A while ago, one of my parents asked a good question. I passed it along to Miss Allison, and she sent me a great reply. I thought you all might find this conversation as helpful as I did.
The question from Mom: When do kids tend to get good at matching pitch? The first time I heard Emma (named changed) sing I was kind of shocked that she sounded so off-key, but then I realized that most little kids seem to sound like that.
I’ve always loved singing, and Emma seems to really like it, too, so I was looking into a chorus for Emma to start in a couple years, and then my husband said he thought Emma was kind of tone-deaf like he is sometimes, but I’m hoping it’s something she’ll get better at, and she seems to be.
Miss Allison’s answer: Matching pitch is a pretty advanced skill, although there are children as young as two who can do it. My experience has been that kids sing accurate intervals way before they match pitch with an instrument or another voice.
I hear kids signing the “right” song in the “wrong” key so to speak, in Our Time (ages 18 months to 3.5 years) on a regular basis and in Imagine That (ages 3 to 5) all the time. By Young Child, (kindergarten and first grade) they get better and better at matching pitch with me, though it is still a pretty on and off skill. They will get the pitch, but be flat, usually. It is also easier for them to match my sung pitch than it is for them to match the glockenspiel or the bars.
There is a certain amount of physical development that has to take place before children can really sing. The larynx has to drop (happens in infancy) and they have to be able to force enough air through the larynx to make the chords vibrate. So, the lungs and diaphragm need a certain amount of strength to support the voice.
Even if the child hears really well and has good pitch match at a young age they will continue to go flat until they are able to support their voice on some level. A lot of kids sing in a kind of monotone drone for the first few years, the voice is rising and falling in the basic pattern of the song being sung, but they are not really singing. It’s more like speak-singing.
In the end, I think pitch matching is a skill that can be taught; especially if a child is hearing good quality pitch sung live at an early age. (I’m not talking about good quality vocal production- just clean pitch- and most adults can do that if the range is reasonable.) Then, having some kind of good quality music classes in the early years – Kindermusik, of course, and music in the elementary years will teach that skill.
When I taught 6th grade, everyone could match pitch. By that time, the students had begun to distinguish who could sing and had a lovely voice versus who could match pitch, and I noticed that kids who could match pitch but weren’t passionate about music or the ones who had an average voice began to be less and less interested in music. And therefore, more and more badly behaved in music class.
It is sad, because some of those kids who didn’t have super voices could have gone on to be stars. Search iTunes for Tom Chapin and listen to any of his songs. There’s a guy with an okay voice, but great pitch, and incredible diction, and an ability to sing a story. (To really hear the skill of singing a story, listen to his “Goose Town Halloween.”)
I knew a girl who was as tone deaf as a rock until she was about 6 or 7. She joined the children’s choir at church and the director, a wonderful teacher and incredible woman, taught all the kids how to match pitch, including our little formerly tone deaf friend. I thought it was hopeless… honestly, I did. She recently went to college to major in Vocal Studies. If she can learn to match pitch, I swear anyone can!
-posted by Miss Anita, whose intention is to give parents of seemingly tone-deaf children some hope!