Pitch is the difference between a truly breathtaking musical performance and a fumbling amateurish mess. When a musician has true mastery over his pitching, each and every note can be rich with musical expression. It’s a big part of how multiple musicians interpret the same musical score differently, each excellent in their own way. This is probably why Autotune infuriates so many serious musicians: those variations in pitch aren’t mistakes in the performance; they are the performance. If you clean up those “errors” and quantize everything to the “correct” pitches, all you’re left with is dry, robotic music. It may be fine for gimmicks like auto-tune the news, but it’s far from musically expressive. So, for the musician just starting out: Don’t be so embarrassed if your teacher tells you your pitch is off. This does not necessarily spell doom for your musical aspirations.
Why pitch matters
Pitch is one of the most fundamental aspects of music. Whether we actively study music or not, our cultural upbringing leaves us all acutely aware of when a note’s pitch is wrong. You might sneak a few wrong notes past the untrained listener, but even the most casual music fan can hear when a mis-tuned melody doesn’t blend well with the harmony, or that the piano that hasn’t been tuned in 20 years sounds more like a honky-tonk cowboy bar than a Steinway in an opera hall.
Beyond these pitch mistakes though, there is a whole world of musical expression that lies in the intentional manipulation of pitch. Consider the distinct expressive sound of an upright bass, or a fretless bass guitar. Think about how a lap steel or a violin can “wail” in a way that a piano never could. Imagine your favourite vocalist performing, and think about how much of the power in their performance comes from their expert use of slides, vibrato and pitch bends to shape each note.
Musicians often take their sense of pitch for granted. We learn to tune our instruments before playing, and to play the notes as written so as to avoid “wrong notes”. As you improve as a musician your sense of pitch automatically improves gradually, and you become more sensitive to notes that are out of key or off their target pitch.
This kind of passive development works fine for avoiding mistakes. As a result, most musicians never think about actively developing their sense of pitch. Once you can avoid sounding like an amateur, that’s good enough.
Or is it?
If you want to use pitch to reach the kinds of masterful, compelling, moving musical performance of the greats, it takes an active effort as part of your musical development. It’s surprising just how much of an impact some simple exercises can have on your sense of pitch and your musicianship.
How to do pitch ear training
Pitch ear training is about refining your sense of pitch through specific exercises. Just like you practice scales and fingering drills to master the fundamentals and become a better instrument player, pitch ear training exercises improve your ear’s ability to detect the subtleties of pitch, which in turn allows you to make use of them freely to enhance your own playing.
The most powerful tool you can use for pitch ear training is your voice. If singing terrifies you, don’t worry: you needn’t perform perfectly or sing in front of people. You can still use your voice to learn pitch sensitivity.
There are two aspects to being able to sing in tune:
1. Your sense of pitch: How well can you hear differences in pitch and identify them as too high or too low?
2. Control over your voice: Can you reproduce the note you hear in your head out loud using your voice?
It doesn’t matter if you have a nice tone or strong voice, all we’re interested in is matching pitch: Can you sing back a note you hear?
Step One: Learn to match pitch with your voice.
In the past this first step was actually quite difficult to practice, and in fact many music teachers wouldn’t bother with it. If you could naturally match pitch you were “musical” and could join the choir. If not… Well, maybe music wasn’t for you.
The determined student might sit at a piano, playing notes and practicing trying to sing them back. They typically struggle though, as without any kind of feedback you can’t tell if you’re making progress. If you have a good ear for pitch you can master the voice control with this method, but if you struggle on both points then you can never really get started!
Fortunately, these days there’s a tool which makes it easy to develop both your sense of pitch and your voice control all in one. And again, it’s a tool you probably already have. If not, you can get one for a dollar, or free online.
A digital tuner is intended for making sure an instrument is tuned correctly. But what’s interesting for pitch ear training is that modern tuners normally give you a helping hand in two ways: they show you not just whether you’re in tune but also how sharp or flat you are, and they let you play an example of the target note so you know what you’re aiming for.
This makes a digital tuner the perfect tool for beginning pitch ear training! Here’s how it works:
1. Set a target note on the tuner (e.g. A).
Note: Most tuners will work if you sing in a different octave than the target note but it’s easiest if you can choose a note that’s in your comfortable singing range.
2. Have the tuner play the note.
3. Try to hear the note in your head. This is called “auralising” and it’s a useful bridge from hearing music to performing it: hear, imagine, play.
4. Sing the note. Watch the tuner and see if you’re too high or low, and then gradually adjust your pitch until you hit the target note.
The first few times you try this exercise it will take some experimentation. You’ll need to find notes which are in a comfortable range for you to sing back. If you haven’t done much active listening or auralising before, you may not yet have a very “vivid” ability to imagine hearing notes. If you don’t consider yourself a singer, the final step of gradually adjusting your pitch will take some practice and you may find you need to slide your pitch quite considerably before you get close enough to the target note for the tuner to show helpful feedback.
Persist through these initial barriers and practice this exercise for 5 minutes each day as part of your regular music practice and you will quickly see a surprising improvement in your ability to match pitch with your voice.
Once you have this core ability, your voice becomes a powerful tool for exploring pitch.
Step Two: Increased pitch sensitivity
If you can match pitch you know that you have a solid fundamental sense of pitch, and further pitch ear training is then about becoming more sensitive to variations in pitch and exploring its musical potential.
There are a number of directions you can progress in, depending on your own musical goals and interests. Here are a few suggestions:
A. Sensitivity to tuning inaccuracy
Spend some time with your instrument intentionally altering the tuning to be slightly incorrect. For example, tune one guitar string slightly flat. If you play a solo instrument like clarinet, adjust your tuning to be slightly off, and then play with a recorded accompaniment track. If you play an instrument with free pitching, such as a double bass or violin, move your fingering to be slightly off from the normal note positions.
To develop your pitch sensitivity, you must then go further than simply hearing that it sounds “bad”.
First, listen carefully, and actively explore what you’re hearing in your mind. Can you hear how the mis-tuned string impacts each chord? Can you hear when and how your instrument’s notes clash with the accompaniment?
Then, once you think you’ve tuned your ear in to the pitch inaccuracy, here’s a very useful exercise: try to adjust your playing style to compensate. Can you change your embouchure, bend strings, or adjust your fingering to correct the pitch error?
This pair of skills—identifying pitch problems and being able to correct them as you play—is essential for any performing musician.
B. Sensitivity to musical use of pitch
As you become more conscious of pitch variation you can use active listening to appreciate the manipulation of pitch for musical effect. These manipulations tend to fall into three categories:
- Pitch bends: when the pitch of a note is adjusted up or down slightly. This means either starting off-pitch and adjusting to reach the target pitch, or beginning from the target pitch and then adjusting up or down for effect.
- Slides: rather than moving from one distinct note to another, on many instruments it is possible to adjust pitch smoothly in a continuous “slide” from one note to the next.
- Vibrato/Tremolo: These two terms are both commonly used to describe a note’s pitch fluctuating regularly up and down.
Note: technically “tremolo” should refer to a variation in volume rather than pitch. The “tremolo” bar of a guitar may be partly to blame for the blurring of terms!
Depending on your instrument you may well have practiced how to use each of these techniques. Now is the time to listen carefully and think about why you use them and develop an appreciation of when they are used in impressive musical performances you hear.
Manipulation of pitch can have an enormous impact on musical style too. Much of the distinctive sound of blues music, for example, comes from use of pitch manipulation by the artists. Can you adjust the way you perform a familiar song to sound like a different genre, just by skillfully manipulating pitch?
C. Sensitivity to finer degrees of pitch
Ideally a musician would develop their sense of pitch in a gradual, scientific way: Begin by recognising when the wrong note is being played. Next, know when notes are significantly out of tune. Then also when they are slightly out of tune, or intentionally pitch-bent a little for effect. And so on, gradually recognising finer levels of detail in pitching.
Until recently this was impractical, as there was no easy way to measure and improve your sensitivity to these different degrees of pitch variation. Nowadays, of course there’s an app for that!
Developed by staff at Wittenberg University, the InTune app is designed to gradually test your ability to recognise smaller and smaller differences in pitch. A web-based alternative is the Dango Brothers game from Theta Music Trainer which similarly tests how accurately you can hear differences in pitch, getting increasingly challenging as the levels progress.
Both of these tools can be used to refine your pitch sensitivity step by step in a clear measurable way.
What comes next
Pitch is one of the most fundamental musical senses to develop, and so naturally studying it leads on to other areas of ear training. The next step for most musicians will be to improve their sense of relative pitch: the relationship between notes, which builds skills like playing melodies by ear, recognising chord progressions and improvising. Having a strong sense of pitch provides an excellent foundation for relative pitch ear training.
However, before diving into other ear training there’s a more important next step: Start using your newly-improved sense of pitch when you play music.
You’ll find it can be truly thrilling to explore pitch variations as your perform. It’s scary at first, as you depart from the printed music, but as you do more pitch ear training and connect it with your instrument practice you’ll find it becomes a natural part of how you express yourself musically.
Instead of bumbling around for the right notes, be secure and fearless as you masterfully manipulate that fundamental aspect of music: Pitch.