break. Again, most non-singers,
especially men, have never experienced head-voice. My schooling and
experience always worked this from the bottom, up. I now believe this is an
ineffective approach as non-singers cannot easily move from chest resonance
to head. It is much easier for them to go the other way.

As you are doing all this, emphasis listening with their mind. First,
listen, then sing. Several of my non-singers experience this idea as a
"revelation". It never occured to them to listen for a pitch.

Finally, I have experienced two types of non-singer singers. The shy one
who never sings above a whisper, and the exact opposite (often a sales
person) who speaks aggressively and loudly. Each one needs to counter their
tendency. The softie must produce more sound to energize their instrument,
and the loudie is usually making too much sound for their inner (mental) ear
to receive correct pitches, then their chest resonance is too strong to let
them mix in head, which they don't understand, anyway.

I know I've gone on forever. I believe in this so strongly, because I have
seen many non-singers respond quickly to this approach. I now teach period
workshops in my church for non-singers, and in three sessions I guarantee
that they can learn how to sing any hymn or praise song we sing.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. I have never heard this discussed in any
depth before, in or out of school. I am most interested in other responses
you receive. Please do not hesitate to dialog with me about any of this.
I have gone through the same thing that you are going through now, on a bit
smaller scale...I had a male friend who desperately wanted to learn how to
sing and he couldn't match pitch to save his life! I remembered a
conversation one of my professors and I once had about pitch matching
problems and applied them...and they did work. First of all, the problems
could very well be physiological. Hearing damage, allergies, or vocal
damage can all contibute to out-of-tune singing. They may want to consult
an ear, nose and throat specialist. My "student" didn't have any
physiological problems though, he just had never learned what it FELT like
to match pitch. So instead of me giving him a pitch to match, I got him to
give me a pitch and then I matched it while he sustained his original pitch.
See, the story that my professor told me was of a little boy who couldn't
sing in tune. Whatever note was sung or played, the boy would always sing a
P5 or P4 below. When my professor "brought the pitch to the student" (as I
did with mine), the boy said, "But when you do that, my voice disappears..."
The boy didn't understand that in order to be in tune, you have to be INSIDE
the pitch...he thought that he should be able to still "hear his own voice".
Now you have a real advantage with your students because you are male and
so are they. In my situation we were of the opposite sex, so I had to use a
piano (which I wish I hadn't had to beacuse sometimes the student picks up
the overtone series and then you're really making it hard!)
As I consider myself a champion of this issue, let me first say that since I
am not in your shoes, what I may claim to know must be prefaced with IN MY

I am a choral conductor and voice instructor. My choristers and students
have ranged from children¹s choirs to college All Comer choirs and voice

Here is what I know: matching pitch is a learned skill. The older one
gets, the more barriers there are to over come in terms of any anxiety and
sense of failure in this regard. There are several useful categories for
assessing pitch matching skill.
1. Exact match ­ this can mean singing perfectly in tune or for a less
experienced singer, singing most of the notes pretty well in tune.
2. Relative match ­ the singer matches the shape of the melody but for
one or more reasons does not match the actual pitch.
3. No apparent match ­ this is what has erroneously been referred to as
Tone Deafness.

For the person in category 2, it may be a matter of having to distinguish
their voice from the choir in order to hear it. In an ironic way, this
person is singing in tune but is unable to feel confident without being able
to hear their individual voice.

This is very different from category 3 in which the person is identifying
matching the inflection and rhythm of the tune as singing in tune rather
than the pitch fluctuation.
At this point, I usually tell the person to forget about singing right now.
Simply copy my sounds and movements.

I begin with percussive sounds and arm, hand, leg gestures. i.e. k k kk
k or sh sh sh sh sh sh while tapping a shoulder with my hand or
drawing a circle with my finger. I continue to do a variety of these
sound/movement units looking for a clear understanding of what I¹m asking
them to do. Once the mimicking has been successful a number of times, I
will introduce a pitched sounded, but in a seeming random manner so that it
does not sound like anything singing related. This might be the sound of a
hoot owl, a train whistle (with accompanying gestures), a small plane
swooping to the ground and then up again, the release of a helium balloon
which I follow into the stratosphere with a rising pitched (but NOT singing
voice) sound.

Generally, there are moments, maybe even many moments, when they will at
least accomplish this in a Category 2 manner ­ shadowing the shape of the
pitches if not actually matching some or many. When I ask the person if
that felt like singing, they might say no. In fact, it is a pretty reliable
gauge of whether they are hearing any pitch fluctuation and have developed
the most elementary ability to match it.

It can be a slow, arduous process for some. But by taking it out of the
context of singing,, it relieves the pressure of having to demonstrate
something which they may have been told a million times and believe that
they cannot do. By offering the insight that singing is no more than
varying the pitch of the voice as it naturally want to do, it often provides
a breakthrough, or the beginnings of one.

Another related problem is the fact that most people speak in the very
bottom part of their vocal range. Have the person say their name thusly: My
name is Stephan. Then identify the actual pitches of that statement. It is
usually WAY DOWN at the bottom of what they are capable to intoning. Then
have them say the same thing in a Mickey Mouse voice, or a Dudley Do Right
voice. It is reassuring information for the person to understand that since
we spend the large majority of our voice use (speaking) in the bottom three
or four pitches of our potential range, it¹s no wonder the use of the Mickey
Mouse or any other part of the voice may feel unnatural or unfamiliar. But
that is precisely what singing gives us permission to do ­ to explore all
those other parts of our potential as sound makers.

I hope this is helpful is some small way. Like I said, I offer this with
humility in the realization that you may have tried all of this and simply
be faced with a situation that is outside of my experience.

Please let me know if any of this is useful and what results ensue.

Good luck and congratulations for not simply writing them off.
I have had several similar experiences. If you play Twinkle Twikle little
and they can hear this tune then they can sing. They simply cannot hear
own voice.So teach them to hear their own voice!

on June 14, 2004 10:00pm
BUY A GUITAR TUNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!