Are We Pitching It Right? by Mannie Burn

An in depth study of the importance of pitch and a clear step by step process to implement accurate pitching with children from an early age, by Mannie Burn. (BKA Newsletter, Summer 2002)

What is meant by pitch?

Basically pitch is the higher and lower of music. We hear tunes which get higher and lower in pitch all the time, and part of our emotional response to music comes from the pitch shape of a tune. For example in the Singing Bird folk song when the tune soars high like a bird I feel a pang of tenderness. An instrumental melody, e.g., the cor anglais solo in the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony may bring about an emotional response especially when the well known theme is then repeated at a higher pitch. Some tunes have been written which are extremely clear examples of melody which perhaps descends and then ascends through a scale e.g. Autumn Leaves in Banana Splits (very useful in KS1).

Why is learning about pitch important?

Along with beat and rhythm pitch is one of the main elements of music that musicians need to be acutely aware of. To sing we need to memorise what sound to sing and then reproduce it, this involves assimilating pitch. All players of string instruments need to be able to play their notes in tune – where they place their fingers is vital to the sound. In order to be able to do this, players need to know exactly which sound needs to come out of the instrument inside their heads before they play. Other instruments such as the piano and guitar allow learners to get away with not doing this.

Perfect pitch?

I think that pitch recognition and discrimination is usually an underdeveloped skill in most adults. However, we are apparently born with a natural ability. Recent research has shown that babies have the equivalent of a photographic memory but for sound, ie perfect pitch. They can apparently retain particular sounds and sound patterns and distinguish them from others. Some adults keep their ability to do this and have learned to label the pitch they hear as a letter name, A, B, B flat, C, F sharp etc. People without perfect pitch may have found out that an orchestra always tunes itself up to A, so when we hear this process we can say “ah, that sound is an A”. People with perfect pitch will know that sound as an ‘A’ and be able to reproduce it to order without the help of an orchestra or instrument. I have noticed a fair amount of mystique around perfect pitch. Many teachers that I have met think that perfect pitch is an indication of musicality. This is not true. Although perfect pitch does mean you have a sensitive ear and a memory which can remember sound which could be helpful, I think being musical is more to do with how you use sound once you know it within.

National Curriculum and QCA

The National Curriculum requires that we teach children about pitch, and it is very open about exactly what to teach. The QCA recognises that understanding of pitch can be developed through introducing a n ever increasing range of pitches, the units get progressively more involved pitch wise. However there is no mechanism in the scheme by which the children really build a solid grounding in pitch. As we know there is a good deal of flexibility in the National Curriculum. The question in my mind is: what experience of pitch do we want to offer our primary school children?

Most of the schools I visit take what I would call a general approach to pitch in their music teaching. Pupils are offered an experience of pitch which is broad ie ‘pitch is the higher and lower of music, tunes get higher and lower, we label sounds with letter names, have a go a writing a tune which gets higher or lower, how does the change in pitch effect the way you feel about the music?, use pitch sensitively to achieve the effect you want…’ Pitch is explored in varying degrees in a general way, which may or may not have a sense of progression.

Teachers using Kodály principles take this general approach and develop it into something more specific. They offer a progressive training which enables pupils to develop a sensitive ear which can discriminate between different pitches, sing them, label them physically with a hand sign, read them from notation, and understand the various ways in which sounds can be combined and used to achieve effects. This kind of training is combined with learning about the other elements of music, and taken as a whole provides children with a deeper more detailed understanding of music than the National Curriculum seems to require. I believe it is possible to cover the National Curriculum syllabus through voice based Kodály training if the voice work is extended to instruments and the children are introduced to all styles and genres of music through their songs and listening experience. Instrumental playing becomes far easier when it is linked to what the children already know from their experience of singing and their analysis of that experience. Kodály training is a holistic musical training for children: one in which the ear, the emotions, the mind and the technique are being attended to at the same time.

Obviously the teacher needs to be skilled enough to help the children, and here we touch on the thorny issue of training, however, I believe the amount of actual musical information needed to equip children with a basic level of understanding in pitch is manageable by the average teacher with some INSET training and a belief that it is worth going to the trouble of developing some skill in this area.

Step by step progression and the introduction of labelling pitches

I tend to think of each step having a sequence of activities and skills to go through. once you see how you can work with the sequence with just two pitches, you can go through the same process but just adding in a new pitch. In this way all the notes of the pentatonic and eventually the whole diatonic scale are introduced. I think the way to make this step by step progression successful is to have the right songs for your children and to do plenty of games and creative work with them. Hunting for songs and looking at them as opportunities for learning has become a big part of my preparation. I only feel happy about using a song when I am sure it fits the bill: it must have interesting words and tune, a stimulating game to play while singing it and offer a clear example of the pitch (or rhythm or other element of music) that I am wanting the children to explore.

When dealing with something as intangible as sound, it is very useful to have a way of labelling the different pitches. Most of the songs we sing use notes from either the major or the minor scale so the labels relate to the degrees/notes of the scale. Kodály teachers use solfa labels, that is ‘do’, ‘re’, ‘mi’, ‘fa’, ‘so’, ‘la’ ‘ti’, ‘do’ (d,r,m,f,s,l,t,d’) for the first to the last note of the major scale (I won’t go into the minor scale now as it complicates matters). It doesn’t matter which starting pitch you use, the scale will always use the same set of note relationships and be recognisable as the major scale. Giving each degree of the scale its own syllable helps us to memorise tunes and sing them in tune. As well as the syllable, a hand sign for each pitch is added to give a physical representation of pitch. Those familiar with the ways that children learn will know that some children will learn more through physical experience, while others will find visual or aural experience easier. Solfa provides all three and can link up marvellously with the musical stave later on.

I have met several people who feel uncomfortable about using solfa. I think this is because they think that it is hard to learn and has a rather old fashioned feel to it. I myself found it a bit troublesome in the first year of my Kodály training mainly because I was going at an adults pace and trying to absorb too much in one go and also I wasn’t very good at practising! Remember that solfa is a tool for labelling what we hear. If we don’t hear it properly it is asking too much of ourselves to label it. Now I have used it for years I find extremely useful: when I hear simple tunes I automatically hear them in solfa in my head and when I look at tunes written out on paper I can hear them. This has given me a lot of confidence, it has helped me sing in tune and as I do not need a piano to help me know what the sound is I can learn songs anywhere. I love to see children finding that they can identify pitches too.

If you want to try teaching pitch incorporating solfa my advice would be to take it slowly and build up your skill alongside the children. You might also want to go on a course. As preparation try to accustom yourself to just the so and mi pitches. You could do this by finding a set of five chime bars which make the pentatonic scale do re mi so and la. Three examples of this would be either C D E G A or D E Fsharp A B or F G A C D. Play around with them, listen and then isolate just so and mi the G down to E, the A down to the F sharp or the C down to the A. Notice how they sound – like the ‘coo-ee’ call or the song ‘Rain rain go away’. Try adding the hand signs for just these two pitches.
I mentioned earlier that having songs that the children enjoy is vital to the success of this step by step approach to pitch development. It is also important that the children know these songs before the work begins so some planning in advance is helpful. In Reception the children can start to build up a bank of songs. Learn the songs just for the fun of the games and to develop their singing voices. Later on when the children come back to these songs to work on their pitch and rhythm, they already know and enjoy them. I have purposely used young children’s songs, as the children are usually ready to start focused work at the end of Reception or in Year 1. Older children still benefit from this work if you can find a way of helping them to sing ‘baby’ songs. I have had Y6 singing Rain Rain because they are interested in developing their ear but in the same lesson they would also be singing When I’m 64 and working on a complicated rhythm round. The point is we all have to start at the beginning. We are learning something similar to a new language through the solfa – a language which is going to let us in to the world of musical sound.

STEP 1: Focused work on ‘so’ and ‘mi’ (s-m) songs

The aim of this step is to help the children distinguish between these two pitches, name and label them and then to use them in creative ways to write their own songs and play them on percussion instruments.

I start this work when the children are singing confidently and reasonably in tune. Sometimes this focused work can actually help children sing in tune, because they really have to listen and they see it visually too through the hand signs and on paper. I must stress that this focused work is most successful when given a very light touch and does not dominate a lesson – I usually do 5 minutes out of a 20 minute lesson. This sort of listening can be very tiring, and the notes ‘s’ and ‘m’ are boring if laboured. Try changing the starting note of the ‘s’ every so often if you feel the need for a change of sound. The ‘m’ is always in relation to the ‘s’ so you can start ‘s’ anywhere. Always move on to a contrasting song, one of your favourites perhaps, when you sense the children have had enough and preferable while they are still enjoying it. A little and often is ideal for pitch development.

  1. 1. Learn the song from memory yourself, e.g. See Saw.
  2. Teach the song and practice until known from memory.
  3. Get physical with the pitch! or play the game. Ask the children what they notice about the pitch and can they show you how it looks through some sort of body movement. Children can work in pairs to show the pitch, standing for the higher note, sitting for the lower one. If the song is a game involving clapping or movement play it first and enjoy it.
  4. Become specific – introduce hand signs. Demonstrate how the pitch can be shown by hand signs and try them out. Be precise with the hand shape – it helps the children to clarify their understanding. For older children you may need to explain the bigger picture about the solfa names and the whole major scale first. I sometimes say that what we are doing is to build up our listening skills so that we can recognise any of these pitches just by ear and that I have found it best to do this gradually, starting with s-m.
  5. Introduce solfa/singing names. I do it in this way:
    • all practice singing song with words and hand signing
    • all practice humming the song with handsigns
    • all practice singing the song to solfa syllables and signing
  6. Play with the above, e.g. teacher signs- children sing and visa versa. Change the starting pitch for ‘s’
  7. Find other ways to show these pitches, e.g. ask “How could we write down these pitches?”

    There’s no need to include the rhythm just yet. I sometimes show my way. Using visual ways of showing the pitch may help some children understand the difference more clearly, e.g. write in circle/footballs/smiley faces above the line for ‘s’ and below the line for ‘m’. This will lead the way for standard notation.

  8. Reinforce these 2 pitches by revisiting other known s-m songs, e.g. Fire Fire and Cherry Pie. Go through the process as in no 5. Write out these songs too.
  9. Reflect on the sound s-m. Talk about these 2 sounds. Ask whether they remind anyone of any other songs or bird sounds. The Cuckoo perhaps or the Mumm-eee/Dadd-eeee/Coo-eee call?
  10. Try starting the other way round, i.e. m-s. Which songs start this way? Postman Pat, The New World Symphony – as used for the Hovis advert.
  11. Improvise using ‘s’ and ‘m’. The teacher signs and the children sing. Children can work in pairs to create their own s-m patterns. Include some examples that start m-s.
  12. Play s-m songs on instruments ie chime bars/xylophones/keyboard. For children who can do this, playing s-m songs on tuned instruments will be easy. A child who can hand sign a song will usually be able to play it on a xylophone or piano once you show them the notes. I let the children play their songs as soon as they can, but wait until a few more pitches have been assimilated before any extensive work on instruments because at this stage using only 2 notes it can be a bit dull on the ear.
  13. Combine singing names with rhythm notation. If children are familiar and competent in using rhythm notation the class can write out the rhythm of known s-m songs and then add the solfa syllable underneath. This is called stick notation.
  14. Experiment with stick notation and be creative. Try introducing a s-m song through stick notation. The class could first clap the rhythm then sing the solfa. Finally add the words. Play on instruments.
  15. Use rhythm flash cards and play games with solfa eg. “When you see a ‘ta’ sing ‘s’, when you see ‘ti ti’ sing ‘m’.

STEP 2: The next stage comes when the children are confident with s-m and m-s. The next pitch to be introduced is la (l). You can use much of the above sequence, but this is how I introduce ‘l’. I sing a well known ‘s’-‘m’ song but change one of the pitches to ‘l’ Can the children tell me whether this new note was higher or lower than ‘s’? If they can I tell them its name and show the hand sign. We all try it. Revisit an old song, ie one the children already know which has s-m and l. It might be Bounce High. If they do not know one then teach the song a few weeks before you plan start the focused work on l.

  • Notation: Once the children can aurally identify the difference between s-m and l and can sing from hand signs and we have done some improvising using different combinations, ie l-m-s , s-l-m, l-s-m, m-l-s, m-s-l, I show them how the hand signs would go on lines and spaces and therefore introduce some notation. I do not rush into this stage but sometimes it does help clarify the differences. I do it like this. Have a huge stave of 5 lines so that you can put your hand on the lines and in the spaces and make the hand signs. Stick with the ‘s’ on (optional) either a line (second line up) or a space (third space up) to start with. No clef is needed. Pupils read from your hand until they are ready to read notes in its place.
  • Sing in 2 parts: Children divide into 2 groups, you hands sign for one group with one hand they hold your last note while the other group sings to your other hand.

STEP 3: Introduce ‘do’. I find Ickle Ockle Blue Bottle is good for this and the children enjoy the game.

STEP 4: Introduce m r d. “One for the Mouse” and “Good News” are good for this, and there are hundreds more. Find your favourites.

Continue with composing, improvising and flash card games as above making links to rhythm work. It is vital to offer a variety of stimulating ways to go over the same pitches and to expect that the process of discrimination will take time to build up.

STEP 5: Introduce songs using only smd and smrd and use the ideas in the sequence.

STEP 6: Teach several lsmrd songs to prepare the way for working with the whole pentatonic scale. eg Engine Engine, Fire in the Mountains, Starlight , Janey You See Nobody Pass Here? After this you may need more training. The British Kodály Academy runs workshops and part time courses throughout the year and an Easter and Summer school. It also has a range of good song books.

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