Matching Pitch and Tuning

We start by matching pitch with our voices. We find this a useful activity to prime the connections between heard, imagined, and performed sound, and to start focusing on tuning. You can match pitch with a number of different sound sources, depending on what’s available to you. Just make sure the source is something that can be sustained as long as you need to find and match it. (Instruments with a percussive attack followed by a quick decrease in volume such as piano, guitar, harp, and marimba are not recommended.) Possibilities include:

  • a peer’s or instructor’s voice
  • your primary instrument
  • a classmate’s primary instrument
  • a tone generator (example; double-check that your volume is not too high before playing)

Once the source is sounding, imagine yourself matching that sound, including its pitch (a different octave is fine, as necessary for your voice), volume, and timbre (sound quality). It may help to close your eyes. Once you’ve pictured yourself doing so, go ahead and sing or hum.

Tuning can be intuitive—it may just “feel right” when you are perfectly in tune. But if not, it may be helpful to make sure you are listening on good-quality audio equipment, and to listen for “beats” in the sound. Those beats should get slower and then disappear as you get more in tune. To hear the beats most clearly, you’ll need a fairly pure sound source and to hum/sing as pure a sound as you can.

Some students are embarrassed if they can’t easily match pitch, worrying that this means they cannot be a “good musician.” If this is you, remind yourself that people enter music study with different experiences and different strengths, and that with attention to this skill, it will improve. If at first you don’t succeed, try the following:

  • If you don’t have much vocal experience or feel you may be singing unhealthily, look into some foundational vocal technique. This can help you gain confidence in your voice as a tool for musical communication and often transfers well to other instruments. It may be helpful to have a formal voice lesson or two with someone who can give you personalized feedback.
  • Adjust the range of the sound source. For most people, the notes in the octaves above or below middle C will be easiest; if above doesn’t work for you, try below (and vice versa).
  • Experiment with different source timbres: a pure tone from a tone generator, different voice types, your primary instrument.

If you still find it difficult to match pitch with your voice, we recommend first working with a tutor if possible. If things still aren’t working, you might need to use an instrument other than your voice. If you feel very comfortable with your (non-voice) primary instrument and it has sufficient sustain and tuning variability to focus on tuning, it will likely work fine; if not, you may need to find a digital instrument such as a variable-pitch tuning tone or a theremin.


Activity: Match a tone to your own pitch

Goal: Develop vocal control and the habit of listening for how tones relate in pitch.


  1. Open a tone generator with a continuous frequency control (example). We recommend setting it to a sine or triangle wave.
  2. Start humming or singing a pitch that is comfortable for your voice, using a pure vowel. Try to keep your breath pressure consistent to keep your tuning as steady as possible. As you do the next few steps, keep humming or singing, simply taking a breath when necessary.
  3. Double-check that your volume is not too high, then press “play” on the tone generator. Unless you get really lucky, it will probably not play the same pitch that you are singing. Do your best to determine whether the pitch you are hearing is above or below the pitch you are singing.
  4. Slowly drag the frequency slider in the appropriate direction until it is as in tune with your pitch as possible.
  5. Once you and the slider are on the same pitch, drag the slider slowly up and down, moving your voice to remain in tune with it.

This activity can be done with an instrument instead of your voice, though if the instrument is not able to slide between notes, you may need to adjust how you do step 5 or skip it altogether. If your instrument occupies your hands, you will probably want to work with someone else, one of you playing and the other adjusting the tone generator.

Activity: Match pitch with a pure tone

Goal: Develop vocal control and listening skills needed to match and sustain a sounding pitch.


  1. Open a tone generator and choose a pitch that is in your comfortable range. If you know your choral voice type, the following starting points may be helpful: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. (We recommend using a sine or triangle wave.) Double-check that your volume is not too high, then press “play” and listen to the tone.
  2. Listening closely, imagine singing or humming along to the tone. What vowel would best match the sound you are hearing? Once you’ve chosen one, prepare your vocal mechanism to sing along.
  3. Take a deep, calm breath and sing the pitch on the pure vowel you’ve chosen. As you sing, check the match between your pitch and the sounding pitch. If you can, adjust your tuning to match as closely as possible. You may need to experiment with different vowels. Take a breath when necessary.

If you have difficulty matching pitch, return to the activity above.

This activity can also be done with an instrument with some minor adjustments.

Activity: Match pitch with a more complex tone

Goal: Develop vocal control and listening skills needed to match and sustain a sounding pitch.

Before you start: You’ll need a way to hear a sustained complex tone (that is, one that’s richer than the purer tones we were working with above). You might have someone else play a sustained tone on their primary instrument or use a software instrument or synthesizer. If you use an instrument with a loud attack and quick decay such as a piano, marimba, harp, or guitar, it may be difficult to match pitch and work on tuning, but these instruments are often convenient.


  1. Play a sustained complex tone, or have someone else do so.
  2. Once the tone is sounding, imagine singing along. As with the pure tone above, consider how to roughly match the volume and the timbre of the sound through breath support and an appropriate vowel sound.
  3. Take a deep, calm breath and sing the pitch, matching its timbre, dynamic, and tone as closely as you can. If you can, adjust your tuning to match as closely as possible. You may need to experiment with different vowels. Take a breath when necessary.

There is an online game similar to this activity: the “Single Tones” game on Pitchy Ninja. Note that the game does not allow for octave displacement, but you can adjust your comfortable range of pitches by using the button that looks like a game controller and adjusting the sliders to fit where you are comfortable singing!

Activity: Matching a single pitch using a primary instrument

Goal: Practice matching pitch using your instrument

Before you start: This activity works best on a non-voice instrument with adjustable pitch. Musicians with fixed-pitch instruments may either choose a different instrument to work with or, if their tuning abilities are already pretty good, compare the note their instrument plays with the desired pitch. Vocalists who do not have an alternative, adjustable-pitch, external instrument should use one of the activities above.


  1. Just like in the previous activity, someone will give a pitch stimulus. This time, they will also indicate the concert pitch of the note.
  2. Using your primary instrument, close your eyes or focus them on a fixed point and imagine yourself playing the given pitch, including embouchure, air, and fingering as appropriate.
  3. Play the note on your instrument. If you are using a non-fretted and/or sustained instrument, you should sustain the pitch and adjust it so that it matches the given stimulus.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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