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Pitch & Intonation
By Daniel K. Robinson
(2009)

Singing out of tune is an abhorrent thought for nearly all singers. I would venture to say that it is the number one fear for beginner singers. Many singers in their first singing lesson spend much of their time preoccupied with ‘hitting the right notes’ and spend very little time focussing on how the ‘right notes’ might be achieved. What is it about ‘singing out of tune’ that conjures so much fear? Almost certainly it is the fear of being deemed, by the listener, inept at the activity of singing. “If it is generally accepted that musical ability is a distinct type of intelligence, then reproducing pitches with the voice is one aspect of musical intelligence. It is a type of musical expertise” (Russell, 1997, p. 96). No one wants to be thought of as lacking ‘intelligence’, and most singers don’t want to be considered as lacking ‘musical expertise’. But is the greatest difficulty reproduction of ‘pitch’? The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines pitch as, “The location of a sound in the tonal scale” (Kennedy, 1994, p. 679). Over my years of teaching I have observed that very few people have trouble with the singing of a single pitch accurately. The difficulty arises when the singer starts to move from one note to the next. This movement between pitches is called ‘intonation’. Again the definition provided by The Oxford Dictionary of Music is helpful. “The act of singing or playing in tune. Thus we speak of a singer or instrumentalist’s intonation’ as being good or bad” (Kennedy, 1994, p. 433). The challenge is not the singing of a single note, but the singing of the collection of notes that makes a melody. Because most beginner singers centre 100% of their focus on singing the notes accurately they often inadvertently form muscular tensions which lead to poor intonation. To illustrate, consider a child learning to ride a bicycle. Many children commence their learning to ride with the assistance of ‘training wheels’. Training wheels enable the learner to remain upright thus eliminating the fear of falling over and hurting themselves. However, the training wheels also limit many capabilities required for riding a bicycle. Speed is generally reduced and the ability to turn the bicycle is hindered. The learner has stayed on the bike…but that’s all! When singing in tune is the main focus the singer will often employ a lot of extrinsic and intrinsic muscle tension which will ultimately reduce vocal agility (moving freely and quickly between notes). The singer feels secure because they have a sense of correct pitch, but good intonation ultimately suffers. The beginner singer should be encouraged to forego perfect pitch in the initial stages of learning in order to attain correct management of the laryngeal muscular. This can be difficult for the beginner singer whose whole focus to-date has been on singing accurate pitches, but perseverance will result in a more free voice which will eventually lead to better intonation, not to mention greater agility, stronger tone and superior vocal stamina. Sometimes a step back can empower many steps forward.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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Djarts Voice Coaching ~ www.djarts.com.au

References Kennedy, M. (Ed.). (1994). The oxford dictionary of music (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Russell, J. (1997). A "place" for every voice: The role of culture in the development of singing expertise. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 31(4), 95–109.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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