How to Learn to Hear Pitch

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How to Learn to Hear Pitch

I recently had a student ask me that they have troubles hearing pitch on the flute. They explained to me that they play other instruments and have no troubles. This quick article will help you understand what it takes to really learn to hear pitch.

First of all, let’s define pitch as being the ‘exact tone’ you’re aiming for. When people say they need to learn to play on pitch, they are actually saying they need to learn to play on tune. These are saying the same thing.

It just takes time and practice

The great thing about instruments is that you can press buttons, put your fingers in a certain position on a string, or pluck something and voila, the tone is created. The issue we have here is figuring out how to be sure the pitch you hear is the perfectly on tune one.

If you play an instrument like the piano, you’re not really in control of your ‘intonation’ (being on tune or not). You press a button, and what it plays is what you hear. If you play an instrument like the violin, you are in charge of the pitch (mostly) because you can move your finger either higher or lower on the string to find that center of the tone.

When you play the flute, there are many variables that go into getting your pitch right on. First of all you can put your instrument together a little longer or shorter by either pushing in or pulling the head joint out from the body. Another big variable is blowing harder or softer. There are even more ways to play on tune, but for the purpose of this article we’ll stick with how to learn to ‘hear’ if you’re on or not.

I remember watching a great flute teacher years ago. She was tuning a line up of young children of varying playing ability. I was mesmerized at the speed she could determine if a student was flat or sharp. She only had to hear a quick second of a note, and then she’d tell the student which direction to fix their pitch. They’d adjust and be off on their merry way. I really wanted to be like her. I asked her how I was ever going to reach that level of listening. She told me these words, “it just takes time and practice, and you’ll be doing this also”.

So, I set out to learn how to be able to hear exact pitch with my own little ears. I started with the tuner machine because it ‘shows’ you which direction (from exact pitch) your tone is. The more I watched this and learned to adjust my flute. The better I got at it.

Also, I play a game with myself occasionally called, “am I flat or sharp”. I also play this with my students. It is fun, and really really helps speed up this learning process.  I use a piano that is dead-on as far as pitch goes.. this way I don’t accidentally hear bad pitch and get used to it..  I play a tone on my flute (purposefully sharp or flat), and then ask the question to the student, “Am I sharp or am I flat?”  The student then has to guess one or the other. If they are correct, I move a little bead on (10 beads per row) an abacus over. If they are incorrect, I move one from another row of the abacus. Once we have played this enough times to have one row ‘win’ because all of the beads have been moved, then we have a winner… is it the student or the teacher who won? Treats are awarded accordingly, and usually the student wants to play again.

You can always make something fun up with yourself to practice listening for exact pitch. It’s not only an important skill, but it raises your level of musicianship when you become really good at it. And, that’s kind of the point of playing the flute, right?
Good luck with this. I hope you enjoy learning and reading about becoming a better flute player. I hope to see you again soon where we’ll discuss another subject about playing the flute.

Have any questions? Comment below and I will help you out.

Rebecca FullerRebecca Fuller
Get Flutie with us! Learn and enjoy every musical minute.

7 thoughts on “How to Learn to Hear Pitch”

  1. I also find that, while rolling the flute slightly inward or outward changes the pitch down or up if you go far enough, rolling it just a little leaves the pitch pretty-much unchanged but changes the timbre of the note. This seems to be what you are discussing on Day 4 of the Tone course – the color of your personal sound. I find that setting the position of the head joint, and hence the tone hole sets the timbre/color for the piece. I guess rolling the flute on the fly could change the timbre for individual notes, which could be good but which is way beyond my pay grade at present!

    1. David,
      Great ear! Being able to recognize the small changes in pitch is sometimes the hardest part in learning all about the flute. Sometimes it takes a long time for individuals to hear it. I applaud you for applying this information to what you have learned in other areas such as the Tone Course as well. You’re a great student. Keep up the good work! -Rebecca

  2. As a child i don’t remember my instructor working on pitch or teaching how to change the embouchure to produce the correct pitch. We were more concerned in learning fingering, reading music and staying together.
    As an adult I hear when I am out of tune on specific notes because I’m playing in a group. We tune as a group and I try to change my embouchure when playing but there are certain notes that go “off pitch.”
    My most embarrassing moments is having the conductor go down the section to listen to our pitch. It can’t be changed by flute head placement. It’s just the “note’” is off pitch.
    I hear the pitch but don’t always know how to play specific notes in tune especially in the upper register. Suggestions?

    1. Hi Judy, it’s common to not know much about tuning at first. No worries, I’ll help you with this. If a note is just ‘way off’, you need to consider that perhaps a. flute mechanism is having a problem (cork has slid or something wrong with rods/screws/springs etc) b. head joint should be pulled out or pushed in c. embouchure needs technique work – let’s explore and continue improving. Great subject – thanks for the comment. Let’s talk more about this at an upcoming call. Rebecca

  3. I love that you always know what I’m working so hard to improve! And yup! It is the pitch or tone.
    I’ve been playing w/the tuner on and I get my flute properly adjusted and then
    I’m sure the flat and or sharp sounds come from me, the player. I’m working on the ambusher and I have been listening and can tell most of the time………….flat/sharp or just “not good” tone quality. grin.
    I’m looking forward to the tone course again. I need it very much. I am very concerned about the proper technique w/ambusher and aperture because I know improving depends on these skills.
    I know you’ve told the story about a music teacher that had to reset you playing in order for you to achieve a beautiful sound. Without her guiding you to this overall technique where would you be?
    I know I need help in this area too. I hope I can discover or get help discovering the proper technique
    with air stream to consistently play in tune. What a challenge! I’m up for it! And I’m working on hearing the sharp and flat sounds in every note! thanks vawn

  4. Very helpful…this for me has always been very difficult. I always tune my guitar perfectly to an electronic tuner and double check across the fretboard. Then I try to match my voice with the pitch, With flute I struggle to find the right position for the head joint against all the variables of breath, aperture, embouchure, and position…which do I correct? The tone course is helping and I am confident that paying attention to this in practice will pay off. It’s really my number one goal right now. Thank-you!

    1. Hi Cheryl, there are quite a few factors/variables that are associated with pitch- you’re right. The first spot to look at is how far in/out your head joint is. Then, look at your embouchure next – how tight are you? You’ve heard me talk about what loosens it up so you can aim your air stream correctly.

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