My sight singing is my weakness
May 21, 2018 4:23 PM   Subscribe

I want to improve my sight singing. My voice teacher says I need something like Rosetta Stone for sight singing. Please help!

* I've taken courses to no avail.

* I've tried this site ( which plays intervals and asks you to identify them and tells you whether you were right or wrong, but I never get any better at the intervals. My voice teacher says that site presents a passive exercise and I need something active, e.g. singing the intervals and learning how they feel rather than just hearing them and identifying them.

Are there sites/apps that will show me intervals and grade my performance singing them, something like Rosetta Stone for sight singing?

This really feels like an insurmountable challenge for me, like something my brain just cannot get any better at, but other people improve at this so maybe I can too despite my doubts.

Thanks for any help!
posted by whitelily to Education (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
When I had to learn music for All State under very tight timing, they would send us along both the sheet music and two recordings of the music itself, one with just my part and one with all of the parts being performed. They did this because studies had shown it was something like 8x faster for us to learn the music if we did so by reading the music and singing our part while listening to the same piece of music. I wonder if doing something like this would help you correlate what intervals look like in sheet music to the feel of the intervals in your throat.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 4:47 PM on May 21, 2018

Perfect Ear for Android! It's a really brilliant app and does exactly this, as well as lots of other exercises. You can pick and choose.
posted by lokta at 5:10 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Vocal exercises for intervals. Forgive me if this is something you've learned - it might help others.

Sing: (where 1 is e.g. C, 2 is D, etc, singing the C major scale. The numbers are the words you have to sing as well as each note's place in the scale - the "scale degrees")

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 (one octave up and down)

1 - 1 2 1 - 1 2 3 4 3 2 1 - 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 - 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1 - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

1 2 1 3 1 4 1 5 1 6 1 7 1 8

These give you experience in both singing isolated intervals and in counting them step by step. If you have a note and you want to sing a third up, sing the note and call it 1 - sing 1 2 3 - the note '3' you end on is the note you were looking for. If you want to sing a fourth down, sing the starting note and call it 4 - sing 4 3 2 1 - the note '1' you end on is the note you were looking for. (Oddly I was only ever taught the counting up and not the counting down.)

There are a couple more levels but honestly this is key if you haven't been taught it - I promise you professional musicians still count out troublesome intervals step by step!
posted by lokta at 5:35 PM on May 21, 2018

I have the same issue. Despite multiple sight-singing classes in college, which I passed, I still really struggle with it. I swear that I have something like dyslexia for music notation.

I searched youtube trying to find an interval song we used to sing - found lots of other things but not that (you might have fun searching youtube for interval songs). You name and sing all the intervals and it's a start at recognizing them. If you think that would be helpful I can record it and send it to you.

You asked for apps and while I've tried several I haven't found anything that was really quite what I was looking for. What has helped is getting a book of short songs I don't know, picking a song, singing it through slowly, and then playing a recording to see if I got it right. I thought it would be fun to get someone to strip the title and lyrics from sheet music for familiar songs and then I could see how long it took me to figure out what song it was - haven't tried it yet tho.

You can also try count-singing intervals. Like for Mary Had a Little Lamb you'd substitute "Three Two One Two Three Three Three" for the words. I sometimes find this helpful when struggling with a new piece.

I know this is hard, and I hope you find the tools that will get you the results you're looking for. Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 5:46 PM on May 21, 2018

Have you tried using the intervals you already know from familiar songs? E.g. Interval Song Chart Generator. Of course for me, this falls down at the point where I have to recognise the intervals from the sheet music, but quite possibly you have better reading skills than I do!
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:47 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

For generating sight-reading exercises I really like Sightreading Factory. You can choose the key, range and level of difficulty. Start easy singing in moveable do in comfortable keys, then expand the range and keys. Worth the nominal cost.

Also: do you use solfege? You should be. Solfege songs that you know and sing them that way, write in the solfege for new songs you don’t know and sight-sing that way’s a good intermediate step and will really, really help you with getting your intervals accurate.
posted by charmedimsure at 6:30 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I so relate to your question. I thought ear training classes were such a challenge! I felt so much more vulnerable in them than in the hardest math or science class or playing my instrument in front of an auditorium full of people. I came here to recommend solfege singing along with the hand signs. Some of my college ear training courses were taught by a dr of music education and it was the only way of learning that really sunk in for me. With a quick google i see there is an app called Solfege Singing Trainer for macs (i havent tried it) and there are several youtube videos. As frustrating as it can feel, solfege plus sitting with a piano practicing scales and intervals can be very helpful. Good luck!
posted by river99 at 6:51 PM on May 21, 2018

Thanks for the answers so far. I strongly prefer numbers to solfege, as solfege just adds an extra layer for me: (1) identify visually what the interval is, (2) identify orally what that interval sounds like, (3) try to remember the solfege syllables. Even though I theoretically know the solfege syllables, I know my numbers faster. Is there any reason to use solfege instead of just numbers? E.g. do-mi-so versus 1-3-5?

(Honestly, by the time I’ve even done steps (1) and (2) above for the first interval, the whole damn song is over!)
posted by whitelily at 9:47 PM on May 21, 2018

With numbers, as far as I know there’s no way to account for accidentals- if you are in the key of C, B is ti in solfege and Bb is te.

When my friend the choir teacher teaches her middle schoolers to sightread, she has them write the solfege in for literally every piece they sing. It takes forever at first, and they get faster and faster as the year goes on. At the same time she has them sightsinging a couple exercises with Sightreading Factory a day, starting with a range of maybe three notes and just quarter/half notes and equivalent rests, and expands from there as the year goes along. By the end of the year they can sightsing pieces it would have taken them a half hour to solfege in August.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:02 PM on May 21, 2018

Honestly, the best way to learn to sightread on voice or any instrument So much. You’ll fail a lot to start, so accept that and go slow and limit the difficulty for a while. Learning the solfege part of the equation is part of the gig; it’s painful but SUCH a useful skill in the end.

My 2nd year orchestra kids often start the year as non-readers, but as we practice the skill they get better at it. I just spent the better part of a week sightreading with them after our final concert and the same kids who wanted to write in every. finger. number back in August loved spending a bunch of days chewing through new stuff without too much effort. You can do this!
posted by charmedimsure at 10:10 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

How long were the courses you took? My music school makes you take 3 years of sight-singing classes. It's 2 1/2 hours a week for 10 months of the year, and at the end of the three years, you're considered to be an intermediate-level sight-singer. I'm at the end of the third year, and I can sight-read somewhat complex things ok, but I still can't sight-read the stuff I'm supposed to be singing in my voice lessons, because it's a whole other level of complexity.

Or, in other words, it just takes a lot of practice and a lot of time. Also, at least according to my teacher, one of the advantages of solfege is that it's easier to sing than either the letters or numbers.
posted by colfax at 2:34 AM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was taught CheeseMonster's method for learning intervals. ("Here Comes the Bride" = perfect 4th, etc.) And I also learned on scale degree numbers, but switched to Solfege because it was easier to accommodate accidentals. "Fi" is easier to sing than "Sharp Four" on an eighth note!

After that, it was just practice, practice, and more practice. In addition to what was in my sight-singing text, I found the hymnal very handy.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:39 AM on May 22, 2018

Meant to add - I would practice sitting at the piano, so I could play it back after singing it and see if I was right.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:42 AM on May 22, 2018

If you have ever played a musical instrument, it may help to practice some scales and arpeggios.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:40 AM on May 22, 2018

In my experience there are two different ways of hearing intervals. The first is in relation to the harmonic structure of a piece and the second is in relationship to other notes. A good way for practicing the first way is to sing intervals over a drone. Just practice singing simple melodies and really concentrate on how each interval sounds in relation to the tonic. The second way of hearing is a bit more abstract and generally involves sitting down at a piano and just doing drills.
Also it is very much worthwhile to learn fixed solfege. By linking vowel sounds / mouth shapes with intervals you are associating multiple senses with the memory of each one and will generally learn them quicker. If you also play another instrument it can be helpful to either play along or at least finger along with what you are singing. I'm usually playing an imaginary saxophone when singing anything because so much of my pitch memory is linked to my muscle memory.
posted by Television Name at 9:49 AM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think I learned to sight sing by getting new piano music from my teacher, and on the car ride home, wanting to hear the music before I had access to a piano. So this is my resultant thought process of sight singing -- it's heavily influenced by being a keyboard musician.

Depending on what you have to sing (normal tonal stuff, like Modus Vetus, or atonal stuff, like Modus Novus?), I'm kind of skeptical of an interval-only based approach to sight singing. That means your maximum look-ahead is like, one note.

Instead, if you can see the notes (however you want to call them -- 123, do re mi, fa so la, tonic submediant mediant) in terms of their relationship to the key and eventually learn to see series of notes in relationship to the key, you can digest entire chunks of notes. Like, if i see 6-5-3-2-1, I think "oh, it's a getting to the tonic, in a pentonicky way.' If I see 6-#4-5, I think "oh, it's moving to the dominant key via a dominant chord of the destination key."

This is to the point where I sometimes need to hear chords I-IV-I-V-I (in my head or otherwise) to 'establish' a key in my ear.

So I recommend Modus Vetus because that's what the undergrads at my college got, and it really hammers home this idea that melody follows harmonic movement.

If you are ok with religious mentions and just want more practice, the sacred harp is an enormous bank of digitized melodies that strongly stay in one key, and you can check your work with the midis. Start by singing some of the alto parts -- it's almost always scale degrees 1-3.

I go this as a form of pickup sightsinging (like pickup basketball), with fun people.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:59 AM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, if you don't already play a melody instrument, I recommend picking up the recorder. It helped my sight-reading *a lot.* The name even comes from the Latin root for "remember," because simple little wooden flures were a good way to learn and internalize passages of music way back in ye olden days.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:20 PM on May 22, 2018

Thanks for all the suggestions. I don't play an instrument - I realize that people who play instruments are usually better sight singers - that's just an advantage I don't have! I only sing.

One thing I don't quite understand is how to make improvement. Here's what happens when I am presented with sheet music - let's say someone has played the first note for me and I have to sing the second note (e.g. similar to what happens in singing auditions):

1) I identify what the interval is, visually (e.g. they are a fifth apart) - this step alone takes me far too long - it's a couple of seconds to do this and by then the song has moved into the next bar!

2) But now I know it's a fifth, ok. I have to sing the note that is a fifth above the note I've just heard. Most of the time I just guess, and inevitably I guess wrong. An app that corrects me and tells me what the note actually is is fine, except this doesn't seem to make any dent in my brain no matter how many times I do it.

I'm honestly jealous of the middle schoolers mentioned several times in this thread - I'm sure if I'd learned this at age 12, I'd be good at it, but I'm much older now and wondering if it's just not possible to learn new things like this?

I hope this gives a bit more color to my situation. I will check out the apps/sites mentioned (Perfect Ear and Sightreading Factory) in the hopes that they present a new method that works better for my old brain.

Keep the suggestions coming, of course, especially if you recognize the particular background / failure mode I'm coming from!
posted by whitelily at 3:08 PM on May 22, 2018

I would say that the most useful thing for you at this stage would be to invest a bit of time learning the basics of the piano. You don't need to learn full on chords and songs and such, but you should definitely be able to look at musical notation and press the correct key. Ideally you should learn enough that you can play (probably not up to tempo) the vocal parts you are working on. Even if you just use a freebie piano app on a tablet or something, you need to have a tool to use as a source of truth on how things should sound.

You might want to give Ron Gorow's Hearing and Writing Music a shot. It's sort of intended for composers but it has a really great section on hearing and practicing intervals. Back when I studying music in school I had a classmate who, over the course of a single summer, trained himself to transcribe music entirely by ear using this book.

Really though, as with most things music related, it comes down to lot's and lot's of practice. You can't think your way past muscle memory.
posted by Television Name at 5:04 PM on May 22, 2018

Here's an idea: running is not the same as walking fast.

Pressing on in your quest to get better at recognizing and producing intervals from note to note to note will maybe make you walk faster and faster, but it doesn't get you to running.

Have you ever seen someone play DDR for the first time? They play on 'beginner' where the arrows are super sparse, so they stand with both feet in the center, keep their weight on their standing leg, extend a foot to tap the arrow, then return that leg to the center. Repeat. They pass the level with this.

After a few successes, they try a song on 'light.' One-foot method still works. But once they try a song on 'standard', HOOOOOBOY too fast -- there's no time to return your foot to the center! The only way to progress is to keep your feet on the arrows and almost never return to the center.

I do not think instrumentalists think of melodies as a series of intervals when they're trying to read. I think chasing exercises to help you recognize and produce intervals faster is an inefficient way for you to meet your goal of being to sight sing a melody.
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:24 PM on May 22, 2018

@better_my_heart: this is a good point. I have no trouble with rhythms, having learned them when I was young - so when I sing, I don't think "next up is a quarter note/crotchet, that's 1/4 of the time of the measure, I should hold it for such and such amount of time" - because all of those steps would take forever. I think I probably look about one measure ahead at a time and decide what the pattern is/how it should sound. So sight singing notes is probably similar, though feels much more difficult and it's harder to know how to make headway.
posted by whitelily at 6:00 PM on May 22, 2018

Also, @better_my_heart: I think you may be overestimating the skills of a beginner, as I don't even understand many of the terms in your first response :) I think it would take me many years to learn everything you mentioned.

I will read over everyone's responses and give this more thought - years of sight-singing courses have not helped me so I obviously need a different learning method. Thanks to everyone again.
posted by whitelily at 6:34 PM on May 22, 2018

One last random thought- the way I really cemented my sight-singing as a teenager was reading alto lines of 4 part familiar hymns in church, then learning the tenor lines if they didn’t go too low. This is still the only thing I miss about church! If there’s a genre you’re very familiar with, trying this along with a recording of the melody/accompaniment may help (seems like both sheet music and recordings would be easy to find for hymnbooks). Alto lines especially don’t tend to move around a lot and sometimes get the interesting crunchy harmonies, too, so they’re a good starting point.
posted by charmedimsure at 7:47 PM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

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