Motivated by Singing in key/on pitch

Suppose you have a close friend or relative who has a tin ear, i.e. can't carry a tune. You try to sing Happy Birthday together. You wait to start singing until your friend has settled down on a key, and then you quietly come in. As soon as you do, it never fails, this person moves to a different key! You gently drop out for a few notes, and then come back in, in the new key -- which now gives way to some other key. Your friend at some point gets discouraged and leaves you to finish the song by yourself.

How can you help your friend learn to stay in a key?

This question assumes that your friend wants to learn, and wants you to help. How do you go about it?

  • @Dom - What's wrong with tin-ear as a tag? I would like to roll back to reinstate it, but I'd like to check why you removed it before I just put it back in, willy nilly. Oct 26, 2015 at 5:05
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    Tags are meant to group similar questions based on similar ideas/topics. The three tags already on it pretty much describe it without need for the tin-ear tag epically since it is a very focused tag that most likely won't be used again. If you can find some other questions that fit the tag, then I'd say reinstate it.
    – Dom
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:51
  • @Dom - Ha ha, perhaps it's not common here on the site, but it's very common out there in the world! Oct 27, 2015 at 17:15
  • well, don't do what you've been doing, because all you're doing is reinforcing their tendency to wander into different keys! Oct 27, 2015 at 21:44
  • In my experience, age is not much of a factor, except for how it affects available free time. Adults who practice for an hour every day learn about as well as children who practice for an hour a day. If you're not a singing instructor, the best you can probably do for your friend is help them find a good teacher. There are no shortcuts. Oct 28, 2015 at 20:08

3 Answers 3


First, you both will need patience. Learning to distinguish sounds from one another is not a simple process. Imagine if you were color blind and had to reproduce the color blue after only seeing it flash in front of you for a moment. Of course, the obvious difference here is that there is little to be done for color-blind people, and hearing notes / music is basically making the blind, see.

Pursuing this endeavor facilitates Occam's Razor: you need a piano / keyboard. (I'm going to paraphrase several year's worth of childhood aural development into a few bullets below). The bullets are also accounting for the fact that you would be working with an adult, otherwise, I'd leave the animal sounds in:

1.) Start by playing one or two notes at the extremes of the piano. Establish definitions for "high" and "low" sounds (not related to volume).

2.) Ask which sound is higher/lower than the other. Repeat as many times as it is interesting - you can make games here, even turn it into a drinking game if you'd like.

3.) Very gradually, over time (a few weeks of regular practice), slowly bring these extremes together such that after several weeks, the person can play this game using a variety of simple intervals, chief among them major / minor seconds. If you have a string instrument (violin, viola, etc) you can play micro tones to get even smaller intervals.

4.) In parallel with these games, also employ simple melodies (ABC's/Twinkle, Happy B-day, Wedding March, their favorite music, etc) and have them show you the relative pitch of the melody with their hand - the higher the melody, the higher the hand, the lower the melody, the lower the hand. Once they become more proficient, you can teach them the Kodaly hand signs.

4a.) You can extend this by playing various scales in both directions, as well as jumps of various sizes. You can create melodies, improvise them, or have them create a melody and show the shapes.

4b.) Have them teach you these exercises and how to listen for high / low sounds.

5.) Once they have a firm grasp on high/low sounds, introduce matching pitch. Have them be able to tell the difference between someone matching pitch and singing a different pitch.

6.) Have them try to match pitch (visualization: tell them to fit their voice "inside" the sound) as well as try and sing a different pitch. Sometimes if they are a little off, you can coerce them to the desired pitch by meeting them where they are and sliding them up chromatically to the desired pitch.

6a.) Side note, make sure they can physically sing the notes you're asking them to. Children often have a difficult time matching pitch not because they can't hear it, but their voices aren't physically developed enough to do it.

6b.) There's more but I need to stop myself before I end up writing out a whole curriculum.

7.) Additional random games to further develop aural skills:

  • 1 note game: play a note, have them play/sing. Each time they get it right, add a note to the sequence and make it longer, playing the same sequence.
  • Play triads and omit one note; have them sing the missing note.
  • Play a note, have them sing a particular interval above/below the note; move it chromatically/diatonically up/down but have them maintain that interval throughout.
  • Teach them to sight-sing with solfege.

8.) There's always a million more things one could write about this stuff, but hopefully this will give you and your friend/relative a starting point.

  • Thanks for your contribution! Is this based on personal experience, or are you basically imagining how you think you would go about it? Oct 14, 2015 at 17:58
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    @aparente001 This is what I have used in the classroom beginning with Kindergarten students up through middle school. Kids' ears need to be developed just as the eyes. Children who are never taught to distinguish high/low, fast/slow, loud/soft, timbre, texture, and expression have insensitive hearing when they're adults. Before you know it, they accept the poorly written, over-compressed pablum of dance/pop music we hear on the radio. I digress. The techniques I've mentioned are not "too basic" for adults; if you take it seriously, they should as well. Oct 15, 2015 at 3:39
  • @aparente001 It's very important, especially for young children, to coordinate sound with motor-movement. Using Kodaly body scale and/or Curwin hand signals helps people learn to visualize what they are singing / hearing. Curwin hand signals are used by choirs of all ages (even college) and in most colleges are required for aural skill proficiency (along with conducting). Oct 15, 2015 at 3:41
  • My experience is that when re-educating an adult, you don't get the luxury of spending that much time. I think your outline is interesting, but I'll probably have to bountify this question, to get some answers from people who have successfully rescued at least one adult from a tin ear. Oct 15, 2015 at 5:17
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    @aparente001 Fair enough; depending on the situation/person, the above steps could take an afternoon, or they could take a few weeks. If this person really wants to match pitch, they're going to have to make the necessary time. If you don't put in the time, you won't be happy with the result. I can tell you that this is not a problem that will be solved in a single hour-long session. Oct 15, 2015 at 13:22

Consistency breeds success. As this friend practices more, it will stick in his/her brain. They should practice enough so that if you recorded multiple recordings of them singing, it would sound exactly the same, as if they were all the same recordings.

Memorize the pitch. I know this is a very hard task to do from experience. However, starting pitches and ending pitches are the most important. If you get the starting pitch, you're most likely going to get the following pitches correct as well. Also, even with a casual tune like Happy Birthday, your friend would still want to end with the right pitch, because that's the pitch that everyone listening will hear last. Therefore, it should be as accurate as it can be.


I helped a relative learn to sing in a way that others could stand to be in earshot. After his baby was born, he was motivated to sing to his baby for fun and for sleep preparation. I will try to reconstruct the procedure we went through for his transformation:

  • Encouraged him to open his mouth bigger, and corrected shape of mouth for certain vowels so they wouldn't be so pinched.

  • Encouraged him to sing his wordless songs using LA instead of DUM.

  • Taught him the tonic triad, especially 5-1, to help him orient himself, where he was harmonically.

  • Helped him find a key that worked with his range (previously he would start way too high or way too low, and then have problems, and that was pushing him to change key).

  • On his own he tried copying a warm-up exercise the professional singer next door sang every day: sing a one-octave scale going down, then repeat the two tonic notes (high and then low).

  • For singing Happy Birthday with another person, I taught him how to cup his hand next to his face, to connect his mouth to his ear, so he could hear his own voice sort of amplified. This helped him stick to his key.

  • I insisted that we take the time to choose a key he was comfortable with before beginning the Happy Birthday song. Then if he wandered off, I insisted he stuck to his key (this requires patience and cooperation from other family members, or else a very small family).

  • I asked him to sing loud and project to the other end of the house. That got him out of his nose.

  • I bought him an illustrated book of traditional children's songs in his native language.

  • I showed him how to find a comfortable place in his own singing range for a particular song.

  • Baby needed lots of bouncing, rocking and singing, so he got lots of practice.

  • When he got a nice sound on a particular word or phrase, I made a big deal about it (i.e. positive feedback) and tried to get him to go for that type of sound in some additional phrases.

  • A basic repertoire got built up that father and baby came to rely upon. Repeated practice (once father had gotten out of the worst bad habits) consolidated what he had learned.

  • When he had gotten the basics down, we moved to the next level: in the car, on long rides, I taught him simple rounds. At first I had to sing almost inaudibly so I wouldn't throw him off.

  • Whenever I heard him butchering the notes of a song when humming or singing to himself, I annoyingly made him sit down and learn the actual intervals, bit by bit. For example, he liked "My favorite things" from The Sound of Music, and used to sing it to himself around the house with some mistakes. I helped him learn the correct intervals. That enabled him to sing it out with more confidence, which improved his tonal quality.

I think that in a subtle way, baby provided useful feedback.

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