How Do you Sight-Sing?

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I recently had an interesting conversation with my friend Sarra about different approaches to sight-singing – how some people think more in terms of key and others in terms of the intervals between notes. It turns out that we both use some of both, though possibly with rather different emphasis. I commented on how I am always surprised when I see how much of an emphasis some really quite distinguished colleagues in the choral profession seem to place on thinking in intervals in rehearsal and audition compared to thinking in keys.

Later that day, Sarra sent me an email in which she had these further thoughts:

….but about people in the English choral tradition tending to sing by intervals...

What happens in rehearsals? In-context (i.e. accompanied or in harmony) work of course, but also...

'[part name], here's your line:' [bashes out on piano, often with octaves for good measure]


It's true this happens pretty much universally as most parts need to make sense as lines whoever's singing them. But I have a feeling there is a lot more *bashing* in esp. community choirs. Not sure about church but if you have a lot of music to get through in a very short time...

Now, my initial response to this was that she’s probably onto something, but I wondered what was chicken and what was egg. Are people thinking in intervals because they hear their lines bashed out in octaves, or are they hearing their lines bashed out by people who are already thinking in intervals?

And then I went on to think: actually, this kind of bashing approach is really only a very concrete level of rote learning. To be thinking in either intervals or keys is a much more cognitively-processed approach – indeed these are the means by which singers become independent from rote learning and can start to figure out what to sing themselves.

Now, the reason I am surprised that there isn’t more focus on tonal thinking is that it strikes me as a more secure way of finding your way through sight-singing. If you can hang onto where the key is, it is much easier to get back on the rails when you make a mistake, and the instincts you developed as a child learning to sing by ear are of positive help to you.

Interval singing keeps your focus on each note and its immediate neighbours. It’s a more localised approach, in which each interval is make-or-break right or wrong, and makes much less use of longer term musical memory as a guide. Sight-singing tonally, a wrong note is simply a wrong note; sight-singing by intervals a wrong note becomes a wrong starting point for all subsequent notes.

(A further – and unnecessary – difficulty for interval singing for people who had their early aural training in the hands of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is that their aural tests always tended to focus on ascending intervals, so you got very little practice going downwards. Whereas most music I’ve encountered goes in both directions, in pretty equal measure!)

Of course, there are times when intervals are precisely what you need. Thinking in a key is actively counter-productive in post-tonal music, for instance. But I can’t help thinking that if we spent more time thinking tonally we’d have more confident and secure sight-readers about. Kodaly had a point, you know.


And actually - coming back to that, remembering your comment about ABRSM teaching upwards intervals (and my entire interval training was indeed through aural tests) - it occurred to me that one of the times I look for the tonal centre might well be (or have been) when I've got a tricky downward interval.

I think you're right that the line-bashing approach isn't really the same as 'thinking in intervals' at all - which is an interesting and productive point to come to from where we started! Case in point - someone who's learnt a line very well by rote may not be able to name the intervals in it - or, if they're not too shabby at naming intervals in general, may still not be able to sing bits of the line out of context.

Would it be fair to call such a practice a Gestalt, do you think?

You started off brilliantly by acknowledging that good sight-reading consists of both intervallic and scale-degree recognition, then fell right into the trap of trying to pick which one was better. And when singers learn their lines by having them "bashed out" on the piano, they aren't sight-reading at all, but rather memorizing by rote.

As for getting "back on the rails", I think there should be more emphasis on this topic, since in my experience the good sight-readers aren't those who never make a mistake, but those who can recover quickly when they do. But most often, that recovery stems from finding one's notes in relationship to other voice parts or the accompaniment.

Maybe sight-singing training should have a component emphasizing looking at what's going on in other parts. This would serve both understanding where one's note fits into the harmony (a much bigger, and more useful, concept than just scale degrees) plus this enhanced recovery ability.

P.S. Not only "post-tonal" but also pre-tonal (Renaissance) music doesn't fit well into the solfege system.

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