I find myself hitting the first note of the melody correctly when my singing teacher starts playing the song's chords on the piano, but I have no idea how I did it or how I found the first note. How do singers find the first note when the accompaniment begins playing and they begin singing? What is the theory behind that?

  • 2
    To avoid getting the wrong answer, please clarify a bit. Do you mean that the pianist plays a few chords and then you enter, and you're wondering how you find that melodic pitch from those chords (the answer will have to do with the power of tonal context)? Or do you mean that, even without being given a starting pitch, you're able to hit the first note immediately as the piano starts (the answer will have to do with pitch memory)? Commented May 18, 2023 at 13:10
  • This seems closely related to an earlier question of yours, as well as others about deriving melodic pitches from chords. To make sure answers are as useful as possible, please make sure we know what we're not talking about here! Commented May 18, 2023 at 13:46
  • How do singers find any note?! It's not like most instruments where fingers on a certain place will produce the correct note.
    – Tim
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 15:30
  • @Tim I broadly agree, but while fingers are not involved, a certain physical/bodily coordination will produce a certain note. When I'm very practiced with a particular song/piece/melody, I find that muscle memory takes over and I can come to the same starting pitch each time even without accompaniment (I don't have perfect pitch). Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 22:07

3 Answers 3


The intro establishes the basic tonality of the song, it tells you where 'do' is (if you think in terms of 'do, re, mi...) or where the I chord is (if you know a bit of 'theory'). The intro doesn't HAVE to end on a tonic or dominant chord, the melody doesn't HAVE to start on do or any other note of the tonic chord. We just need to get our bearings. The dart board is over here, maybe low on the wall, maybe high. Focus on it, then go for maybe a 1, maybe a 5, maybe a bulls-eye!
Then, how does the singer actually produce the note that's in their 'mind's eye'? Well, if I said 'sing a high note' or 'sing a low note' you wouldn't have a problem. It's just a matter of refining that skill. Many people do it naturally. Some never get it!

  • Heh, I was thinking of dart boards as a metaphor, though to make a different point: Someone who plays with the same board regularly can probably hit it blindfolded since they're so used to the context; as long as you place them in the same spot, they know how far away it is. In the same way, tonality is "the context"; whether they understand it or not, if you give them a ^1, they know how to start "Three Blind Mice" by finding the ^3. But I'm going to hold off on turning it into a full answer until I'm more sure that's what OP is going for. Commented May 18, 2023 at 17:22
  • The intro establishes the basic tonality - even if you have NO theory! Of course it helps, but the vast majority of people who sing in amateur situations have no theory.
    – Tim
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 11:37
  • @Tim That doesn't seem to disagree with anything I said!
    – Laurence
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 13:09
  • 'if you know a bit of theory' - nit picking, maybe..?
    – Tim
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 13:46

The question's a little vague, but when playing an introduction, the accompanist will usually play a V harmony to bring in the vox. That then means the I will follow, and most songs will use either ^1, ^3 or^5 to start the song. That narrows it down considerably. However, see my comment. Maybe that's a more pressing question to get answered!

  • I'd only add the idea that only playing V is not always sufficient. V by itself could be misunderstood as being I, and even V-I or I-V could sound exactly like I-IV or IV-I. In my experience a foolproof intro includes both IV and V (and more specifically the scale degrees ^7 and ^4, which points our ears directly to the tonic.
    – nuggethead
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 12:39
  • @nuggethead - V7 is pretty conclusive though.
    – Tim
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 15:18
  • indeed it is! I forgot to mention that, but V7 is that conclusive because it contains ^4 and ^7 already!
    – nuggethead
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 17:32

There are multiple aspects to this question, as there is a ton of music which will necessarily behave differently. So I will give multiple answers:

  1. By listening to specific key notes in the accompaniment and taking intervals of this (the interval approach)
  2. By inferring the correct functions to the harmony given by the accompaniment (the harmonic approch)
  3. By feeling (the intuitive approach)
  4. By a tuning fork or something similar

Let’s talk first about the most intuitive ones, 3 and 2. If you know piece well you will know the accompaniment and just "know" the notes by heart. Also singing a specific pitch will require a specific configuration of your vocal muscles. Singing requires you to intrinsically "know" how to setup your vocal muscles to produce exactly that pitch. And when you learn a piece you will learn the feeling of this configuration, which means that with a piece you know well you should be able to find the starting pitch plus/minus something without any external help. So when hearing the accompaniment there will often simply be only one note that fits both the tonality and the body feeling.

Now, if you do not know the piece well enough but if we have clear and simple harmonies you will be able to find a tonal context, from which you can derive specific notes.

If things get more complicated one thing you often find in choir practice is to establish a key note in the accompaniment (or other voices) from which you take a specific interval.

Finally if you’ve got a quite complex or atonal accompaniment you’d use something like a tuning fork to find the correct pitch.

  • It's interesting that if I play an intro in a different key, no.3 can't kick in. No.3 is probably the one most used by non-trained singers - and also many experienced ones, too.
    – Tim
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 9:33
  • I would argue that #3 is always just #2 (maybe even a bit of #1), done unconsciously or even without being taught the underlying principles. When children learn a language they also learn its grammar, long before they study it. Commented May 19, 2023 at 13:42

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