Playing Back Pitches

As you figure out the pitches to play the music you’re working with, yet again, embrace intuition! When intuition isn’t working, the best way to figure out pitches is by thinking about their relationships. Most often, that means thinking of them in scale degrees—that is, in terms of their relationship to the key. For people without absolute pitch, this may be the only way to figure out what’s going on. For people with absolute pitch, it makes sure we’re building “tonal” hearing skills, which help us understand and track the relationships among pitches and between pitches and keys.

We’ll be mapping two different but related things onto each other: our internal understanding of scale degrees or other pitch relationships, and our physical motions/locations on the instrument. We’ll give some advice below about how to figure out the scale degrees, but it may be helpful to start by making sure you have a physical sense of the context (usually a key) before doing so. You might quickly play or imagine playing the song’s scale, or even just its tonic triad (scale degrees 1/do, 3/mi or me, and 5/sol) to orient your brain to where these will be on your instrument.

Once you’ve oriented yourself, it is usually helpful to start by figuring out which scale degree the melody starts on. Of course, to figure out the scale degree, you need to know where the tonic is, so it may be helpful to re-find the tonic and hum it to yourself. Then, hum or subvocalize the beginning note, and then walk down through the scale until you get to the tonic. Counting the number of pitches you need to go through will help you determine that starting pitch’s scale degree. Find that scale degree on your instrument.

From that first pitch on, you’ll typically find two different kinds of situations, which call for different approaches:

  1. Melodies often simply step through the scale, up or down. Where this occurs, it may be obvious to you. If so, great news! Simply follow the up-and-down motion of the melody and as long as you’ve started in the right place, you’ll be thinking the correct scale degrees/solfège and—if you’re well-oriented on your instrument—playing the right notes.
  2. Of course, melodies can also leap around. At first, we strongly recommend that when you notice a leap, you treat the second note as a new “starting pitch” and vocally walk it down through the scale until you get to tonic to figure out what it is. Over time, as you get used to more musical patterns, strengthen your internal models of scale degrees, and develop more sensitivity to harmony, you should be able to rely on intuition more often.

Activity: Playing back pitches

Goal: Replicate heard pitches

Before you start: Make sure you have access to a non-voice instrument. Voice will also work but will not help you focus on pitch relationships in the same way.

Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below. For each, listen to the first 1–2 phrases, optionally make sure you can sing them, and then try to play them back on an instrument. If you are having difficulty, make sure you are thinking in scale degrees. It’s fine to repeat the phrases as necessary to learn them, but make sure you are practicing your memory skills.


Suggest a song for this playlist!


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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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