Develop your ears through some basic techniques and you’ll discover to musical possibilities that you didn’t know existed –says Kristine Adams
Every singer has experienced, at least once in their life, a time when they start singing a song on the wrong note.
I heard this happen at a jazz venue in New York City to a now famous singer – this challenge hits even the most musical of musicians.
So, here are some steps you can take to find your note:
1. Discover Your Song’s Tonal Center
To avoid this happening to you, you need to be able to hear the key’s tonal center (the “home” pitch or note around which all the other notes of the song relate) and to know what the first note of the song is in relation to that tonal center.
The challenge for singers is that they can’t push a button or a key to get a note like instrumentalists do, so they have to depend on their ears and their musical brain.
For example, take the song “Over The Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz.
If we sing it in the key of C (a scale that uses all the white notes on the piano starting on the C and ending on C an octave higher) then we have to start on the note C because that is the starting note AND it is the tonal center.
2. Use the Song’s Introduction to Find That Center
But songs don’t always start on the tonal center. In fact, a song can start on any note of the scale (key and scale are synonymous). For example, Happy Birthday starts on the fifth note of the scale/key.
Learning all the notes relate to each other (called intervals) is part of learning music theory.
One purpose of the musical introduction that a musician plays is to prepare and set up the key before you sing the song.
So knowing what note the song starts on, and its relationship or interval is to the key is important.
3. Get into Scales
Studying music theory will teach you about writing and knowing scales, keys and intervals.
And studying ear training will teach you to understand all the notes that you hear in music so that you know what they are when you hear them.
Then you can write them down and you can also read notes when presented with sheet music.
This is called sight singing.
If you develop your “ears” through ear training then you can use this skill in many ways. For example, you can come up with background lines to sing on the spot or you can improvise accurately using notes of the chords/scales/key of the moment.
You will open up your ears to new possibilities that you didn’t know existed.
Face the Challenge
Yes, there are singers who are born with “good ears” and with perfect pitch.
But it never hurts to know basic music theory and to have studied ear training and sight singing.
Being able to read music puts you on the same level as musicians that you work with who read music. It gives you more confidence. It gives you more control. Just like a language, if you can read, write, listen and speak, you will understand what’s going on around you!
Kris Adams is a professor at Berklee College of Music where she teaches jazz/pop music theory, voice and ensembles. She is also a busy clinician, and has given clinics and workshops throughout New England, in LA and recently in Brazil and Italy. Kris also balances her teaching with a performing career and has released two CDs on her own label and has just released her third disc titled “Longing.” In June of 2011, Gerard & Sarzin published her book, Sing Your Way Through Theory (Hal Leonard).