If you’re able to maintain a stable key (see the section on Tuning), then you’re most likely to make pitch mistakes when either something happens too fast for your brain to process or you’re asked to find a pitch for which your internalized model of key doesn’t provide a ready answer. If things are happening too fast, there’s only so much we can do. Keep practicing, and you’ll be able to think and perform more quickly. But what to do when we’re asked to produce an uncommon or challenging pitch?
This question is most relevant when singing. When we are playing an external instrument, most often our fingering and/or embouchure will help us find that pitch even if we’re not 100% sure where it is. So we’ll focus on finding that pitch when singing. And we’ll assume you don’t have absolute pitch, though the same strategies may be useful for those with absolute pitch in certain circumstances, as when trying to find a certain pitch in transposition.
It may be helpful to scan a passage of music before singing through it, to find pitches that are likely to be challenging. These particularly include notes following a large leap, and chromatic notes, especially when following a leap of any size.
Finding these pitches accurately almost always comes down to relationships. Our internalized models of key typically have a few levels of security when trying to find isolated pitches:
- We are usually best at finding the “structural” pitches of a key, particularly scale degrees 1/do and 5/sol.
- This may be as strong or stronger than #1 in some people: we are often fairly good at finding the pitches of the currently sounding chord (if there is one).
- From there, the notes that are “diatonic” to the key (in the key signature) are usually the next easiest to find.
- Finally, “chromatic” notes (marked with an accidental) are typically the hardest to find.
Anytime we can find a relationship between a tough note and a more secure category on this list, we can use that relationship to find the pitch. For example, if there is a large leap to scale degree 6/la followed by a stepwise descent to scale degree 5/sol, it may be helpful to find scale degree 5/sol first, or even to practice the excerpt leaping to scale degree 5/sol until that is secure, and only then to add scale degree 6/la.
Goal: Develop skills that are useful in finding difficult notes, especially after leaps
Before you start: You’ll need a source of notated melodies with difficult-to-find leaps, perhaps from a sight-reading anthology. A few open-access examples are linked below. You should use your voice for this activity.
- Determine the excerpt’s key and meter, and set these up for yourself as appropriate.
- Scan through the notation, looking for a pitch that you think you might have trouble finding. Leaps to notes that aren’t members of the tonic triad are especially good candidates.
- For each difficult note, determine a more stable pitch that may help you find it. Find that more stable pitch in your head or aloud, then find the difficult pitch from it. Be sure to practice finding the difficult pitch from the previous pitch or two in the melody.
- Sing the full melody.
- If you had difficulty with the pitch anyway, repeat step 3.
Goal: Find and prepare for difficult portions of a piece.
Before you start: You’ll need a source of notated melody. You might find this in a sight-reading anthology or in music for your primary instrument.
- Try sight-singing through your piece slowly but in rhythm. Mark all places/notes where you had significant difficulty finding the next pitch.
- After making it through the piece once (or twice), return to your marked passages. Using the skills you’ve learned, practice making the jumps between difficult leaps.
- Making connections: What helps you remember this leap? Can you identify the interval between the two pitches? Does this interval remind you of a leap in another familiar song? Making intervallic connections between familiar and unfamiliar musical passages can help us build muscle memory when singing specific leaps.
Goal: To sing through a piece of repertoire without the support of an instrument.
- Play through the melody of a new piece of repertoire on the piano (or another instrument of your choosing) under tempo. Sing along with the pitches giving extra attention to intonation.
- Using the skills learned in the “Chunking” section above, separate the melody into groups of 3-5 pitches. Play the notes on your instrument and sing them back. (Or – for more of a challenge – sing first and play on the instrument second to check your accuracy.)
- Continue chunking the melody with the assistance of an instrument until you feel comfortable singing the chunks WITHOUT the instrument’s help.
- Using the skills from the “Tuning” section above, try singing through the melody (in chunks, if needed) while sustaining the tonic pitch below the melody.
- Would you feel comfortable singing this piece a cappella? Try it!