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I've been playing around with pitchlab on my phone. And trying to figure out my voice. How high can I go, how accurate can I be, how well I can hold a tone, etc.

One thing I noticed is that if i pick a note, any note, I can do a scale with that as the starting note and everything sounds OK. I can use it as a reference point for scales or songs and it's not too bad. I may not be able to replicate or find the note later (no perfect pitch here!) but I can sing a scale that is in key with itself.

So my question is, why can I sing in key? Why does my singing sound OK when I'm playing the guitar, or doing scales, even though I don't have perfect pitch? How do I get the notes right even when I don't feel like I have much control over fine tuning the notes that I'm singing?

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You've really got two questions here. One is about relative/perfect pitch (remembering pitches, or just "knowing" pitches automatically); the other is about being able to sing scales without hearing all of its pitches first. – Bob Broadley Jul 26 '14 at 16:25
@BobBroadley I don't know if the perfect/relative pitch is a question. mu intention is more: given I don't have perfect pitch, why can I still sing in key? – stacey Jul 26 '14 at 16:30
With regard to perfect/relative pitch, have a look at these links:……… – Bob Broadley Jul 26 '14 at 16:30
Sure, well it seems like a good question to me, anyway! – Bob Broadley Jul 26 '14 at 16:31
@BobBroadley Thanks Bob. I clarified the question a bit :) – stacey Jul 26 '14 at 16:36
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Why does my singing sound OK when I'm playing the guitar, or doing scales, even though I don't have perfect pitch?

Because you store (memorize) and recall (sing) distances (relative pitch), not addresses (absolute/perfect pitch). The information you use is the amount of change in each note in relation to the last one, not the actual frequencies of every single note. This set of distances is, essentially, what a musical key is.

This dynamic is closer to relative pitch than it is to perfect pitch.

The skill used by singers to correctly sing a melody, following musical notation, by pitching each note in the melody according to its distance from the previous note.

From Music acquisition: effects of enculturation and formal training on development by Erin E. Hannon and Laurel J. Trainor:

Most adults encode and remember melodies in terms of relative pitch (RP), that is, the pitch distances or intervals between notes of the melody, rather than in terms of individual absolute pitches (AP).

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify or re-create a given musical note without a reference tone. With perfect pitch you can identify the name and/or frequency of a note by itself. But you don't need to know the frequencies of the notes to sing a song (unless you want to sing it in a specific key/note/frequency). What you need to know is the relationship between the notes. Something that is, for most of us, much simpler to memorize and sing.

When you sing with the guitar or sing scales, you have a reference tone. All the other notes are sang in reference to that one and each other. You are not singing each note as an individual, isolated, entity. For every note you sing, you have the note before it as reference (and maybe all the other notes, and the tonal center they create).

You might not recall those relationships as intervals, or know what a "major third" or "four semitones" is, but you are still able to store and recall those relationships, more abstractly, as a chain of movements/changes/distances, one related to the others.

All these apply to improvisation too. By now, you have stored that information from the major scale. You now know that set of distances. Given a reference chord or tone, you know which distances are allowed. In fact, that information might be so intensely carved in your brain that singing out of key might be even harder than singing on key.

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The thing is, I don't consciously think "ok sing two semitones above that". I just try and sing higher but not too much higher and it is two semitones above. It's not a conscious choice, I just sing what I think comes next and it's right and I have no idea how I do it or why it works. When I say in key I mean in relative key. If I'm playing a song on guitar in (say) A, I can stay in A and I don't know how I do that, the sounds are just right. – stacey Jul 26 '14 at 18:53
@StaceyAnne I've edited the answer several times. Maybe you missed this: "You might not recall those relationships as intervals, or know what a "major third is", but you are still able to store and recall those relationships, more abstractly, as a chain of movements, one related to the others." – Archundia Jul 26 '14 at 19:01
@StaceyAnne Yes. Among other things, the ability to accurately remember and reproduce those movements/changes. A well-rounded singer wants to have good control of other dynamics, like vibrato, tremolo, timbre, amplitude, articulation, etc. – Archundia Jul 26 '14 at 19:09
+1 for Edit 9, @JCPedroza. I especially like the link to the Hannon/Trainor. – Bob Broadley Jul 26 '14 at 19:59
Muscle memory is a fantastic thing. You also don't think about what your fingers are doing when you open a door, but you know how to do it. The really weird part is when you lose a typical queue and still have to do it. I have a weird thing where if I get hit with a loud blast of high frequency feedback, I can go temporarily tone deaf, but I've still been able to sing by comparing my sound to one of the other vocalists and going almost entirely off of muscle memory for note changes. – AJ Henderson Jul 28 '14 at 18:42

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