Darlene Abbott | Music Mom

The 5 Steps for Teaching Pitch


Teaching pitch is definitely at the front of the line of concepts in teaching music. It goes hand in hand with so many aspects of teaching music and yet stands alone. Whether you are in a classroom or children’s choir ensuring these five steps are in place in your plans will bring about your students singing on pitch.  Here 5 steps that can be effective with children in helping them secure the ability to match pitch. Some of the ideas listed below are over simplified but effective.

Step 1 – Vocalises – Vocal Exercises and Scale Songs

  • Teach the four voices.

Singing, Whispering, Speaking, and Outside Voice

  • Use Sound Stories / Vocal Exploration.
    • Use vocal energizers to explore the range of the voice and sing in head tone.
    • Vocal Exercises should simply get the voice going.
    • Have students respond with a sound to represent a word or character in a story.

Step 2 – Pitch

There is an order to teaching pitch.

  • First, we learn sol, mi.
  • Sing up to desired pitch and down.
  • Second, teach do, re, mi
  • Third, add fa by singing from 1 up to 5 and back down.
  • Identify higher/lower pitches
  • Identify melodic direction
  • Match simple intervals and patterns alone and with others.
  • Distinguish same/different short melody phrases
  • Recognize melodic movement as same, step, or skip
  • Sing short solo phrases of call/response songs.
  • Learn to use good sitting and standing singing posture.
  • Begin and end words together.

Step 3 – Steady Beat

  • Steady beat is a foundation of pitch. It is a precursor to instrument playing as well as matching pitch.

                     The author Helen Kemp writes a lot about the voice. She says the basis for pitch is steady beat.

  • Every rehearsal should have a steady beat activity.
  • Steady beat helps brain development and teaches coordination. It also helps children learn to focus and concentrate on the beat. 

Step 4 – Brain Mapping

  • Represent the pitch visually. A simple example to think about is this: If you put the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 horizontally on a board or wall and sing up the first five notes of a scale, there is nothing that visually confirms to the ear that the pitches are going up. This may not seem important to you but check the blog post tomorrow for the experiment I did with my class to see if this really worked. If you will place the numbers vertically with 1 on the bottom and 5 on the top, you will be visually representing the pitches correctly.
  • Add the body scale. If you are not familiar with the Body Scale, see it here. Here is the blog posts on mapping pitches in the brain. Use the Body Scale with a simply scale song.  Kodaly hand signs are also effective with a scale song.
  • Use movement to represent melodic direction – not just the body scale you can also use streamers, balls, and puppets, etc.

Step 5 – The Entire Voice / The Entire Child

When we teach music to children, we are concerned about the whole child and not just a musical concept. Singing is part of who we are. Singing is more than a sound coming from our mouths, it can come from the heart. It can relay emotions, show gratefulness, and send love floating on notes through the air. It can communicate a story, or a political stance, or convey a longing of something dear.

So is it important that the young man in your class, that doesn’t want to participate, learn to sing? Absolutely! Does that mean that you can make him/her? Absolutely not.  I am not naive enough to think that all students are going to love singing, but all will experience singing as a means of expression.  Just like writing, students need to know different forms of expression.  Stephen Sondheim said, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.”

Me too.

Keep Singing,



Using Rhythm to Clean up Performance Material



Welcome!  It is my turn to blog for the Music Education Blogs 31 Days of Rhythm!  I am part of a group of fantastic music teachers and we have partnered together, in honor of MIOSM (Music In Our Schools Month), to share 31 days worth of rhythmic goodies.  Here we are on Day 15.  I can’t believe we are already half way through the 31 days.

Let’s take a moment to look at why we use rhythm syllables to begin with.  I really appreciate the way David Row explains it on Make Moments Matter.

Rhythm syllables were developed so that students could have a musical way to read rhythm. The ideas is that this system could get away from mathematical counting (which feels unmusical) while still showing durations and relationships between notes.  A rhythm syllable system gives the student a set of nonsense syllables or sounds to associate with written notation and beat formations.  Just as solfege syllables (Do, Re, Mi) give the student a tangible thing to say or think when representing an interval or set of pitches, a rhythm syllable system gives the student an easy way to understand note value.  Being able to “think/audiate” in rhythm syllables also helps students to decode rhythms that they hear, making dictation/memorization/performance much easier. 

However, it is fun to swap out rhythm syllables for words centered around a theme, food, a season, etc. I have some apple rhythm words and some pizza rhythm words that are undated and can be used anytime of year that I use in my class. For this post we are going to refer to those as fun rhythm words. Words like…..

  • “pep-per-ro-ni” or “moz-za-rel-la” for four sixteenth notes,
  • “pi-zza” or “ba-con” for two eighth notes,
  • “pan”, “pie”, or “crust” for a quarter note,
  • “me-di-um” for triplets,
  • “meat-lov-ers” or “pine-ap-ple” for eighth / two sixteenth note pattern,
  • “mmmm” for a half note,
  • “dominos” for two sixteenth/ one eighth note pattern.

Be creative!

One of the ways using fun rhythm words is most effective is when I need them to clean up a performance piece we are learning. Currently we are working on a piece that has a rhythmic speaking part. It mixes 8th note triplets and 8th notes and sixteenth notes. The kids were getting it for the most part but it was muddy. I used the “fun rhythm words” to duplicate the rhythm in the song. I placed the appropriate fun words under each beat that would help us clean up the rhythm.  We marched in place while saying the rhythm, had a small group keep a steady beat on drums or rhythm sticks, and made the rhythm notation with our bodies.

The next time we were working on the performance piece, we made the connection of the muddy rhythm in our song to the rhythm, with the “fun rhythm words”, that we had fun with in our previous class. We replaced the “fun rhythm words” with the original words from the performance piece and it was so much cleaner.

One of my favorite sayings is:

You can give a man a fish,

he can eat for a day. 

You can teach a man to fish,

he can eat for a lifetime. 


This is more than just a fun activity, it is a teaching technique that you can use with any performance piece you are teaching. Even if the section needing work is sung and not spoken as in the example. If you have other rhythm words that you like to play with, then use those.  The point is you are now armed with yet another technique that you can use, no matter what performance piece your kids are learning. The next time you are teaching a piece and a problem arises, you now have a method with which you can confidently fix the problem.

Thanks for sharing in the 31 Days of Rhythm and continue to check the Music Ed Blogs for more rhythm ideas for the rest of this month.