International Vocal Coach Chuck Stewart teaching singing for 25 years
Teaching voice for over 20 years

What is "pitchy"?

Can you say "colloquialism"? I suppose it is faster to say "pitchy" than being explicit and telling a singer on which notes they were sharp or flat and by how many cents. We're not talking about pennies here. A note, like a dollar, has a hundred cents. You can be as much as 50 cents sharp or flat. Many people will hear 20 cents either way but fewer will hear 5 or 10 cents off the pitch.

How do we "fix" this problem? We first have to discover why the problem is there. Is the singer not hearing and executing intervals well? Are they not hearing the accompaniment and do they possibly need melodic or harmonic ear training?

Singing is a hearing art. There is an art to hearing, recognizing and knowing what you have heard, being able to "sing it back" to someone and even to be able to correctly write down what you have heard.

I heard examples of a local teacher's singing on her website and was saddened to hear that she obviously does NOT know that she is "pitchy". What's worse is she is sometimes sharp and sometimes flat. Most people will sing off the pitch either consistently flat or consistently sharp. Oftentimes this is a symptom of a transition problem. When the pitch is sometimes sharp, sometimes flat, it can be a multifactorial problem and is much harder to correct. It means that melodic intervals are not known and understood at a conceptual level AND that the basic understanding of how melody relates to accompaniment has never been grasped. Other problems that can contribute to singing pitchy can be hearing damage or even brain damage. If this singing teacher cannot hear this in herself, then how is she going to help her students to sing in tune? She was off 20 or more cents in several instances. She has a fairly consistent tone quality but the intonation is murderous in the recording studio. You can't hide it and engineers usually don't enjoy spending hours correcting the pitch. I heard an engineer tell a singer, "Come back when you learn to sing in tune." Believe me, you do NOT want to ever be told that. It's better to have that under control before ever stepping into a recording studio.

Doing professional audio editing and recording engineering can help one to recognize the amount that the pitch is off. I can certainly say that playing the trombone for decades also hasn't hurt my pitch perception.

I help students with some simple exercises and also some very complex ones. We do this in small increments and by the time we get to the complicated exercises, they seem pretty easy. The ones who practice dilligently sing extremely well in tune. Look for some examples coming up soon on this website.

There is no substitute for melodic and harmonic ear training. Singers should be able to sing all types of tetrachords, modes, arpeggiated chords and every possible interval if they ever expect to work professionally. It is not possible to be too good of a musician, is it? A lack of musicianship and a lack of concept of style can be real career killers. Nothing can take the place of excellent musicianship and a solid conceptual understanding of music theory.

The best singers whom I have had the pleasure of working with have been those who are the most "educated" in music theory.