Finding Their Voice

Ready to give up on that tone-deaf student? Think again. Many scientists agree that everyone is born with some degree of musical potential. What happens between birth and age seven, however, can be the difference between tonal proficiency and tonal deficiency.

When a child is born, he is thought to have seven basic intelligences: spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, music, and linguistic. A common misconception is that the music and linguistic intelligences are directly linked. Yet one study tells us that while linguistics is an acquired functionality, music is built-in.

So, if musical intelligence is hard-wired, why can’t some children match pitch? We could ask ten different professors and scientists this question and get ten different answers. As a former mentor and music teacher once told me, “Children are not by nature tone-deaf. They simply have not been taught to find their singing voice.”

Making the Connection

Let’s go back to the beginning. When a child is born, little connectors are being formed between all the cortexes in his brain.  These are formed simply by the child’s daily life experiences and interactions with others.

The first time a baby hears the sound of a toy choo-choo train, he does not automatically picture that choo-choo train in his mind. Nor when he sees a picture of a choo-choo train does he automatically hear its sound in his mind. It is only through repeated experiences of seeing the picture and hearing the sound at the same time that a connector is formed between the auditory and visual cortexes of his brain. This may happen at experience #12 or #212. We don’t know. But at some point, a connector is formed. For the rest of his life, if he sees a choo-choo train, he will hear its sound in his mind and vice versa.

Pitch works the same way. Since studies suggest there is, in fact, a universal pitch center, we should offer experiences to help connectors form between that pitch center and other areas of the brain. Think about how to combine an exercise on pitch with body movements or how to visually represent the pitch while singing.

Look at the following pattern.


There is absolutely nothing that says to young children that these pitches are going up and down.

If we represent visually what we want them to sing, we place the numbers like this.

A Classroom Experiment

I hid a set of step bells behind a tri-fold board and played a series of pitches up and down. When asked to identify the direction of the notes, children got half of them right. I tried have them echo the pitches, but they had no reference for the direction. After six weeks with no improvement, I removed the board and tried again, both with a glockenspiel and with step bells. The flat area of the glockenspiel offered no help visually for direction. When the students saw the movement of the mallet on the step bells, their accuracy improved. What they were seeing matched what they were hearing.

I led the children to echo-sing intervals and scales. We would sing the first five notes of the scale: “We are singing up. We are singing down.” After six more weeks, I hid the bells once again. Their answers were now 75% correct. Why? Because connectors had been formed between the auditory and visual cortexes.

I continued the experiment using the Body Scale (some teachers prefer hand signs) while we sang the scale with still more improvement.  This is called Brain Mapping.  We were mapping pitches.

Pitch cannot be relegated to the ear alone.

Six Steps To Better Pitch

Here are six steps to improve the overall pitch of your choir.

  1. Do vocalizes.
    These are vocal exercises. Make sounds like sirens. Go up and down with the voice. We need to know that child’s voice can move in the given direction before we can target a pitch.
  2. Do lots of scale work.
    Don’t just sing up and down the scale. Have fun with it. Use fun scale songs. Try what I call the “Ladder Run.” Basically, this is holding each degree of the scale as a whole note before moving on to the next note.  This gives children time to listen for the pitch and to those around them.
  3. Place the pitch on the body.
    Pick your method and stick to it. Be consistent with either the body scale or with hand signs.
  4. Do not use a CD when teaching a song until children know the melody really well.
    Use CDs for fun music songs. But for performance songs, try to keep the pitch on an instrument they can clearly hear. There are so many sounds and instruments on tracks that the melody is easily lost.
  5. Represent portions of the songs visually.
    It is not necessary to represent the entire melody visually. I usually represent parts of the song with large intervals, or phrases that are the same but end differently.
  6. Work on steady beat.
    Author Helen Kemp writes a lot about the voice. She states that “Steady beat is the basis for good pitch.” This philosophy has worked well with most of my students.  Kids who struggle with pitch also struggle with steady beat.  When we worked consistently on steady beat, the overall pitch of the choir improved.

Making these six steps habits in your teaching will help your students map pitches in their brains.  Ta-ta for now… Keep Singing!


Darlene Abbott

Darlene Abbott is a writer of preschool and children’s music and curriculum. She created Preschool Praisentations with Kathie Hill and has contributed to many products by LifeWay. Darlene is the creator of the Music Mom Products. She travels as an instructor and clinician for choir leaders, music educators, Children's Choir leaders, and day school teachers as well as women’s events.