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Music Theory Pitch Perception & Sightsinging

Theory Home | Counterpoint | Solfege

by Dr. Peter Gries

Musical pitch perception, like rhythmic perception, is a multi-leveled construct. The ability to maintain levels of pitch perception, the ability to sing pitches accurately and in tune depends on one critical and primary factor: pitch memory. The dependability and length of your pitch memory could be taken as a measurement of your musical talent and skill. For example, singing a scale in tune is not a matter of singing successive intervals accurately, a whole-step, then another whole-step, then a half-step etc. It is a matter of "tuning" the successive scale steps to a remembered tonic. To do this you must be able to maintain two levels of pitches in your aural memory: the background pitch of the tonic against the pitch of whatever scale-step you are singing.

Singing melodies accurately from notation adds another conceptual level to the process. Just as we do not learn to sing scales accurately with a note-to-note process, learning to sight-sing melodies is not a matter learning the sounds of intervals, then plugging in each interval as you proceed note-to-note through the melody.

One of the characteristics of tonal melodies is that when we sing them musically, all the pitches are not perceived as being equal. There are pitches that control and shape the flow and direction of the melody, which we could term "structural" tones, and there are tones that embellish or prolong the structural tones. The embellishing tones can be classified as to type, and these types are surprisingly few in number: neighboring tones, consonant or chordal skips (these are called chordal figuration in the text, p.74). Two or more chordal skips constitute an arpeggiation, and passing tones (that usually serves to "fill in" the chordal or consonant skip).

Although pitch memory is a gift, there are exercises you can practice to develop and refine your pitch memory. One is to sing a scale, ornamenting each scale step with neighbor notes. This involves pitch memory on three levels: the background of the tonic against which the scale steps are sung, and the background of the scale steps against which the neighbor notes are sung. Here's the procedure:

  1. Sing a major scale, ascending and descending, using solfege syllables.
  2. Sing the scale again, "bending" each scale step to go to the diatonic upper neighbor and back (a complete neighbor note) ascending up the scale, while singing the solfege syllable of the scale step. Sing diatonic lower neighbors on the descent.
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  3. Repeat, this time singing half-step neighbors instead of diatonic neighbors. This is more difficult because your have to differentiate in your memory between the chromatic neighbors and the diatonic scale steps.
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  4. Sing the scale again, this time ornament each scale step with a consonant skip of an ascending diatonic third and return to scale step.
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From this point you can devise your own embellishing patterns. For example: you can

  1. fill in the consonant skip of a third with a passing tone, on the way up, down or both;
  2. ornament the consonant skip with a neighbor note-upper or lower, diatonic or chromatic;
  3. ornament the passing tone with a diatonic or chromatic neighbor;
  4. ornament each scale step with both upper and lower neighbors, chromatic or diatonic;
  5. ornament each scale step with the double neighbor group (go directly from the upper neighbor to the lower neighbor -- or vice versa, -- skipping the return in between to the scale step);
  6. ornament each scale step with two consonant skips, one above, one below;
  7. ornament each scale step with two consonant skips in the same direction, creating an arpeggiation.
  8. ornament one or more consonant skips with some kind of neighbor note. The possibilities are endless, limited only by your imagination.