7

As someone who sings for fun, how do you guys tell what note someone is singing? The reason I'm asking this is because with an instrument, you can easily tell as long as you memorize that note; however, in singing, each voice has a distinct color. So how can we tell? I can tell the relative position of notes to each other but that's it.

7
  • 2
    When someone asks me what note, the reply is 'the right one'... – Tim Feb 24 at 12:30
  • 2
    @Tim - I hope you don't teach kids then. – chasly - supports Monica Feb 25 at 16:48
  • @chasly-supportsMonica - why? – Tim Feb 25 at 17:11
  • Why do you need to know the note? For example, if you hear someone singing a song, you sing the same notes you hear. Why do you care whether any given note is an E or an F? If you're singing "for fun," it doesn't matter in the least. Checking with a tuner seems contrary to the idea of doing it "for fun" unless you like playing with electronic gadgets. – phoog Feb 26 at 15:13
  • Cause I'm OCD. When I commit to something, I like to do the best that I can; that for me is "fun". It's also easier to become better at something when you put in more effort. Simply singing, without any knowledge, is a waste of effort imo. Why put in more work and get less out? The fun part is digging deeper into the art itself. – skyfox009 Feb 26 at 16:42
10

The "what note" question has at least two different dimensions to it: absolute and relative pitch. For simply singing the same notes you're hearing, you don't need to know either of these.

What absolute note am I hearing

You need to know the absolute named pitch in the following situations:

  • If you need to play the exact same note or accompanying notes on an instrument.
  • If you need to write a transcription of the notes.

And that's about it. I can't think of other reasons why you'd need to know the absolute pitch. For singing you don't need to know it, because most people can sing the same note they hear - perhaps in a different octave - and for the few who can't, knowing the absolute note name won't help their inability in any way.

How to identify the absolute pitch?

  • (A) You have perfect pitch,
  • (B) you play a reference tone on an instrument with known pitches and compare the note you hear to the known reference tone, or
  • (C) you use a tuner device that has a pitch display.

Playing a reference tone is like calibrating a tuner. People who have perfect pitch have a fixed factory A=440Hz reference built in the "tuner" in their head so they don't need to calibrate. But for everyone else, they have to first calibrate their tuner to a known fixed reference tone. If the reference tone is wrong, their pitch identification will be wrong too.

What relative note am I hearing

Relative pitch means, what is the heard note relative to a pitch (or chord) or scale, real or imagined. For me, this is much more useful for singing, because I can imagine the notes I hear on an instrument and "play" the notes as I'm singing. Maybe someone likes to see the notes on a music staff in their minds, but I don't do that. But anyway, knowing the relative pitch I can sing backing vocals by imagining intervals relative to the melody I'm hearing, and it doesn't matter if my imagined key is absolutely correct or not. And I can accompany the melody on instruments, floating in the stream of incoming notes, even if the instrument is randomly transposed or if a guitar has a capo somewhere.

9
  • Worth noting that in the general population, only about 0.05% of people have perfect pitch. Among musicians estimates range somewhere between 1-10%. Way more musicians have perfect pitch compared to the general public, but it's still quite a rare ability. The vast majority of musicians still need a reference or a tuner. – J... Feb 24 at 21:23
  • I contest something as extreme as "1 in 2000", which is rarer than many genetic disorders like Down syndrome. Besides, a 100-fold increase in musicians again defies common sense - are musicians 1 in 100 themselves? A proportion of 1 in 10,000 is widely reported, but not supported by evidence according to the wiki summary. Additional pro-western non-tonal language country bias at work here. – obscurans Feb 24 at 22:17
  • @obscurans Whatever the number, the point is that it's small. As for the defying of common sense, I think that only applies if you're willing to make the assumption that perfect pitch is strictly genetic (I don't think evidence supports this). Nevertheless, amongst musicians the number is quite well known, so even if by training some minority of people can develop perfect pitch, the overwhelming majority of the rest of us just slog through with tuners and pitch references. The point is that OP should not feel disadvantaged for not having perfect pitch - it's quite normal. – J... Feb 24 at 23:39
  • 1
    @J... No, it's way simpler than that. If it's claimed that 0.05% of all people have it, and yet 5% of musicians have it, by sheer arithmetic the number of musicians cannot be more than 1% of all people, and that still requires that every single person with perfect pitch becomes a musician. That is defying common sense. If the supported stats say multiple % of musicians have it, there's no way it's 1-in-1000+ in the general population. – obscurans Feb 25 at 6:51
  • 3
    @NickMatteo That would only include people who are professional musicians, i.e. people who list "musician" as their primary source of income. The actual number of musicians is probably much higher. I'm a computer programmer, but I play the piano (reasonably well, though not well enough to make a career out of it), does that make me a musician? – Darrel Hoffman Feb 25 at 16:00
5

If you have perfect pitch you "just know". This is a skill partly inherent, partly trained.

If you don't have perfect pitch, then you find an instrument & play notes until you find the matching one, then you know because you know the name of that note on the instrument.

If you're just singing along & don't need to actually name the note, then it often doesn't matter what it's called, so long as you can hear it & reproduce it accurately…. 'playing by ear'.

2
  • As I'm still new to this, a lot of time I still need a tuner to help me know what note I'm and the artist is on. So knowing the note would make my life a lot easier-). I'm still working on the producing it by ear part as I tend to have trouble with the starting notes. – skyfox009 Feb 24 at 12:53
  • 3
    Knowing what the note is called & 'feeling' what note to sing are two different skills. You don't actually need the first to be able to do the second. – Tetsujin Feb 24 at 12:57
2

How do you 'memorise a note' played by an instrument? You mean 'it's this fingering, so it's this note'? Well yes, that works, to a point!

You listen. You'll need a reference pitch - 'perfect pitch' is a rare skill, not something you can reasonably expect to develop. A tuner or a keyboard instrument will let you put a name to a pitch, but that isn't all that important. What you probably need is not the knowledge 'That's an A' but the technique to imitate it with your own voice.

If you have the notated music to a song and it starts on (say) A, use an instrument or a tuner to show you an A.

1
  • 1
    You can memorize instrument notes! I've played the violin enough to recognize what sound a note is. Same with the 440 A from a tuner. Maybe it's practice, maybe it's (very limited) perfect pitch. – user3932000 Feb 25 at 2:42
2

Often times the main melody notes of a song are chord tones (roots, 3rd's and 5th's) of the underlying chord progression. So if you play a piano or guitar along with the song as you sing it and are trying to figure out what note you're singing, if you start by just checking the chord tones of the current chord you're playing you're going to find it very quickly most of the time. I do this all the time with new songs I'm learning from chord charts online. I've been playing music most of my life, but only started singing 2 years ago, and this was a big ah-ha moment for me when I realized it. I mean I guess it seems obvious when you think about it, but it seemed like magic to me when I figured it out, and it still does :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.