Patricia Lee explains how we can help children to acquire ‘pitch’

Children that arrive in the nursery already able to sing in tune, and with some awareness of musical pulse, are those who have been exposed to the right kind of musical experiences. These may be many and varied but will certainly have included singing, being sung to and probably bounced up and down on somebody’s knee.

It is, however, a sad fact of life that fewer and fewer children are being given the opportunity to share songs and rhymes with their parents: this role having been handed over to children’s television programmes, CDs and videos.

But even the best quality recordings cannot respond to a child’s excited cry of ‘again, again’, or take part in improvised vocal games. Yet these are the very things that are needed if a child is to begin learning how to sing in tune.

Babies and young children do not know how to sing the same note as another person, but when using the voice in a playful way to sing songs, chant rhymes, hum and imitate noises, most children will accidentally sing the same note as another person, and in doing so they will experience a physical sensation known as the point of unison. The desire to repeat this pleasant experience then encourages further playful use of the voice.

So to help the children who cannot yet sing in tune, you must increase the chance that they will accidentally sing the right notes and discover the point of unison.

1. As with all musical activity, participation is vital so work on having fun and building confidence.

2. Help children to develop vocal flexibility.
Chanting rhymes with exaggerated expression is a good way to introduce vocal play and encourage more flexibility. Finger plays are excellent for this, from Two Little Dickie Birds Sitting on a Wall to the less well known, Four Little Flowers.

Four little flowers hiding from the snow, Out came the sun and one began to grow. Along came the wind and what did flower say?

“Please, Mister Wind – don’t blow me away!”

Flowers (fingers) hide in a clenched fist and then grow one at a time with each one speaking to the wind in a high-pitched voice. When the children know the rhyme, you can become the wind and blow their fingers, or they can blow yours.

3. Sing often and at a pitch that suits the children’s voices.
Children need to sing very frequently. They should view it as being as natural as speaking. Sing with the children at every available opportunity: a good morning and goodbye song, a tidy away and a wash your hands song, and of course, songs that support learning in all areas of the curriculum.

Young children’s vocal chords are short and their singing voices are therefore higher than most adult voices, so be careful that you are not singing too low. The ideal pitch is between d and b.

4. Sing unaccompanied.
Children need to compare their own singing voices with another singing voice. Pitching notes from a piano or other instrument is much more difficult and is something that older children and even some adults find tricky.

A guitar may be used to strum a few chords that support the tune, particularly if you are singing to the children, but otherwise, singing should be unaccompanied.

5. Use songs with a limited pitch range.
Everyone will have heard young children using the playground taunt na na na naaaaaaa naaaaah, (so me la so me) a sequence of notes that is used by children in many countries around the world. The Hungarian music educator, Zoltan Kodaly, identified these intervals as being the easiest for children to sing, so it makes good sense to teach songs that use these simple intervals; songs like Rain, Rain Go Away and Bye Baby Bunting.

These songs are being taught to help children find their singing voices and discover the point of unison. Adults will not necessarily find them very appealing, but the children enjoy being able to sing them successfully and they will soon be able to add more notes, and remember more complex melodies.

6. Use songs that have opportunities for individual singing.
To experience the point of unison, a child must be able to hear himself sing and be able to compare it with his teacher’s voice. Singing with a group of children who are not all on the right notes can make this very difficult.

Young children are not usually embarrassed about singing on their own so make use of songs that call for individual responses. The more they sing on their own, the faster they will learn to pitch.

Once a child has begun to pitch some of the notes, there begins the process of exercising and gaining control of the muscular mechanisms involved in tightening and relaxing the vocal chords in order to produce the right notes at will. Singing frequently will give the children lots of opportunities to practise and gain control.

Children who sing below pitch do not usually get to the right notes by degrees. Provided they are given plenty of opportunity to use their voices in vocal play, chant rhymes expressively and sing songs with a limited pitch range, it is far more likely that one day they will just open their mouths and sing on the right notes.

Children who sing too high often just want to hear their own voices. Individual singing is obviously important and you can try appealing to the imagination by getting them to pull their voices down from the sky before they begin singing.

Remember, it is perfectly normal for everyone to sing in tune so don’t make too much fuss when they do. A ‘well done’ or ‘that was lovely’ is all that is needed. Then give yourself a big round of applause when you get home.