Drills For Learning Basic Harmonic Perception

Drill 1: If you are a woman, girl or boy, play middle C on the keyboard. It’s the one near the center of the keyboard. (All C’s are located to the left of the two black digitals.) If you are a man, play the next C lower (to the left). Using a hummy vocal sound that imitates the sound of the keyboard, match the pitch of your voice to the pitch you are playing. Your ear will tell you when your voice is adjusted correctly in that the two sounds will seem to fuse together. If you have difficulty finding the pitch, slide your voice up or down very slowly (like the sound of an accelerating or decelerating automobile) until you hear the two sounds agree and then hold it steady. Be aware that you may find related pitches that sound “right,” but don’t be satisfied until you find the tuning that fits the keyboard pitch exactly. If matching pitches is new to you, you may need to move your voice a seemingly considerable distance to find the “best” tuning. When you hear the two sounds agree, your voice is vibrating at the same speed (frequency) as the keyboard. You are now singing “in tune.”

Drill 2: Play the next C lower than the one you used above. Sing the same C you sang above and tune it until it causes the least disturbance in the combination of sounds. Listen to this relationship. It is called an “octave” because it contains eight scale steps. It’s easy to tune because your ear can decode the perceptual “information” that your voice is vibrating twice as fast as the keyboard. These two pitches sound so similar that we call them by the same name—“C.”

Drill 3: Play and sing the pitches in Drill 2 and then slide your voice up to the next C and tune it. If you are not used to using your singing voice it may seem like a long distance, but it is definitely within reach. If your voice seems to get stuck, try thinning out the sound to make it lighter. If you have difficulty finding the next higher C, sound it on the keyboard. (While most keyboard intervals are not exactly in tune, an octave is perfectly in tune; so it is safe to imitate it vocally.) When you find and tune it, your voice is vibrating four times faster than the C you are playing (twice as fast as the C you started on). Go back and forth from one C to the other and tune them carefully. Listen to the similarities and differences.

Drill 4: Play and sing the pitches you began with above. Now slide your voice upward to a point slightly more than halfway to the C above until you find a pitch that is almost as agreeable (consonant) as the octave sound. When you find and tune it, your voice will be vibrating three times faster than the keyboard’s pitch. To assure that you are singing the correct pitch, tap the white digital that is left of the center black digital in the set of three. Use it only to get a clue to its location, but don’t tune your voice to it. The keyboard can’t play it in tune. This pitch is G. Tune it carefully to the keyboard’s C and listen to the result. This relationship is called a “fifth” because it contains five scale steps (C-D-E-F-G).

Drill 5: Play and sing the pitches you began with above. This time slide your voice upward to a point slightly higher than halfway to the G you sang in Drill 4 and locate a pitch that is generally more agreeable than all others in this area. If you have trouble finding it, tap the white digital to the right of the two black digitals. This is E. When you locate and tune it, your voice will be vibrating five times faster than a C one octave lower than the one you are playing. It doesn’t really matter that you are not playing that C. Tuning works nearly as well using any octave. Listen to the sound of this relationship. It is called a “third” because it contains three scale steps (C-D-E). As you can hear, this third is somewhat less consonant than the fifth and considerably less consonant than the octave. Noticing these differences now will help you learn to identify these sounds when you hear them again.

Drill 6: Play and sing the pitches you began with above and then move your voice from one to another of the three pitches you have just identified. Sing them in order, both up and down, and then skip from any one to any other. Check your singing, if needed, by tapping pitches on the keyboard. (Don’t sustain the keyboard’s version of the pitches.) These pitches are known collectively as a major chord. The major chord is the most basic harmonic structure in tonal music, largely because it consists of easily perceivable relationships reflecting nature’s basic principles of sound.