How do singers know if they hit the right notes when singing acapella? You can't check against the piano as you are singing without instruments.


Once the starting note is established (pitch pipe, or just maybe a member with perfect pitch) they use their sense of relative pitch. Players of all instruments that CAN be played out of tune (i.e. most anything you blow, or where there's a string and a non-fretted fingerboard) need this. If you don't KNOW what the note's going to sound like, how do you know you're playing in tune or even hitting the right note?

Singers need it most. Trombonists and violin/viola/cello etc. players need it a lot. Clarinet, flute, sax need it a bit - the right fingering will get you in the ballpark, but you still need to get it in tune (listen to a kids' band to prove the point!) Pianists and guitarists don't need it at all - finger the note, you get the note. (Though it enables them to confirm they DID hit the right one!)

A capella groups often slip flat during a song. They rarely slip sharp.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    I would quibble with "pianists don't need it at all" - if you can't mentally hear what you are going to play, how do you know when you played a wrong note? You certainly don't have time to look at the keyboard to check every note is correct, as well as reading the music! – user19146 Aug 16 '18 at 7:26
  • Quibble noted. Answer modified. Thank you. – Laurence Payne Aug 16 '18 at 7:36
  • 'A cappella'. Capella is a she goat! No, not kidding... It's the nanny state again! – Tim Aug 16 '18 at 8:23
  • I MEANT the ones that sound like braying goats! – Laurence Payne Aug 22 '18 at 13:28

More often than not, someone will play a reference note — on a harmonica, pitch pipe or the like — especially if it's a group, like a barbershop quartet. Once that's established, everyone keeps (sort of) in tune with each other. However, because we tend to sing not using 12edo, there's a slight tendency to end slightly lower than it started. One singer by themselves is usually so used to singing the songs, that they sort of internally pitch.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    is there some reference for ”because we tend to sing not using 12edo, there's a slight tendency to end slightly lower than it started“? – myrdd Aug 21 '18 at 23:42
  • 2
    @myrdd - there is common knowledge that this happens. Not all the time, but there is a tendency, due to some intervals not being mathematically in line, as is with 12edo. – Tim Aug 22 '18 at 6:32
  • @Tim- but the slippage can go just as well in the other direction- depends on the chord sequence. I suspect the general tendency (after having sung in many choirs over the years) to flatness is more because of laziness in making leaps upwards. – Scott Wallace Aug 22 '18 at 18:19
  • 1
    @ScottWallace I suppose we haven't. Indeed, it's not only leaps downward but also scales. People relax too much and each note is just too low. As a conductor it's easier to correct a low pitch that follows an ascending interval because the singer already perceives the level of energy as increasing, and you just have to encourage them to increase it a little more. That is easier than encouraging them to decrease energy less as they descend. And of course certain pitches are more problematic than others. – phoog Sep 18 at 14:07
  • 1
    @phoog Indeed. But this can be carried too far. At one concert of the UC Berkeley choir I sang in, we performed a piece where we started a capella and the orchestra entered after a couple of minutes. We had always gone flat in rehearsal, so we were psyched up to keep the pitch up at the concert. The result was that we were almost a half step too high when the orchestra joined in. The conductor just cut the orchestra out after their first chord and we finished the movement a capella. These things happen. – Scott Wallace Sep 18 at 14:32

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.