Lessons in Learning: Mastering Intonation with Singing

by Abby @ Quaver on November 19, 2013

in Music Matters

Welcome back Quaver guest blogger Jeannine Everett – violinist and all around student of music!

Today Jeannine is talking about the importance of singing in the process of mastering intonation.

Mastering Intonation – Put that instrument down!

Teaching Intonation

My violin teacher has perfect pitch—the ability to judge whether a note is in tune without the benefit of an external device. It can be sort of frustrating, to be honest. Sometimes it takes forever to get through a simple scale. I get to the third note, and almost without fail, he’ll say “sharp!”

Most violinists live by that old adage “It’s better to play sharp than flat.” I think that phrase was first uttered by a violinist, and the rest of his section replied, “Sounds great to me.” The higher in pitch, the sharper we play.

The real issue is that the notes don’t sound sharp to me. They sound in tune.

Over time, I’ve come to associate the named note with a pitch that is too high. I don’t know what a C sounds like. If I don’t know what it sounds like, how can I play it in tune?

The problem is not the instrument. The problem is me.

So what’s the cure? Sing!

Singing is kind of cool and magical when you think about it. We see a note and adjust our vocal chords to create it. Granted, some of us create a much prettier sound than others, but we are all capable of it.

So, when we sing “Happy Birthday,” (which most people can without too much trouble) how do we do it?

  • First we learn how to change our vocal chords to mimic the pitch of the notes we hear.
  • Eventually, we change our vocal chords to correspond to a pitch that exists in our memory.
  • So to improve intonation we need to correct our memory first.

I spend a portion of my practice time at a keyboard singing scales and arpeggios. I do not sound like a diva, trust me. The Met will not be calling. In fact, I sing the notes as plainly as possible. No vibrato, only sustained pitch. My job is to match it as closely to the keyboard pitch as possible, bending the tone up and done until it’s dead on. Then I move to the next note. Only after I’ve done that do I pick up the violin and play.

The same principle applies in a group setting. If my section is having trouble with a pitch or an interval, my conductor has us sing it.

Improving intonation takes time. We have to unlearn our incorrect internal anchor for a written note, and learn the correct one. The differences are small and subtle and take careful listening.

I’m sure this is also true for your students, that they benefit from activities in class that put the focus on careful listening like . . .

. . . solfège and pitch matching, listening exercises and activities of familiar pieces, listening to performance tracks before learning songs, practicing part singing, playing classroom instruments and singing at same time, repeating after your voice, or mastering EarIQ games as a class at QuaverMusic.com.

To be clear, no one is lining up to hear me sing in the shower, and I still don’t have perfect pitch, but I know what a C sounds like. It turns out, our intonation problems are all in our head. Luckily, that’s where the solution is, too.


How can you apply Jeannine’s Intonation tips to your classroom? How do you practice listening and pitch-memory skills with your students?


P.S. We’ve got a great Webinar planned for you today – tune it at 4:30EST on the Quaver Ustream Channel to learn what’s new in Quaver’s Marvelous World of Music!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ben Sexton November 20, 2013 at 8:11 am

I use the tune, “Happy Birthday,” as my elementary chorus audition piece. It allows for me to see if kids can sing many types of intervals and stay in tune on a familiar piece of music. Usually, I can tell right away if they are going to be able to hear and sing parts when we introduce two part harmony. I also usually have them plug one ear when we are warming up so that they can hear themselves better and make adjustments to their intonation.


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