Pitch-Matching Issues in the Aural Skills Classroom

Jennifer Beavers and Susan Olson

I. Defining Poor Pitch Matching

A person with ‘poor pitch-matching skills’ can be defined as an individual who has difficulty matching a single pitch, step-wise contours, or intervals, as well as the inability to sing a basic melody with accuracy and good intonation. Whether a person can accurately match pitch or not has been widely researched in the fields of music education, vocal pedagogy, and cognitive psychology, but has largely been neglected in aural-skills pedagogy. Most literature surrounding ‘poor pitch’ or ‘inaccurate singing’ in music education is predominantly centered around developmental stages ot childhood and adolescence (Welch et al., 2009; Demorest & Clements, 2007). Vocal pedagogy research describes motor planning and the vocal mechanism when addressing reasons tor pitch inaccuracies (Larrouy- Maestri et ah, 2013; Estis et ah, 2010; Bradshaw & McHenry, 2005; Watts, Murphy, & Barnes- Burroughs, 2003). Cognitive psychology research examines how auditory and motor systems are affected by impairments (Hutchins & Peretz, 2012; Berkowska & Dalla Bella 2009; Loui et ah, 2008; Ptordresher & Brown, 2007). Aural-skills pedagogy research assesses how people acquire and teach aural skills (the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy is the flagship journal for this type ot research). One of the issues surrounding pitch-matching problems is that these fields — especially music education and cognitive psychology — seem to be doing separate work on similar issues without a shared approach or terminology. These competing methodologies result in a vast body of research approached from many angles, practices, and measurements that overlap in sometimes unproductive ways. The following discussion will build off pitch-matching research in order to find a practicum that can relate to aural-skills pedagogy and offer solutions grounded in empirical and quantitative research.

Most of the pitch-matching research in music education investigates development sequences involved with singing accurately or in tune. Researchers determine how sociocultural (gender, education, opportunity, language), physical/biological (age, maturation, hormones) and psychological (self-perception, self-labeling, motivation) circumstances affect an individual’s singing ability. Populations are broadly categorized as accurate/inaccurate, certain/uncertain, or trained/untrained singers in order to assess skill levels. Research focuses on variables that affect performance such as vocal models (Yarbrough et al., 1995; Price et al., 1994; Yarbrough, Bowers, & Benson, 1992; Green, 1990; Sims, Moore & Kuhn, 1982), timbre (Price, 2000; Yarbrough et al., 1995), register/range (Yarbrough et al., 1995; Price et al., 1994; Green, 1990; Sims, Moore, & Kuhn, 1982), language, audia- tion, perception, and production issues (Demorest & Clements, 2007; Watts, Moore, & McCaghren, 2005; Demorest, 2001; Phillips & Aitchison, 1997; Apfelstadt, 1984; Geringer, 1983; Welch, 1979;

Joyner, 1969), and self-image (Demorest & Clements, 2007; Sloboda, Wise, & Peretz, 2005; Goetz, Cooper, & Brown, 1990). As much of music education research aims to assess developing musical skills, the bulk of this research is focused on children in elementary school, with some focus on the changing voice in students in middle school and high school and even less focus on adult populations. Of importance, research points to how stages in pitch-matching ability develop over time, noting that the separate processes of perception and production can develop at different times, in which case perception tends to develop first (Demorest & Clements, 2007).

In cognitive psychology, research defines what is considered poor pitch matching in different populations (e.g., musicians/nonmusicians, professional singers/occasional singers, certain/uncertain singers) and what causes the deficiency (perception or production issues). In order to understand what causes the pitch-matching deficiency, each step of the task is examined: from external input to perception, auditory-motor mapping, short- and long-term memory, motor planning and implementation, vocal output, and auditory feedback (Dalla Bella, 2015). This model is referred to as the Vocal Sensorimotor Loop, or VSL (Dalla Bella, Berkowska, & Sowinski, 2011; Dalla Bella, Giguere, & Peretz, 2009). Figure 10.1 provides a visual mapping of how processes within the VSL interrelate.

Understanding the VSL is helpful in pinpointing issues a student may have with matching pitch and will be discussed in more detail later. In isolating various tasks involved in pitch matching, such as to compare pitch accuracy with and without auditory feedback or how varying the external output affects accuracy, hearing scientists can determine whether the deficiency is functional, neuronal, or production based.1 While there is no agreed upon consensus as to what metric constitutes the difference between accurate and inaccurate pitch matching, most researchers indicate that the difference is in between a quarter-tone (50 cents) and a semitone (100 cents or 1/12 of an octave) (Berkowska & Dalla Bella, 2013; Pfordresher et ah, 2010; Pfordresher & Brown, 2007). The distance above or below the target pitch is referred to as a cut-off. For assessing pitch accuracy with regard to different tasks — i.e., from matching a single pitch to singing a song from memory — the quarter-tone cut-off seems too stringent, thereby not identifying many poor pitch matchers, and the semitone too broad, in which too many singers are identified as poor pitch matchers. Variable cut-offs provide a solution for measuring deviations of target pitches according to population and through control/comparison group analysis (Dalla Bella, 2015).

Vocal Sensorimotor Loop (VSL) Source

Figure 10.1 Vocal Sensorimotor Loop (VSL) Source: Berkowska and Dalla Bella (2009).

Vocal pedagogy research overlaps with many studies found in music education and cognitive psychology with a central tocus on vocal production. This research connects various sensory systems involved in pitch matching with motor coordination — such as respiration, phonation, and resonance required in motor planning and execution. Singers of differing backgrounds and abilities, such as trained or untrained, those with expressed singing talent or those without, and ‘monotonal’ singers — those with inflexible or uncontrollable vocal mechanisms (production issues) and poor pitch discrimination or memory (perception issues) — are studied in order to draw conclusions about how various processes work. There is quite a bit of overlap with cognitive psychology, particularly in how a singers ability to perceive or produce a pitch are affected when there is interference, delay, or stimuli of different timbres (Estis et ah, 2009, 2010; Moore, Keaton, & Watts, 2007; Watts, Moore, & McCaghren, 2005). Of significance here are how poor pitch matchers benefit from biological models over synthetic ones (Leveque, 2011) and improve when there is no interference. Some interesting conclusions regarding how internal and external auditory feedback is used in the singing process reinforce the importance of pre-motor planning. For instance, when untrained singers without expressed music talent were withheld from hearing auditory feedback when they produced a sound, their pitch-matching accuracy greatly diminished, suggesting that their prephonatory abilities rely heavily on the ability to hear and adjust pitch based on what is heard. Trained singers and untrained singers with expressed musical talent rely less on this ability, which suggests they ‘accurately perceive the pitch of a tone and coordinate that perception with motor planning, programming, and execution needed to reproduce it accurately at the onset of phonation’ (Watts, Murphy, & Barnes- Burroughs, 2003, p. 191). This is also explored in cognitive psychology research on auditory imagery (Pfordresher et al., 2015). This research engages with trained and untrained voices, with more emphasis on adolescent and adult populations, and is significant for its potential impact on vocal instruction encountered in the aural-skills classroom. The assertion with this course of study is that the student, regardless of age or skill, should learn how these processes work together. Because most of this is involuntary work of the body, it is essential that the student understands the various facets of the work of the voice and how it affects aural-skills competencies. While we cannot expect that the aural-skills student is informed about pedagogy of the voice, the educators awareness of the concepts of vocal pedagogy will aid in their work with poor pitch-matching students.

Aural-skills pedagogy is a much younger field than cognitive psychology', music education, or vocal pedagogy. While most agree that aural-skills pedagogical activities would benefit from interdisciplinary research from these fields, connections remain rather individualistic and limited in scope. Most research in aural-skills pedagogy addresses two areas: (1) how college-aged students acquire aural skills; and (2) how to teach the core curriculum — namely melodic and harmonic dictation, sight singing, rhythmic reading, and error detection; there is a great emphasis on best practices in the second category. However, research-supported methods in both the acquisition and teaching of aural skills have strong ties to music cognition, music education, and vocal pedagogy. For instance, cognitive psychology research shows that amusic individuals struggle more with pitch-matching if the aural stimulus is too short (Albouy et al., 2013) or if there is too much space between the note and the attempt to match the pitch (Williamson et al., 2010), or if there is an interfering noise between stimulus and replication of the stimulus (Estis et al., 2010). All of these have strong implications for improving teaching aural skills to students who struggle with matching pitch. Consider how an in- class scenario might play out in which the educator provides verbal instructions between playing a note and asking the student to match that pitch, or if the educator plays a note and then scans the class to call on an individual to sing, allowing too much time to elapse before the student attempts to sing it back.2 Nevertheless, evidence from experimental science is rarely integrated into aural-skills pedagogy. Further complicating this is that relatively little has been little written on pitch matching in aural-skills pedagogy'. Perhaps this is in part because the ability to match pitch is considered a preliminary skill that is outside the scope of the core aural-skills curricula.

Karpinski (2000), provides one of the most comprehensive attempts to connect experimental research into practice. He refers to empirical research and provides pedagogical solutions on how to implement them in classroom teaching. For instance, to circumvent issues with memory tor a pitch-matching exercise, he suggests having the student sing while the sound is playing. He notes that the complex timbres of the voice and piano make the task of pitch matching difficult, which is complicated by the rapid decay of the piano that presents challenges for teedback-loop comparisons. He lists problems that could contribute to students struggling to match pitch as they relate to vocal production (posture, support, breathing, and range), inexperience from never attempting the exercise before, and psychological factors, such as those who negatively suffer from being considered non-singers or bad singers. Other pedagogical contributions include listening for beats to improve intonation, ‘cross-gender’ matching that involves issues of octave replication, allowing students to put their faces close to the vibrating source, and using visual feedback technology such as a tuner (34—36). These pedagogical suggestions are based in music cognition research and will be incorporated with other findings in this discussion.

Music education, cognitive psychology, vocal pedagogy, and aural-skills pedagogy research highlight various sociological, physiological, and perceptual issues surrounding the complicated processes involved in pitch matching. Before moving on to how to assess pitch-matching issues, it is important to understand the complicated processes involved. To sing accurately, an individual must perform various interrelated tasks. Any deficiency with matching pitch can thus reveal a disruption within the VSL (refer to Figure 10.1, presented previously). Consider the amount of work that must happen in order to match pitch:

Successful singing requires perceptual skills (pitch matching, interval reproduction, and fine-grained pitch discrimination ability), cognitive abilities (working memory, attention, and learning processes), and motor skills (motor planning, motor selection, and motor execution). Difficulty singing in tune may reflect impairment in any or all of these abilities.

(Loui, 2015, p. 263)

Put simply, to identify the cause, one must identify if the issue is a vocal or perception deficiency. For an actual depiction of the cause behind inaccurate singing, any of these skills should be evaluated, and unfortunately, as Dalla Bella (2015, p. 275) explains, ‘poor-pitch singing is tar from a monolithic disorder.’ Variable cut-offs can help in assessing individual abilities, but often the underlying reason for not matching pitch is complicated and typically involves a battery of tests. For the aural-skills educator, understanding the various types of deficiencies a student may have related to pitch matching can help him or her develop strategies for improving his or her ability, particularly once it is determined that there is a production, rather than perception, issue.

Furthermore, studies have shown that overall, students’ level of confidence in their ability to match pitch or sing a melody back through imitation has diminished in recent years. This could be linked to reports about how young people are exposed less and less to singing in casual and formal situations (Demorest & Pfordresher, 2015). Moreover, students who struggle to match pitch during their formative years often create a negative self-image in which they equate their poor pitch matching as poor musical ability (Sloboda, Wise, & Peretz, 2005). Self-labeling such as this has proven to be detrimental to a student’s participation in musical activities outside of elementary school (Demorest, 2001), which has obvious ramifications for the ways in which such individuals choose to engage or not with music in their personal lives. The ability to match pitch may be taken for granted by people who perform this task with relative ease. However, it should not be assumed that all musicians or students entering college music programs possess this ability. Studies show that as many as ‘15% of the normal [adult] population self-identifies as tone deaf’ although most are likely poor pitch matchers (Loui et al., 2015, p. 263). Moreover, many college students today express anxiety about their ability to imitate a melody through singing (Pfordresher & Brown, 2007). There are no current studies that survey the music-major population on their ability to match pitch, a common phenomenon encountered in college-level sight-singing classes.3

In order to improve upon a student’s ability to match pitch, it is important for the aural-skills educator to be able to identify the cause of his or her challenge. Although there are technologies that can test this accuracy (discussed later), oftentimes the aural-skills educator must rely on his or her ability to determine a student’s proficiency with matching pitch. And, as the previous discussion highlights, there are many causes as to why an individual may have difficulty matching pitch. For instance, a student may have a hearing disability, which has thus far been undiagnosed. Examples of this might include a percussionist who practiced for years without proper hearing protection, or a student who was born with a genetic disorder in which they were unaware of its effect on hearing and replicating pitch. Other examples that could inhibit a student’s success with pitch matching may be inadvertently imposed by the educator in which they provide a stimulus that is outside his or her vocal range, utilize a stimulus or timbre that is difficult for them to imitate, or create a task that is too difficult for his or her skill level. It could also be as simple as the student has not frequently sung by him- or herself since before his or her voice changed in adolescence, and is therefore not familiar or comfortable with singing. As noted by Dalla Bella (2015, p. 274) ‘poor-pitch singing is often treated as the outcome of perceptual deficits.’ However, there are a number of pitch-matching issues related to vocal production. The following discussion will address strategies tor assessment and three most- common issues and then provide corrective exercises and resources.

II. Assessment of Pitch-Matching Issues

The aural-skills educator can come from any number of backgrounds, many of which require little or no formal vocal training. This can put the educator at a disadvantage when encountering problems in the aural-skills classroom. The ability to diagnose possible issues is assuredly more difficult if the educator has no training in how the voice works. While the educator may easily be able to hear that there is a problem, he or she may not be able to identify the cause of the problem and thus may not know how to address the problem. For the educator who does not have formal vocal training, listening and looking for cues may help guide him or her to beneficial answers for his or her students.

In the aural-skills classroom, a student may exhibit more than one issue with matching pitch. In order to quickly assess a student’s challenge, it is beneficial to classify indicators of poor pitch matching into broad categories based on initial observations. A series of questions is provided in the following flowchart (see Figure 10.2). The educator might start with a series of questions related to his or her observations, starting with ‘Can the student match pitch?’ If the answer is ‘No,’ then a follow-up question such as ‘Is the given pitch too high or too low?’ is asked to determine if there is a simple explanation regarding register.

Providing a stimulus that is outside a student’s comfortable singing register, especially for weak singers, may give the impression that a singer is poor at matching pitch. These singers can sound as if they drift when singing a single pitch or modulate when singing a melody, and therefore lose the starting pitch/key of the song. Pitch drift represents a production issue rather than a perception deficiency and will be addressed later (Price, 2000; Flowers & Dunne-Sousa, 1990). It register is not the cause of the problem, then the next question might pertain to whether the student can match your voice better than the piano (or a similar voice in class, such as male-to-male or female-to-female matching). Timbral research has shown that weak singers experience better success if they respond to a biological response, rather than an acoustic one; likewise, cross-gender matching is particularly challenging for weak singers and might be easily fixed by allowing students to match voices more like their own (Leveque, Giovanni, & Schon, 2011; Bradshaw & McHenry, 2005; Karpinski, 2000).

VSL flowchart Source

Figure 10.2 VSL flowchart Source: Authors.

This flowchart will be referenced throughout the following discussion to assist the instructor with identification of the underlying cause or causes tor pitch-matching difficulties.

In the next section, three general categories of pitch matching causes will be discussed: audible (intonation, timbre, range), physical/visible (tension, nerves, posture), and invisible (memory difficulties, hearing/singing disabilities). While it would be wonderful if the general categories were neatly bundled and exclusive to one another, that will not always be the case: audible issues may be invisible, visible issues may not be perceived in audible ways, and vice versa. These categories are fluid, which is part of the difficulty in identifiers for poor pitch matching.

Audible Cues

Audible cues of poor pitch matching are often the educators first indication that a student has a vocal production or hearing/perception deficiency. In a common classroom scenario, a group is singing in unison and one or more voices stand out as not blending with the others. Audible cues can help the educator realize something in the vocal process is not being approached properly. This can include breathiness of tone, extreme dynamic (too loud or too soft), instability of the vibrato (either too slow/fast or nonexistent), or nasality; these audible cues present more of a problem because they are usually caused by perception issues as well, which will be discussed later. The initial observation that a student is not matching pitch can offer a lot of information, which may lead to several immediate questions, such as: is the student singing close to the pitch?; does the pitch sound within a comfortable range in his or her voice?; and does the student seem to recognize he or she is not matching pitch?

One of the first things that an educator should identify is whether the student’s singing is classified as inaccurate or imprecise. Imprecise singing refers to a student who sings an accurate pitch with minimal higher or lower intonation. Inaccurate singing is when a student sings more than a half step above or below a pitch; as mentioned earlier, the consensus within cognitive psychology and vocal pedagogy research limits the cut-off to between a quarter-tone and half-tone. In general, an imprecise singer may have physical challenges related to vocal production that might be addressed easily through physical/visible corrections. An inaccurate singer, however, exhibits more challenges with pitch matching. We will return to ways to assess and correct issues for imprecise and inaccurate singing later, but first, let’s consider other physical and nonphysical cues the student may possess.

There are many visible cues the educator can observe that may have a direct impact on the student’s ability to match pitch. Physical characteristics, such as slouching, casting the head down toward the desk, closed mouth position, and a rigid stance are easy to spot. Slouching will cause the breath intake to be high in the lung and the student will not have proper support for the sung tone because the diaphragm has not been properly engaged. The larynx will be impeded from performing well if the head is bent down toward the chest. Any tightening of muscle groups, anywhere in the body, will cause radial tension issues that will impede the function of the voice. McKinney (2005, pp. 33—34) dedicates an entire chapter to the importance and achievement of good posture. He summarizes that ‘

[G]ood posture allows the skeletal framework and muscular components of the body to fulfill their basic functions efficiently . . . the breathing mechanism — the actuator — to fulfill its basic functions . . . and facilitates the function of the vibrator and resonators.’

(2005, pp. 33-34)

Psychologically, good posture ‘can create good confidence and a feeling of well-being’ especially in stressful situations, like singing in public — or in an aural-skills class. In his words, ‘the person who seeks to establish habitual good posture has everything to gain and virtually nothing to lose’ (2005, pp. 33-34).

Other physical cues include a visible vein in the neck while singing, which often indicates that there is too much subglottal pressure from breath or muscle strain. This strain often is the result of a couple of interconnected issues: the hyperfunction of the breath and the lack of opening of the mouth, which leaves the breath no easy way to escape the body. Opening the mouth often presents a problem tor both trained and untrained singers because the internal feeling is deceptive: the student believes the mouth is sufficiently open while the hinge of the jaw has not released. In this situation, the jaw not been released (or dropped) and the breath cannot flow freely. This exacerbates any tension the student may be experiencing and may affect his or her ability to match pitch. Students may also be self-conscious about the aperture opening, causing them to sing through a small space. These visible cues may seem insignificant to the student and/or educator but have a direct impact on a student’s ability to match pitch. Not addressing issues may affect the students ability to attain any measure of accuracy in their pitch matching. Many times, fixing one (or more) ot these issues will quickly help the student produce a better sound. Recognizing these visible cues may provide the educator with opportunities to not only improve the student’s success with pitch-matching but also to elevate his or her singing ability.

Invisible Cues

Invisible cues are more complicated to detect and often overlap with one or more other issues. The designation ‘invisible’ here refers to symptoms related to perception and memory deficiencies, audio-motor production/ability, and hearing disabilities, which are internal processes that may also present audibly. An educator may deduce that a student exhibits one of these deficiencies if he or she demonstrates inconsistent skills. For instance, if a student is able to produce a single pitch but cannot replicate two pitches, he or she may have contour perception issues (Loui et al., 2008), whereas it a student can sing but cannot recognize if the second pitch in an interval is higher or lower than the first, he or she may be classified as amusic: an individual with a pitch perception impairment in which abilities between perception and production are mismatched.4 Aside from production issues that can be remediated with practice, a student may have difficulty producing an accurate pitch due to a hearing or memory issue. For the aural-skills educator, the VSL flowchart may help to identify where the student’s challenge lies. While it is important to rule out hearing or neurological deficiencies, cognitive psychology research mostly pertains to identifying, rather improving, these impairments. We will focus on non-perceptual issues, such as those concerned with production, rather than cognitive issues.

An example of symptoms that present themselves as audible but invisible is a singer who exhibits breathiness ot tone or bad intonation. In these situations, the student does not present any of the symptoms from the visible category, but he or she audibly presents an issue that is happening internally. Breathiness ot tone often is the result of hypotunction ot the breath, meaning there is not enough breath pressure under the vocal tolds to allow them to properly vibrate against one another. This allows excess air to escape through the folds, creating a breathy sound. The hvpofunction of the breath may also be a root cause ot vibrato being too slow or the dynamic being too soft. Hypofunc- tion may also cause the pitch to be imprecise, hovering on the low side ot the given pitch. Conversely, it there is hyperfunction (too much breath pressure) ot the breath, the vibrato may be too fast or, if the breath pressure is extreme, nonexistent. This hyperfunction may also cause the pitch to be sharp because ot the pressure below the vocal folds. When a student exhibits nasality in his or her singing, this generally supports the notion that the soft palate is not elevated in the mouth. An easy check of this is to ask the student to sing a neutral vowel with his or her index finger inserted into the center of the mouth, not touching lips or tongue. When this is done the soft palate will involuntarily raise and the nasality should lessen. With these cues in hand, the educator is able to enter the aural-skills classroom with more confidence and will be able to be proactive in the implementation of standards for student success.

How to Assess

There are a variety of ways to assess pitch matching, from simple in-class exercises to online resources. We recommend you begin assessing students’ abilities from day one — even during auditions.

Assessment begins with the first singing exercises. At the start of the semester, it is beneficial to get people singing right away, not only to set the tone for the rest of the semester, but to also enable the educator to get to know individual voices and identify potential pitch-matching issues. Depending on the educators personality and level of comfort, you could consider walking around and checking pitch through sung questions on a single pitch, such as, Educator: ‘Can you match my pitch?,’ Student: ‘Yes, 1 can match your pitch,’ or Educator: ‘Hi there, how are you?,’ Student: ‘Hello, I’m very sleep-у.’ If students respond without issue, you can progress to singing two notes. A simple singing example could include the educator singing a question on two pitches (like a descending minor third) that the student answering back on similar pitches, such as, Educator: ‘Ni-kki,’ Student: ‘Present.’ Elongating the question is another option. Educator: ‘Nikki, do you play the vio-lin?,’ Student: ‘No, I play the tu-ba.’An exercise like this will also help the educator to identify other audible issues (student sings gruffly, too low, etc.). If there are issues with the student matching these two pitches, several things should be considered, such as range (is it a female educator singing too high for a male voice or vice versa?) and instrument (if matching your voice is an issue, have them match the piano instead or a similar sounding voice in class). Sometimes, inaccurate singers struggle to match one or two pitches, but succeed if the notes are placed in a tonal context (Demorest & Clements, 2007). Consider singing descending stepwise melodies and ask the student to then imitate one of the pitches (a similar example is provided in Figure 10.5).

Many students enter college with very little singing experience and may not have ever been evaluated on their ability to sing accurately. They may audition well on their instruments and not be able to sing or match pitch accurately. As many schools do not conduct a pitch-matching assessment, it is possible for a student to be accepted into a music degree with a poor level of pitch-matching ability. Failure to develop this ability can be discouraging to a student, as he or she can quickly fall behind required learning objectives. While there are many exercises that can help strengthen accuracy for matching pitch, explained in more detail later, it is helpful for the student to understand his or her ability to match pitch so that he or she can begin working on improving this vital skill. For these reasons, schools should consider adding a pitch-matching component to the audition process. This will help you and the student understand where he or she needs to focus his or her energies in preparing for the rigorous two-year sight-singing core curriculum offered by most schools.

Pitch-matching assessment during an audition is a relatively easy skill to check. For instance, if your school has a scale requirement tor instrumentalists to perform, this is a great time to ask the student to sing back the last note of the scale. Students may find this to be an easy task, but it the range of the instrument is outside the range of his or her voice, it may be more challenging. Finding a more comfortable pitch within the student’s vocal range should alleviate this problem. Figure 10.3 provides a chart of typical vocal ranges, with the notes in brackets providing the most comfortable register for most people.

If a student can match pitch, you may then choose to increase the difficulty by having him or her match a short melodic sequence of two notes in close proximity; this can be sung back on a neutral syllable like ‘la-la’ or ‘doo-doo.’ Another tactic is to assess the student’s ability to carry a tune without first being provided with a pitch to match. To do this, have the student sing a simple folk-like melody in a range that is comfortable. Some song recommendations include ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ ‘Hot Crossed Buns,’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle.’ Often, students are nervous in the audition, and the anxiety of singing in front of a jury may be uncomfortable enough to impair their ability to match pitch effectively. In an observed audition at our university, the head band director evaluated a French hornist’s pitch-matching ability by asking her to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her instrument. This unexpected and funny request helped the nervous auditioner to relax and perform more naturally.3 An audition pitch-matching checklist similar to the one we use at our university is provided in Figure 10.4. Consider having a conversation with colleagues during a faculty meeting to discuss your department’s priorities. If they are willing, instrumental faculty might adopt a similar checklist

Vocal ranges.Source

Figure 10.3 Vocal ranges.6 Source: O’Connor (2020).

Audition pitch-matching checklist. Source

Figure 10.4 Audition pitch-matching checklist. Source: Authors.

Fill-in-the-tonic exercise. Source

Figure 10.5 Fill-in-the-tonic exercise. Source: Authors.

to assist in evaluating incoming students. If the student is unable to perform one or any of these tasks, this is helpful information in determining his or her ability to perform the basic objectives of a first semester aural-skills class. Whether you are assisting with auditions or teaching the first or fourth semester of aural skills, it is beneficial to test pitch-matching right away.

As an alternative to the first box, a jury member could play or sing (on a neutral syllable) a descending five-note scale where the student is instructed to sing the last note, shown in Figure 10.5.

Setting Up the Classroom

How the classroom is configured can aid the educator in his or her quest to identify cues to aural- skills issues with particular students. Creating physical standards in the classroom at the beginning of each new semester will ensure that students have a strong foundation tor the learning process. It is imperative that the educator continue to remind students of classroom standards so that old habits are not supported. From the first day of classes, students should be expected to sing and follow guidelines of proper singing in order to create a foundation for aural-skills success. For instrumentalists, students may not have been introduced to proper singing techniques. For vocalists, some may not engage with proper singing because they think of aural skills as a non-specialized singing class. In an aural-skills class, adopting the mantra that everyone is a singer will help support high standards and create a supported and balanced environment that destigmatizes labels such as ‘singers’ and ‘non-singers.’ Singing properly may include: sitting tall at the desk (not allowing the back to rest on the back of the chair), having both feet flat on the ground, taking low (belly) breaths, and holding the head level whenever singing. More specifically, directions can stipulate that, when standing, the knees are aligned with the ankles, hips are aligned with the knees, shoulders are aligned with the hips, and the ears aligned with the shoulders. If in the seated position this can be separated into ankles/knees and hips/shoulders/ ears. It is important to inform students as to why these standards are important. Sitting with tall posture at the desk allows the ribcage to remain expanded and will help in energy and breath flow. Having the feet flat on the ground helps the student feel grounded and often results in a stronger vocal production. Practicing a low breath, a breath that keeps the ribcage stationary and requires the stomach to move, fills the lungs better and lowers blood pressure. This may also help to calm the student’s nerves before singing for an aural-skills grade and is beneficial well beyond the aural-skills classroom. It is critically important for sound production that the student keep his or her head level while singing. If the head is elevated or depressed, the larynx is compromised and it will be more difficult to produce a good sound. Alternatively, students can stand while singing, holding their singing materials at chin level. Encouraging students to follow these guidelines daily will enforce good habits that will aid them throughout their aural-skills sequence. Consider posting these guidelines in your syllabus or having a checklist like the one provided next displayed in your classroom. It should also be modeled by the educator and fellow classmates.

Class checklist. Source

Figure 10.6 Class checklist. Source: Authors.

Visible assessments. Source

Figure 10.7 Visible assessments. Source: Authors.

Educators can create vocal warm-ups at the beginning of class that incorporate learning objectives of the daily lesson plan. The use of a regular warm-up period in the classroom will aid the student in developing comfort with his or her own voice as well as help the educator assess the students that may need additional work. Just as one would not expect an orchestral player to jump into the middle of a challenging excerpt without first warming up, a singer should not be expected to sing didactic solfege exercises without the opportunity to warm up his or her voice, especially if it is a typical early-morning class. In this setting, the educator can ask smaller groups of students to sing together and ofter feedback that they might not receive when the larger group is singing together. Incorporate warm-up exercises that require singers to use legato or staccato articulations and crescendo and descrescendo on stepwise patterns, or perform with messa di voce, a singing technique in which the singer crescendos or descrescendos on a single pitch. If space allows for the students to stand and move about, warming up while including kinesthetic movement can be extremely beneficial to the musician. Educators may build upon any of a number of music learning methods — Dalcroze Eurythmics, Orff Schulwerk, Kodaly — which will allow the student to internalize musical feeling.

For example, if the students are using the Kodaly hand gestures, have them also mimic the contour of the sung line; if no hand signs are used, students can raise and lower their arms with the contour of the sung melody. This will help develop the students’ awareness ot the connection between mind and body as well as basic musical gestures and how those shapes feel in the body. Incorporating time to properly warm up and practice these techniques will not only improve control over vocal mechanisms in a more relaxed group environment (that is not being evaluated for a grade) but will encourage the student to think musically, which may increase the success of the aural-skills student and his or her musicianship and enable the educator to evaluate audible and visible signs in a more casual environment.

Four Common Problems and Solutions

In this section, we will address four of the most common problems encountered in the aural skills classroom: (1) register issues; (2) timbre issues; (3) intonation issues, including modulating singers; and (4) wrong-note or overtone issues.

Pitch-Matching Issues Related to Register

Register issues are common problems tor untrained singers. It is documented that most peoples habitual speech pitch sits either too high or too low from their optimal pitch. Helping the students find their optimal pitch levels will allow their singing to be of the best quality for the least amount of effort (McKinney, 2005, p. 168). If a pitch is given that is outside the students comfortable register, an inaccurate singer may not know where to begin. Pre-motor planning and auditory imagery — that is, mapping pitch height to breath pressure needed to achieve phonation of a particular pitch — may come instinctually to a strong singer but may be deficient in an untrained singer, especially when asked to perform an already complex task in an uncomfortable range. Finding a students optimal singing range should be one of the first steps within the pitch-matching sequence. Refer to Figure 10.3 for ideal registers for different voices.

There are numerous techniques for determining a student’s comfortable range. One technique that works especially well in a group is to warm up by singing with sirens. To do this, students start singing on the lowest non-vocal fry pitch and slowly slide as high as possible without screaming, and return to the bottom range; this can be coordinated with body movements such as raising and lowering the arm or swaying forward when the siren ascends and backward when the siren returns to the starting pitch. An exercise that is effective tor individuals that struggle to find their comfortable range is to have the student count backwards from 10 in a normal voice; for a fun variation, you might suggest they do it with an accent, up-talk, or as if talking to a kindergartner. Usually about halfway through counting, the student will gravitate toward a comfortable pitch suitable for singing. When you feel he or she has reached that point, encourage them to elongate that number by singing a musical sounding drone on the pitch they are chanting. You can then help them locate this on the piano and tell them that they ‘sing well around A3,’ for example. You can then provide a stimulus within that range to see if they can perform the task of matching it. If, after determining the student’s register, he or she cannot match the pitch you provide, eliminate the stimulus and flip the question by asking the student to sing a note that is comfortable in their established register. This is especially beneficial it you notice the student is embarrassed or frustrated by his or her inability to perform a pitch-matching task. You can then match the pitch the student provides and even invite others to participate. If the struggling student has never practiced pitch-matching before, providing a less-stressful approach to matching pitch, wherein the task is modeled by others before he or she is being evaluated, may increase his or her confidence in attempting the exercise. Like many issues in the aural-skills classroom, intimidation and nerves play a large part in the student’s inability to produce a great-sounding tone. Creating examples that are fun and productive will help relieve nerves in tense singers, but it is also important to do what is comfortable to you as the educator by choosing exercises that suit your personality and the personality of your class.

Help weak singers in your class by pairing them with stronger singers close in singing range. You can encourage the pair to help each other when they notice a discrepancy in pitch matching. For instance, if you are able to pair two females together, you might begin by asking them, in private, it the weaker-female singer feels comfortable having the stronger-female singer provide feedback in class, such as leaning over and singing closer/louder to her ear so she might be able to recognize she is oft-pitch. Allowing all students in your class to have this sort of interaction is, in tact, a great way to encourage support and critical listening. If you choose to do this, make it known that students will not be called out for talking to a classmate during singing exercise, so long as it is related to improving singing. Another beneficial exercise involves touching part of the vibrating source. Allow weaker singers to sit closer to the acoustic piano and place their hand on it whenever he or she feels like they are drifting. For students who are paired up, ask each student individually if he or she would be comfortable touching or being touched on the back during singing. If both students express consent, the weaker student can place his or her hand on the back of the stronger singer when phonating. Feeling the vibrating source can sometimes effortlessly correct issues of poor pitch matching. Be frank with the students and encourage open communication as much as possible. If you choose to do this pairing exercise, it is critical that consent is given at the beginning of each class, and that either of them are encouraged to decline at any point.

If you still cannot help the student find a good register to sing in, refer to the flowchart (Figure 10.2). The issue they are experiencing may be compounded by other hindrances related to production, timbre, hearing, or perception.


There is a vast amount of research on how timbre affects imitation, intonation, and perception of pitch. As Loui et al. (2015, p. 266) state, discrepancy between approaches taken to assess poor pitch matching between fields, especially with regard to timbre, reveals a ‘lack of standard procedures’ and feels like ‘each study “reinvents the wheel” regarding measurement.’ While populations and procedures may vary between disciplines, research on the timbre effect, that is, the notion that people tend to perform more accurately when timbres have a similar spectral center to their own, reveals that timbre plays a more significant role in young, weak, or inexperienced singers than it does in more experienced singers. For the purposes of helping students who struggle to match pitch in the aural- skills classroom, this research encourages us as educators to be sensitive to the types of stimuli we provide in class. If you encounter a student unable to match a pitch given from the piano, switch to singing instead. Neuroscientific research shows that a biological model can yield better intonation in strong singers and more accurate pitch matching in weaker singers, which is in part explained by the mirror system — a neuron network that translates actions of others into an internal representation of that action. Students may respond more accurately to your voice; in that case, they should be offered this type of stimulus frequently to help develop skill and confidence. The hope is that by providing a stimulus that the student can more accurately match, he or she will develop stronger pitch-matching abilities that will eventually be adapted to other timbres.

There is evidence that inaccurate or inexperienced singers may benefit more if the sung stimulus is one that is similar to the timbre of their own voice. Research is inconsistent about whether, for example, an inexperienced male singer responds better to other male voices, even it they do not match in register, perhaps due to the inconsistent measurements taken by different fields. However, it stands to reason that if an inaccurate male student is unable to match a female educators voice, he may benefit from another male voice more like his own. Having students within the class model singing is an integral course objective in an aural-skills class and should be an easy exercise to implement. Exploring how the timbre effect increases a students success at matching pitch can extend to providing a stimulus on a student’s primary instrument, acoustic or synthetic models, or other student voices within the class.


Singers who have intonation issues often receive severe point deductions on sight-singing exams by slowly modulating up or down from their starting pitches. Look for visible cues for breath control (such as heaving shoulders, out-of-breath singing, slouching, head hanging, or laid-back posture) or audible cues (such as noisy intake, slam entrances, glottal attack, or vocal fry). An easy way for the teacher to help students understand what the release of air should feel like while singing is to ask them to, while seated and relaxed, vocalize every time they exhale. Instruct the student to observe his or her breathing for a few breaths. On the third or fourth exhale, have him or her sing on a comfortable pitch. The motion from inhaling to exhaling while phonating should be fluid and unlabored. This will give the student a baseline assessment for how he or she should practice breathing when singing.

There are three common types ot issues surrounding intonation: students who swoop up or down to the correct pitch, those that use exaggerated dynamics (such as too loud, or less commonly, too soft), and those who drift (sometimes referred to as modulating singers) (Price, 2000; Flowers & Dunne-Sousa, 1990). For singers who swoop up or down to a pitch, you should encourage them to listen and imagine producing that pitch before singing. It is possible that they are starting to sing too fast and may be initiating sound before their articulators (lips, tongue, soft palate) are stable. This ‘fishing’ for a pitch results in an inaccurate start to the sung line, while they may be correct after the initial pitch is achieved. Figures 10.8 and 10.9 provide examples for how to practice this skill.

Instructions for the student for Figure 10.8: Sing the exercise starting near the upper quadrant of your range. Continue moving up by half steps until it becomes difficult. Breath intake on the vowel and pitch you want to begin with. Keep your breath easy and relaxed (low and slow). First, try it on ‘Alt’ making sure to start and stop each note without glottal attack. Ensure that your mouth is open and your soft palate is raised (you can put your index finger between your teeth on the ‘Alt’ syllable to ensure both are happening). Sing two measures on one breath. Try singing it again with different vowel sounds.

Intonation corrective exercise. Source

Figure 10.8 Intonation corrective exercise. Source: Authors.

Intonation corrective exercise with minor thirds. Source

Figure 10.9 Intonation corrective exercise with minor thirds. Source: Authors.

Dynamic control exercise. Source

Figure 10.10 Dynamic control exercise. Source: Authors.

Instructions for the student for Figure 10.9: For this exercise, use the saute techniques as for Figure 10.8 to set your articulators. Sing the following exercise with a legato line and ensure that you are singing both pitches without sliding orglissando technique. Keep your jaw stable and allow your tongue to do most of the work.

For students who sing at a dynamic that is too loud or too soft, their intonation may be affected, such as sounding too sharp or too flat. In these situations, the student maintains an accurate pitch and pitch contour when singing a melody but is considered imprecise, as his or her intonation may inflect within the acceptable range of a quarter tone and half tone. The exercise here may help the student to better understand the limits of his or her dynamic range. While the singer has the ability' to sing both louder and softer than the exercise asks, it will set some boundaries as to how little or much to give to achieve a stable, desired, and accurate phonation.

Instructions for the student for Figure 10.10: Sing the line in one breath. Start with your softest ‘pretty’ sound that is connected to the breath and go to your loudest ‘pretty’ sound.

For more pronounced issues involving intonation, a student can move from being imprecise to seeming to modulate. Evidence from music education and vocal pedagogy' research supports that this is a common tactic that young or untrained singers sometimes use in order to find a more comfortable register. This is often referred to as drift. For these students, you can begin by finding his or her comfortable singing register tor the pitch or song (see Figure 10.3). It is also critical that this student be encouraged to sing more frequently, as one of the reasons his or her vocal range and production are substandard is inexperience and therefore a weak vocal mechanism. Finding warm-up exercises and simple songs he or she can regularly practice will increase his or her proficiency over time. Another way' to assist students with weak vocal mechanisms is to have them record themselves singing a short song and listen tor moments when they modulate. It is likely that they can perceive the difference in pitch even if they cannot yet control it with their voices.

Overtone Singers

Another common issue in the aural-skills classroom is the student who believes he or she is singing the correct pitch, but is, in fact, singing the wrong note. Typically, this student is singing at the fifth, which sounds consonant and therefore correct to him or her. For this reason, these students will be referred to as overtone singers. These students often play loud instruments such as percussion, brass, or piccolo, and can exhibit signs of a mild hearing deficiency. If you suspect a hearing issue, you should encourage them to have their hearing tested. For proficiency in an aural-skills classroom, a documented disability can help you provide the tools they need to succeed. For these students, there could also be a combination of issues, such as a register/timbre matching problem, memory or cognitive issues, or simply weak production abilities. If they are under-practiced in listening, vocal onset, and vocal production, they can benefit from reminders, encouragements, and steps to practice.

For practice, there are several exercises you can try with the student. Encourage the student to partner with a strong singer with a similar vocal timbre. Consider using the partner exercise mentioned earlier, where partners can lean closer together to hear each other more accurately, alert each other when there is an issue, and, if they are willing, touch the back or neck of the other person to feel the vibration. An exercise you can quickly practice either in class or in person begins with having the student sing a pitch that is in a comfortable range. You or someone else in the class then matches his note. You can then have him hold the starting pitch while you sing a fifth above, then return to unison with the singing student; refer to Figure 10.9, which can also be transposed to the students comfortable pitch. You can then have a conversation with him or her, asking if he or she felt like changing pitch when your voice moved. If the student had a hard time staying on pitch, practice this exercise a few more times. Sometimes the skip of a fifth makes the student feel as if he or she should leap with you. If the student is unable to sustain tonic easily, begin by singing tonic together, then slowly ascend and descend scalar patterns. Once this is mastered, you can have him or her sing tonic, while you sing perfect consonances above and below his pitch. For another exercise, you or another (similarly voiced) student can perform exercises where both voices begin on a unison and then one voice sings up a perfect fifth, while the other sings down a perfect fourth — thus, beginning with unison tonic and expanding outward to an octave on the dominant — then returning to a unison tonic (see Figure 10.11). If the student can sing a full octave, you can extend this exercise to tonic, fifth below, tonic below (see Figure 10.12). In practicing this exercise, encourage the student to feel similarities in the unison pitch even it the timbres are different — how even though the perfect intervals at the octave are still consonant, they are different in sound, feel, and vibration.

Overtone exercise 1. Source

Figure 10.11 Overtone exercise 1. Source: Authors.

Overtone exercise 2. Source

Figure 10.12 Overtone exercise 2. Source: Authors.

Pitch-Matching Technology

In-class assessments are an integral part ot teaching aural skills, but students can benefit from using technology when they practice alone. While technology can help assess pitch-matching ability and even provide analysis ot how to improve one’s singing voice and pitch retention, diagnosing pitchmatching deficiencies often requires a battery of tests. Two such assessments include the Seattle Singing Accuracy Protocol (SSAP), developed by Pfordresher and Demorest and the Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA), developed by Peretz, Champod, and Hyde. Some popular singing applications also include exercises to improve and test pitch-matching abilities. Sing True, for instance, treats these tasks as a game where you can earn points as your skills improve. This application allows you to sing while viewing a slider that shows how accurate your voice maintains or matches a pitch. There are also exercises aimed at improving breath control, and a set of two-pitched intervals asks you to identify which is higher or lower. Pitch-matching applications and software will provide new and ever-changing tools for improving one’s voice with regard to tone quality, intonation, and pitch accuracy, such as Pitch Perfect, Tunable, Theta Music Trainer, SmartMusic, Vocal Lab, Clear Tune, Ear Master, Perfect Ear, Tone Deaf Test, Soundcheck, Tonal Energy, insTuner, and Singscope. This is a small sampling of the resources available through a simple search. Adding a visual component to the singing process can aid singers in determining if their voices are above or below a target pitch, which, for some, will improve pitch production.


The ability to match pitch accurately is vital to a student’s success in aural-skills classes and the achievement of music degrees. A bias exists within college-level aural-skills pedagogy that assumes music majors enter college with the ability to accurately and effortless match pitch. The reality is, however, much different. Students are less exposed to singing throughout their primary education, with drastic drops in required music classes around the time the voice changes in adolescence. The effects of this are evident in the number of students entering music programs with little to no experience generating musical sounds with their voice, which is in direct relationship to students’ low confidence in singing ability. As educators, it is our responsibility to provide students who have poor pitch-matching ability the tools to achieve proficiency. There are no current studies that indicate how many music majors struggle to match pitch upon entering college. Looking to fields of cognitive psychology, music education, and vocal pedagogy provides valuable insights into the processes related to the complicated task of perceiving and producing pitch. For aural-skills pedagogy, this research creates constructive applications that one can adapt to improve a students achievement of pitch-matching accuracy. Research into developmental stages, types of stimuli, problems experienced within the vocal-sensorimotor translation, the role of interference, feedback, and memory, and pre- phonation and production process reveals the complexity pitch matching requires and provides us with information to improve assessment, sequencing, activities, and objectives. For ear-training pedagogues, these findings support the importance of offering a variety of teaching strategies for inaccurate pitch-matching students rather than adhering to a more traditional piano-dominated approach. Aural-skills teachers who have not had vocal training can seek information from the sources provided in this chapter but should also consider collaborating with vocal specialists within their departments to get assistance with vocal coaching for their students. Creating a collaborative and holistic approach to pitch matching in your classroom will also inspire peer collaborations from which everyone will benefit.


  • 1. Functional processes involve sensory, motor, and auditory-motor integration. Production refers to physical mechanisms such as respiratory, vocal folds, and vocal tracts. Neuronal processes refer to a network of neurons in the bram, in this case associated with activity involving the auditory cortex. For a review of these processes, see Dalla Bella, Berkowska, & Sowinski (2011).
  • 2. There is much need for more research in disability and pitch matching. For instance, research reveals that language disorders (such as dyslexia and SLI) show deficits in pitch processing (Zeigler et al., 2012), while those with autism have better pitch perception and memory (Ouimet et al., 2012). Extending these studies to college-age subjects would help create valuable tools for making the study of music more accessible.
  • 3. In 2017, we conducted a panel on pitch matching at the College Music Society national conference for several educators who have had students unable to match pitch in their classes.
  • 4. Studies suggest that amusic individuals have a neural disconnection between regions in the bram (arcuate fasciculus, right fronto-temporal pathways (Loui et al., 2008; Loui, 2008; Dalla Bella, Giguere, & Peretz, 2009).
  • 5. I would like to thank Ron Ellis for this audition exercise. The ‘Flappy Birthday’ song is frequently used as an exemplar of well-known, simple songs for such activities. However, one might choose to eliminate this song from his or her list based on the level of complexity (triple meter, begins on an anacrusis on scale-degree S, and features large leaps) and the likelihood that the song is often sung poorly.
  • 6. Range chart provided by Karyn O’Connor, www.singwise.com/articles/understanding-vocal-range-vocal- registers-and-voice-type-a-glossary-of-vocal-terms (Permission has been granted).
  • 7. Vocal fry is the lowest phonational register, occupying the frequency range below the modal or normal register. It has a characteristic popping, frying, or rattling sound which is capable of very little variation of timbre (McKinney, 2005, p. 96)


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