Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Learning to Sight-Sing from a Standing Start

I joined a choir, and I decided I wanted to learn to sight-sing from scratch (*).

After about six months (**) (practising most days, I got interested), I can
sight-sing fairly well. I still struggle 'prima vista', but given a written melody I can work out what it sounds like fairly quickly without using an instrument. And I'm getting better and better at 'prima vista'.

I'm told this is good progress, so I thought I'd describe the things that worked for me:


Firstly, I really loved Mark Philips book: "Sight Sing any Melody Instantly":


Within about a week of starting it, I could puzzle out what written music sounded like, and I could write down various tunes that I knew well. (Both with great difficulty and lots of trial and error!)

It took me maybe a month to work through the 'Songs in Major' part.


I hadn't found the excellent "Vocal Pitch Monitor" android app at that point:


But I'm sure that if I had, it would have really helped. Once I did find it, I used it all the time.


Another thing that I wish I'd found earlier is the "Functional Ear Trainer" android app:


Which teaches you to hear the various notes in the context of a key. As
well as helping with singing and transcribing, this has really
sharpened my sense of pitch, and I now automatically whistle and sing
precisely in tune without thinking about it, and without drifting sharp or flat.

I've actually spent a lot more of my time messing around with this app
than I probably should have. If I'd spent a bit less time on it and
concentrated on practising sight-singing instead then I think I would
have made faster progress.


As well as pitch, you also need to get the hang of rhythm:

I also loved Mark's book on rhythm: "Sight Read Any Rhythm Instantly"


and I used the methods described in the book to work through:


this "Rhythm Trainer" app:



A few "philosophical" questions that I still had about rhythm even after reading Mark's book
and working through the Rhythm Trainer were answered by the Rhythm and Meter section of Bruce Taggart's
excellent Coursera course 'Getting Started with Music Theory':

That's really helped with writing down rhythms and knowing which time signatures to use.


You'll need lots of practice materials, and for that I recommend this excellent free book:

"Eyes and Ears" by Ben Crowell


which is a lovely collection of real melodies in increasing order of difficulty for practising.

You can download a pdf for free, or there's a high-quality printed version available from Lulu for $7.39.


Finally, I should say that Mark's book is mainly focussed on singing
in Major Keys (or the Ionian Mode), where it excels. There are short
sections on the minor key and on figuring the sounds of chromatic
notes, but I didn't find them very useful.

Although Mark uses numbers instead of do, re, me, his system is morally do-based minor.

When it came to learning how to sight-sing Minor Keys and in the
various modes (which are very important in the folk music that I
like), I decided for theoretical reasons (***) that I preferred the idea of:

La-based Minor  (or 6-based minor for me!)

(again, Bruce Taggart explains this best)

This has worked really well for me, and I've ended up
with one system of singing that works for all songs.

But it's generally a method preferred by singers and schoolteachers
and seems to be looked down on in academic and instrumentalist
circles, who generally prefer the do-based minor method.

I can't comment on which is quicker, but la-based minor seems to be easier to start with, and easier to use in practice.


For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I'm not being paid by,
and in fact have never communicated with, any of the people whose
stuff I am recommending. They're just the things that I found really
useful out of all the things I tried, and it seems to me that they
might be helpful to others starting on the same journey.

 (*) When I started out, I knew lots and lots of songs, and could whistle and sing quite well, but the only sense in which I could read music was that (from primary
school) I could read the treble clef from C4 to E5 in the sense that
'this note is an A so use two fingers and your thumb on a
recorder'. Which was no help at all, especially since I'm invariably singing off the bass clef.

(**) actually the six months was spread out. I first read Mark's book about two years ago, and learning how to sing in major came quickly (about a month's work), although I wasn't very good at it.

That was actually good enough for choir purposes, since *even though almost all our songs were modal*, that allowed me to use printed music as a crib to remember things once I'd heard them.

Earlier this year I decided that I wanted to learn how to sing all the various modes and keys 'prima vista', researched various methods and looked for helpful tools, and I've been working on that for about five months solid.

(***) The fact that I could kind of already sing all the modes using Mark's method for the major key was the principal factor in deciding me that I wanted to use la-based (or 6-based) minor.

I also wanted to avoid the need to pre-analyse music to work out what mode it was in before being able to sing it, and I wanted to be able to sing things which were ambiguous in their modality. 

Mode is a very subjective, slippery concept, whereas key signature is an objective, solid thing. It seems better to build on rock than sand!