Just found this site. I'm an adult piano beginner. I just started studying music for the first time in my life about a year ago and am loving it. It's fascinating. I've been taking piano lessons.

So my question revolves around voice and ear training. I've been watching "The Voice" this season. After some performances one of the judges will say something like "You hit all the notes correctly", or "Your pitch was perfect", or "You were sharp in places" etc. I understand what all that means. But my question is HOW? How does the judge know whether they sing each note perfectly the entire song? And sometimes the judge doesn't even know the song! So how would they know what the notes are supposed to be? This is just mind boggling to me. I've looked at sheet music before with the vocal line. It seems to be different pitches than the actual accompanying music. So how can one know that the singer is hitting the notes or not? Is that possible? And is this something I can train myself to do? I think I have good ear, but have no idea how to know how to listen to determine if a singer is hitting the notes correctly. I listen to their performances but have no idea if they are hitting the notes perfectly. How does one do that? Thanks!

  • 5
    You may want to check out some of these existing questions on ear-training: How can I train my ear for music?, What are the most effective ear training methods?, and Are there any games useful for ear training? Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 18:49
  • 3
    There's a concept called "relative pitch" where a person hearing one pitch will be able to precisely sing pitches that are a specific interval from that pitch. "Absolute pitch" means that a person can, for example, sing a G# when asked. I have always had relative pitch, meaning that if someone plays a C, I can sing a G#. But that C doesn't make it to long-term memory for me. It's not uncommon for musicians to have relative pitch; absolute pitch is pretty uncommon even among professionals.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 0:39
  • Does it sound good?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 9:16
  • 3
    Don't have to use the "exact" notes in the sheet music, can use different ones (Artistic license). Judges are not hearing the difference from the "exact" note. They are listening for every note in the 12 semitones (using the band as a reference) and can hear if they are flat or sharp of any of those 12 notes. And yes, you can get better at it. (a game for matching notes: trainer.thetamusic.com/en/content/vocal-match) Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 16:50
  • I'm sure you can hear if someone is singing horribly out of key. The people judging are likely quite sensitive to pitch deviations from the start, and working with music has in any case sharpened this skill. This means they can hear deviations some of us do not perceive. Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 22:11

6 Answers 6


In Western music, based a 12 note chromatic scale, there are fixed frequencies that are named notes.

Picking an octave at random, and using A4 = 440 Hz as a reference, here are some frequencies in Hz (that is, oscillations per second)

C4  261.63  
C#4 277.18
D4  293.66
D#4 311.13  
E4  329.63  
F4  349.23  
F#4 369.99
G4  392.00
G#4 415.30  
A4  440.00  
A#4 466.16
B4  493.88
C5  523.25

It's important to realise that all of this is relative to A4=440Hz. You could tune a whole orchestra up or down to a different 'A', and all of those frequencies would change too.

Most people process pitches relatively. That is, they process the interval between notes, not the absolute pitch. So if you played me an out-of-tune A on its own, I wouldn't know. But if you played me an in-tune C followed by an out-of-tune A, I would know that one of them was off.

So, alongside an in-tune accompaniment, if a singer is aiming for a G4, they want to sing at 392.00 Hz. The ear is fairly forgiving, so the singer might hit 390.00 Hz or 394Hz and it could sound OK -- indeed a little variance can be pleasant, to make the singing sound human and not too perfect. Slight differences in pitch are part of what makes unison choirs sound good.

If the singer sings at 381Hz, however, they're pretty much halfway between F# and G. We know it can't be the note the singer was aiming for. It doesn't harmonise with the accompaniment. It doesn't sound pleasant.

In some musical traditions, it's a bit more complicated than that. In Blues music for example, some notes are deliberately flattened -- but others are not, and a listener with experience of the Blues would still spot badly pitched notes.


Well, there are only 12 correct pitches per octave. If you are not on pitch, you are more likely than not somewhere else.

Imagine a target range with 30 equally-spaced popup rods you have to hit as they go up randomly. Afterwards the judge, not knowing which rods went up and when, gets to tell you how good your aim is. He'll be able to tell you if you are going all over the place, or if your aim tends to be slightly to the left, or if you are really hitting well, all this without having to know which targets went up as long as they are going up in fixed places.

But the judge actually get to hear the accompaniment as well, and that gives a frame of reference in addition since the actual target is related to the accompaniment as well as to itself. The usual singer's problem is being semi-consistently about a quartertone or less flat, sometimes sometimes particularly as pitches go higher. Then there are high exposed tones particularly prone to problems: those are usually in a very simple relation to the underlying harmony so you'll have to be off by at least a third or so before the judge would have to know the score in order to figure out you're wrong.

Then there are tonedeaf people going all over the place without any recognizable connection to the grid of valid tones.


It is possible that some few people in this world are tone deaf and can not achieve this for various reasons either ear and or brain related. For the rest of us it is achieved through one of two skills, tone comparison and perfect pitch.

Imagine the music in a horror movie (a great example is the shower scene from psycho). Hearing even the slightest similarity to harmonies depicted in a tense moment of the horror movie suggests that notes being sung are out of tune. If, on the other hand, the notes sound like a Disney movie or the beach boys then the note is likely to be on pitch. Many years of practice and experience practicing an instrument (voice being a possible instrument) can give you a refined sense of pitch, some come by it naturally (perhaps simply by listening to music in their youth, though this is speculation on my part).

Some people find themselves developing varying degrees of perfect pitch, which means that they remember something akin to the exact frequency of a note and need no reference to hear this as in or out of tune. This would mean that they can hear if the accompaniment is out of tune as well. This is a rarer achievement, and accounts of people actually learning this skill (rather then simply knowing it) are rare.

So then, how do you know if it is too high or too low? Years of teaching students to tune the guitar has taught me that most do not have a natural sense of this. Naturally I feel that practicing tuning an instrument is a way to improve this skill, but remember the voice is an instrument too. Try practicing sliding in and out of pitch while listening to a reference note (such as one on a reasonably tuned piano). Listening to unprocessed sounds (such as a acoustic instrument) will be easer to discern, all the better if you are familiar with the reference instrument. I have also spent allot of time listening to others tune their instruments.

Beyond this, People seriously interested in hitting or hearing their notes precisely study ear training as @caleb Hines suggested. This study usually involves listening to music and intervals (distances between pitches) and writing down both the rhythm, intervals and pitches they hear (sometimes separately, sometimes together). It also involves training yourself to read and sing the correct notes, intervals and rhythms without accompaniment. The interval training is both harmonic (two or more pitches at the same time) and melodic (two or more notes played one at a time). There are many good books on this, but having a good teacher can accelerate your learning of these skills (It is difficult to be your own judge of your success).

To summarize, some come by it quite naturally and others have to struggle a great deal to achieve this skill.

I find that I am better at this skill on some days than others depending on my mood, my health, allergy season, and the weather. I also find my ears get tired after extended use (concentrated ear training/ listening) and become less accurate.


hitting the written notes is different than singing in pitch. In pitch means you are not slightly flat or slightly sharp. This is pretty easy to hear when you have a decent musical ear (ie you are not tone-deaf.) Most of the public can tell when someone is singing on pitch or not, cuz if they aren't, it sounds "off-key" (sour).

As for the other thing, whether or not they are singing the correct "written" notes, you have to take the judges with a grain of salt. Of course they don't know.


I am a firm believer that ability to sing in tune is innate. I don't believe the judges on america's got talent or the voice is professionally trained, but any person who can sing in tune decently can hear if a person is singing in tune whether they know the song or not and if they don't have the music notes in front of them. You can be trained to hear it if you play an instrument religiously.. its not hard to tell if someone is out of tune especially when there is background accompaniment.. I am a novice violin player and a classical soprano. I just started fudging with the strings. I can be searching for that elusive note up and down the string, but when I hit it right, it just shines at me... ah.. that sounds so much better!


The easiest way to check if someone is in pitch is to play on a keyboard the vocal line from the sheet music along with the vocalist and record both you and the vocalist. You may need to adjust what you play to fit the notes that the singer is attempting to hit.

Then listen to the recording. Any place where the played note and the sung note sound ugly is where the singer sang off-pitch, either deliberately or intentionally. The human ear is very good at comparing tones.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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