The Tyranny of Pitch

Two Definitions

Giving vocal lessons – Suffering torture for half-hour periods several times daily.

Teaching singing – Inducing the pupil to think, compare, make deductions and act accordingly, to the end that skill to make an artistic use of the vocal instrument in singing may be acquired.

Where there is little real thinking by the pupil, there is little progress, and results are unstable.

Take the matter of the Tyranny of Pitch.

Most beginners are in fear of so-called “high” tones. They must be convinced that within the natural compass of the voice (and this is very seldom a restricted compass) there are no “high” tones. The vocal organs have no “pet” pitches, no pitch prejudice.

Affirm positively that at the very beginning of study the vocal instrument is full capable of sounding, without undue physical effort, what the pupil has erroneously thought of as “high” tones.

Urge the pupil to refuse to remain longer subject to the Tyranny of Pitch. Point out to him that the staff, with the notes “climbing” up and down the latter, is an instrumentalist’s, not a vocalist’s mode of representing pitch. Insist that all pitches are sounded – that is, generated – at the same point in the human throat. Namely, the larynx, and that the machinery for tone generation is there, at the first lesson, and fully capable of sounding either relatively high or low pitches within the natural compass of the voice, if the motive power be applied in a skillful manner and the vocal instrument left in absolute freedom to do its work automatically. Show that the tonic-sol-fa notation, where the letters d-r-m-f-s, representing the first five notes of the major diatonic scale, are printed as here, on a level, and not upon a staff ladder climbing up and down, is therefore a real “singer’s notation.” Affirm that so-called “high” tones are not to be climbed or pushed up to with effort analogous to that involved in ascending a ladder, but to be “taken for granted,” as ready to spring out with spontaneity when the singer shall will the realization in sound of a pitch concept.

Affirm that the apparatus for sounding “high” pitches is always present at the first lesson. Explain that “training” does not apply any new vocal machinery, but brings correct thought development of muscles, and skill in the free, untrammeled use of the vocal organs. Point out that you are not talking about “power” of tone but about “pitch” of tone – the sounding of so-called “high” tones without undue effort.

As the best way to know of a doctrine is to do the work, prove to the beginner the truth of what has been told him by setting him to doing something with the vocal organs to which he is accustomed – something which will seem “perfectly natural” for him to attempt. This is, to use the light, conversational voice. Let him say in a very light, cheerful, conversational tone, beginning at a medium pitch and with a very rapid rising inflection and gradually lighter voice, as though greeting an unexpected and most welcome visitor.

“Why, how do you do?”

the voice reaching the highest pitch on the word “do,” dwelling an instant, and falling lightly, portamento, an octave or more.

Give the pupil a pattern and let him imitate. Keep his mind thoroughly occupied with the matter of imitation. Cause him to forget the question of pitch.

Now, start a trifle higher and carry the word “do” to a slightly higher pitch. Everything possible must be done to keep the pupil’s mind fully occupied with matters other than the item of pitch; also to keep him interested, with a smile in the sound, his body comfortable, free, elastic. Let him smile, drop the head slightly and allow the body to bend a little from the hips as he speaks, as though bowing to a newcomer.

After a moment or two, while he is speaking, touch the piano as he reaches the word “do” and it will be found that the pupil has spoken on a much higher pitch than ordinarily he would believe himself capable of singing. Affirm that if he can speak clearly and agreeably on a pitch he can come to sustain a tone in the same fashion.

The sentences

“I am very glad to see you.”

“It is a very fine day.”

may be used with advantage in the same manner.

Another valuable exercise in this connection is the following:

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Instruct the pupil thus: On “Yaw” throw the jaw down with a light, quick, flexible action, the tongue tip following the lower front teeth; let the jaw hang motionless, floating in the air. Without taking breath, or moving jaw, lips, tongue, or head, using a light, short aspirate (H), pronounce the O in the word Hong as “Aw,” first distinctly thinking the upper pitch. So far as physical effort in the vocal instrument is concerned, make no more effort than was used to pronounce the “Yaw.” Simply refuse to do so. Take the attitude toward the voice that if it will not sound the upper pitch under these conditions the pitch may remain unsounded – you refuse to do anything more than was done on the lower pitch, except to will the realization in sound of the pitch concept on hawng.

If the old habit of making additional effort to sound a “high” pitch is still too strong with the pupil, precede the above with the following:

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Proceed as for Ex. A, and repeat many times. Now again affirm that the throat would as soon give the upper note of Ex. A as the lower one, and ask the pupil to test this – make an experiment upon himself, as it were, using Ex. A. In this work it is of great advantage to smile and bow as described in connection with the doing of the sentences above.

The above work is based upon certain universally accepted principles of tone-production and of teaching. The instructor who has a firm grasp of fundamental principles need never be at a loss for exercises or devices with which to deal with any studio problem. He can make his own to meet the individual and special needs of pupils.


Wodell, F. W., “The Tyranny of Pitch”. Etude Magazine: April 1917: 268.

One thought on “The Tyranny of Pitch

  1. I really like the perspective you have when it comes to the voice student. One of my professors used to say, “Stop thinking vertically, music is horizontal in nature and so is the voice!”

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