There is one ear training skill that every musician and every music student, including absolute beginners, must develop. It should be done from the very beginning of music study and is a suitable exercise for the first lesson and to test a new student’s overall musicality. This skill makes all future ear training and musicianship work possible for both student and teacher. Without it, the teacher cannot guide the student’s progress in the critical area of ear training, the most essential aspect of musicianship.
This skill is the ability to sing a note on pitch. This is the only way for the teacher to ensure that the student is indeed hearing the right notes. It is the only way for the student to give the teacher necessary feedback as to what the student is hearing. The note doesn’t have to be sung beautifully, and the student doesn’t need a particularly wide vocal range. It doesn’t even need to be perfectly accurate (at least not for beginners)—it just needs to be recognizable. A 440 doesn’t necessarily have to be sung at exactly 440 vibrations per second (which is impossible anyway due to the complexity of the waveform of the human voice), but it does need to be recognizable as an A. If the task is to sing an A and the student sings an E, then the teacher has no way of knowing whether the student is unable to hear the A or if he’s just unable to sing it. Is he hearing an overtone or another note in the music? Particularly in the crucial beginning stages of learning music, both problems—the inability to hear the note and the inability to sing it—are evident.
This skill has nothing to do with perfect pitch, which is the ability to recognize any note by name upon hearing it, or to sing any note desired. It is purely a relative pitch skill. It is about hearing the music in its harmonic context. If the music is in D major, it’s essential to hear the A as the fifth note of the scale (the dominant). If it’s in E major, you must recognize the A as scale degree 4 (the subdominant).
Why Singing is Essential for All Musicians
If you’re a pianist or other instrumentalist, you may be wondering why you should bother learning to sing at all. The most important reason is that singing—particularly solfège, in which the note names are vocalized—allows you to learn music on a much deeper level than mere muscle memory. The most critical aspect of training is to get the mind ahead of the fingers. Learning to hear every note you play is the essential, and surprisingly difficult, stepping stone towards real musicianship.
In fact, the single biggest mistake piano students make is learning almost exclusively with their fingers, without their ear guiding the fingers to the right keys. This is the surest recipe for failure. Merely training the fingers disengages the mind from playing and creates uncertainty, which always manifests itself as soon as anybody else is listening. The key is to train one’s listening skills, and singing is the way to externalize what one hears.
If you take this skill for granted, play any chord in your music (playing all the notes of the chord simultaneously) and then try to sing every note. It may be a humbling experience to discover that you’re not hearing each note!
How to Sing on Pitch
Modern technology makes it simple to develop the skill of singing on pitch. There are free smartphone and tablet apps that are better than any external, expensive hardware tuners. I tried out several and highly recommend insTuner for iPhone and iPad for this purpose. There’s a free version, and a pro version is available for only $3.99. (Cleartune is another fantastic tuner for the same price.)
The free version of insTuner is spectacular. It has a tone generator that can play any note for you perfectly in tune. If you want to sing an A, simply have the tone generator play it for you, and then switch to Chromatic Tuning mode and try to sing it back. If you’re singing very flat, the needle will be far below pitch and the vertical bar at the top of the screen will be at the far left in red, and you’ll see the instruction to tune up:
If you then overcorrect and are slightly sharp, the needle will move slightly past the A and there will be a vertical bar in yellow to right of center, with an instruction to tune down:
If you’re right on pitch, the whole top area will turn green and you’ll get the encouraging message, “Got it!”:
If you’re a beginning music student, do this exercise once a day until you’re able to sing any note within your vocal range on pitch. If you’re a singer, then obviously you need to learn to sing exactly on pitch and with a beautiful tone. If you’re an instrumentalist, first strive to make the note recognizable (as an A, B-flat, C, or whatever), and then work to become more accurate.
Once you’re able to sing on pitch, you’ll be ready to advance in your ear training and overall musicianship!