Tuning

We turn now to tuning, which we’ll do primarily with our voices.

It’s probably obvious why vocalists should focus on vocal tuning when reading music. But what about instrumentalists? For instrumentalists, we’re trying to build our internal hearing and connect it to sight reading, and using our voice can be useful here even if our end target is instrumental. Being able to internally “hear” the sound that is about to come out of the instrument before it emerges is helpful for musicality; on certain instruments such as unfretted strings, it gives us a reference point from which to judge the sound; and on other instruments such as brass that have a single fingering for multiple notes, it helps us picture the sound that we want to hear to make sure we’re hitting the right note.

There are two issues we face with tuning. The first is that our point of reference—which usually means our key—needs to be stable. The second is that individual pitches should also be well-tuned.

Some people can sing in a stable key without much effort. But for people who are challenged by this, it can be helpful to work with a drone or consistently remind yourself of the tonic.

When your key is stable but individual pitches are poorly tuned, sometimes the issue is simply having a hard time “picturing” the correct pitch. This should improve with time spent with solfège and practicing sight reading. In addition, sometimes students benefit from practicing singing scales with a pitch reference, to make sure their internal models match the desired tuning system. This is best implemented one-on-one.

 

Activity: Singing Over a Drone

Goal: Develop key stability when singing

Before you start: Choose a melody. This can be something from music you are performing in solo or ensemble settings, a simple folk song, or the melody of music you like to listen to. You’ll also need a drone, which can be played by someone else or by a tuning app or drone website such as this one.

Instructions:

  1. Play or have someone else play a drone on any note. The drone is now your tonic (scale degree 1/do). (Optionally, you may add scale degree 5/sol.)
  2. Take note of which scale degree the melody starts on. It may be useful to sing up or down by step from the drone to that scale degree so that you start on the correct pitch.
  3. Sing the melody over the drone, taking note of where it becomes difficult to tune with the drone. This may not be because you are out of the key, as there are notes that are dissonances with the tonic, but most melodies will end on a note that should feel comfortable in relation to the tonic.

If you find this getting more comfortable, you might try playing the drone only some of the time, and then eventually taking it away and trying to imagine it in your head.

Activity: Returning to tonic

Goal: Develop key stability when singing

Before you start: Choose a melody. This can be something from music you are performing in solo or ensemble settings, a simple folk song, or the melody of music you like to listen to. It may be useful to choose a melody with a limited range if you are not someone who typically sings in different ranges so that you can do it in multiple keys.

Instructions: Choose a tonic note and play it. Sing the melody in that key, and at good breaks in the music, sing the tonic note again. The tonic should be interspersed throughout the melody, and you should also end the melody by going back to the tonic if it didn’t already end there. Check that the tonic you sang at the end matches your original tonic.

Twinkle Twinkle example ([] mark returns to scale degree 1/do that are not in the melody):

  • do-do-sol-sol-la-la-sol-[do]-fa-fa-mi-mi-re-re-do-[do]-so-so-fa-fa-mi-mi-re-[do]-so-so-fa-fa-mi-mi-re-[do]-do-do-sol-sol-la-la-sol-[do]-fa-fa-mi-mi-re-re-do-[do]
  • scale degrees 1-1-5-5-6-6-5-[1]-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-[1]-5-5-4-4-3-3-2-[1]-5-5-4-4-3-3-2-[1]-1-1-5-5-6-6-5-[1]-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-[1]

 

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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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