Sight Singing for Dummies

The best answer I’ve heard to the question “What is one skill we should all learn in quarantine?” was this from the writer Jia Tolentino: How to make someone feel loved from a distance.

But here’s a pretty close second: singing. Yes! Who wasn’t inspired by all the Italians belting it out from their apartment balconies during the early days of Covid’s spread through Europe? That small free gift in a dark time. And how many of us North Americans thought: You know, if I tried that, people would be closing their windows, not opening them.

Then an email arrived in my inbox from my friend Alison Nixon.

Sight-singing lessons. Beginners welcome.

Alison is a music teacher, choir director and violinist. She lives on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, and it was from home that she’d be offering instruction. Students could scrub in via Zoom once a week. At the end of 12 weeks, they’d be well on their way to the alchemic skill of making music out of nothing but their body, more or less on key.

Singing. It’s what the computer scientist and author Cal Newport would call “high-quality” leisure: something you pursue for no other reason than the intrinsic pleasure. To sing is to buffer yourself against life’s rogue waves. Or at least not mind so much when they sweep you overboard.

And hey, I explained to my puzzled teenage daughters as I signed up for Alison’s class: “If a riff-off breaks out on our street, I’ll be prepared.”

Pitch Perfect, man.

Actually, perfect pitch wasn’t the goal here. This was about transmuting dots on a page to sounds from your mouth by tuning your ear. “And my goodness what a skill to have,” Alison said, in our first lesson. “To look at any piece of music, know what it says, what it sounds like, and be able to sing it: that is something you will always have.”

Turns out that tuning the ear is really about tuning the mind. That tantalizing angle of the project — “staying sharp!” — was an undeniable draw for many of us. Plato called singing “gymnastics for the soul.” He thought singing was a handmaiden of broader lifelong learning, because other knowledge can be smuggled into your coconut through the melody. “Math, history, science: these difficult subjects should be smoothed into verse and beautified with songs.”

Alison’s strategy was to flood the zone, pedagogically. To teach us to sight-sing from multiple angles. The lessons become mutually reinforcing when you do that, interconnecting neurally in some Kevin Bacon-ish way. “You can’t learn a language just by studying the grammar,” Alison said. “Same with this. It’s a tactile, physical, aural experience.”

Part of each lesson would thus be devoted to the aural acrobatics known as “solfege.” The “doe, a deer” business.

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do Ti La So Fa Mi Re Do.

Like building a fence. Someone gets you started by pounding in the end posts. You fill in the between bits, but in your mind.

When. You. Know. The. Notes. To. Sing … You. Can. Sing. Most. Anything.

In theory.

The key to learning this way is to suppress the “monkey mind” – the nattering, chattering left side that keeps breaking your reverie, Alison said. “So we occupy the left brain to force the solfege into the right.” I feared what task she had in mind for us. Maybe running up Grouse Mountain in shorts made out of the drapes.

“Get yourselves a pen and paper,” Alison said. As we practiced our Do Mi So Mi Dos, we were to write out the numbers one through fifty. Giving the monkey a Big Arbitrary Task frees up the rest of the brain to imprint the musical identification. In theory.

Honestly, this was all turning out to be quite a bit harder than I’d expected. And not every minute of it was fun. But then, why should it be? As a culture we’ve come to think everything’s gotta be fun.

The psychologist Anders Ericsson, who recently died, had strong feelings about this. In that now-famous “ten thousand hours” paper, Ericsson found that violinists at a music academy got good in direct proportion to the number of deliberate hours of practice they put in. It’s that “deliberate” part that got lost in the Malcolm Gladwellization of the rule. It doesn’t matter how many hours you log if you’re coasting. “Deliberate” practice, Ericsson said, is “solitary, effortful practice, focused on error correction, that is not inherently enjoyable.”

Now it was real. The scope of what I’d gotten myself into became clear. Twelve weeks wasn’t going to be near enough time to absorb all the material even in this beginner’s class.

I soon began to fall behind. By week six I was a lost ball in the high weeds.

This called for extreme measures. I decided to try to catch up in one big day-long blitz.

My strategy was to concentrate on what is really the nut of this skill of sight-singing: recognizing intervals. To hear two notes and instantly know the number of half-steps (semitones) between them. There are no shortcuts to this. You just have to burn those intervals in.

The good news is, there are only twelve. Or 24 if you count both ascending and descending. How hard could it be?



In the morning, I did some throat exercises in the shower, but this was mostly vanity. I wouldn’t be using my voice much today. It was a brute memory exercise. And as with any memory exercise, there are tricks.

The best one is to make each interval special in your mind, and maybe your heart too, by linking it to a familiar tune.

Perfect 4th? That’s “Auld Lang Syne.” Should old … Da-dahh. Robbie Burns with a bullet, a song sung on December 31st in almost every English-speaking country in the world, and somehow wired most directly to the part of the brain that remembers ringing in the New Year alone.

Perfect 5th? “Twinkle Twinkle.” The first song you ever learned on the piano. Your first exposure to Mozart – initiation into the fancy culture of the adult world.

I created a mnemonic for all 24 intervals. But as I practiced, I found some of them just weren’t sticking. More scaffolding was in order.

Minor 6th: “Go Down Moses.” Picturing those slaves in Egypt who were just a half-step away from perfect freedom (Perfect 5th).

I made up little songs.

“Valer-eee…” (Major 3rd)

“Valer-ahh…” (Perfect 4th)

“Valer-eee…”(Perfect 5th)

“Then You Step Down With Some Whole Notes

Valer-ee ….”

I tried linking the ascending and descending versions of the same interval to make a sturdy mneumonic knot.

So here was Paul Williams, the diminutive phantom of the opera, standing in a boat in the catacombs, singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” (major 6th).

Some teachers recommend you commit to one song per interval so you won’t get confused. The problem is, songs are written in different keys. “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “The Flintstones” all start with the Perfect 5th – though you might not realize it. I tried visualizing Sean Connery on a bowling team with the two Freds (Flintstone and Astaire), until I eventually got floaters and had to lie down.

After lunch, I downloaded an app called Aural Wiz, and listened to intervals while out with the dog. I tried to just be open to the sounds, like a chef letting sauces land on the tongue. It this sweet or sour or bitter? The answer narrows down what it is you’re eating.

Some intervals really are just more naturally pleasing — at least to the Western ear. Three in particular make you feel good: Major 3rd, Minor 3rd, and Perfect 5th. The pleasure is in the ratios between frequencies. An octave is two-to-one. That Perfect 5th — seven semitones — is three-to-two, the so-called “Golden Mean.” It is extremely “stable,” as they say. A crowd-pleaser. A dancer sticking the landing at the big close of a Broadway show tune. In medieval times, the Perfect 5th and the octave were considered divine.

Then again, if you’re a fan of quality television, there’s no more lovely interval than an augmented 4th: The Simpson’s theme. Clearly, some of this is stuff we learn to like. Certain tastes are just the product of a misspent youth.

In the evening I made a fat stack of homemade cue cards and enlisted my 13-year-old daughter to quiz me.

“C to B-flat.”

“Hang on,” I said, rummaging in my hippocampus for the memory trick. “Okay, I’ve got Joe Theismann, he’s wearing his old number seven, he’s down on one knee, and he’s singing the love ballad from Romeo and Juliet. And instead of a football helmet he’s wearing a minor’s lamp. So … Minor 7th!”

She shook her head.


“No, it’s right,” she said. “But Dad … you’re making this waaayy too complicated.”

Some skills lend themselves to cramming. Ear training is not one of them. You need “spaced repetition” to move the stuff to long term memory. It takes time. Time I didn’t have. Somehow, this amazing gift of singing lessons that I’d so been looking forward to as stress relief was becoming yet another source of stress.

And then it occurred to me. This isn’t really about ear training at all. It’s about life training. How to be a rock in the river. To abide amid the chaos.

When a bird lands on the ground, it invariably stops singing. That’s because it’s now vulnerable, says the Aussie evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania. A bird can’t afford to draw attention to itself. The only ground-dwelling species that sings is us. We don’t seem to care who hears us.

In fact we want others to hear us. In nature this is called counter-signalling. Predators soon learn that an animal that advertises itself has something up its sleeve. Choral singing actually has its origins in such wily subterfuge, many anthropologists believe. The first songs may have been war chants aimed at discouraging neighbouring clans from invading. The songs “sent a strong message about the unity and determination of the group.”

It was hard to imagine my classmates painting their chests and girding for battle, but they were definitely unified and determined and, let me say, lovely people. These lessons were clearly scratching an itch for them.

One of the great tragedies about Covid is that it has stopped all choirs in their tracks. Singing together in close quarters is one of the few things we know for sure is a very bad idea right now. And choral singing by Zoom doesn’t work – the time lag makes it impossible. But these folks were getting a dose of what they needed: a contact high from each other’s company. Or as close to contact as we’re going to get until the spring.


My Big Day of ear training caught me up enough to enjoy the last half of my lessons without feeling like too much of an imposter. When the twelfth and final class was done, I exchanged virtual high fives with the students who were going on Level 2, and logged out.

I took a fearless personal inventory. What were the results of this experiment? I’m not sure if my brain’s bigger. But I know my musical repertoire is.

I’d picked up jazz standards that had slipped through the cracks of my prairie education. Classics like East of the Sun, West of the Moon (major 3rd), and Willow Weep for Me (octave) and Watermelon Man (minor 7th). All those Scott Joplin tunes on the major 6th, the ragtime dinner bell. You learn the intervals. You memorize the sounds. And over time you come to feel them, too.

I doubt I sing any better now, but I definitely hear better. It’s a bit like when you’re learning a new language, and there comes that moment when you realize you’re actually understanding some stuff that used to just roll over you as ambient noise.

The BC Ferries “return to your vehicles” chime now had a little tag on it: “Ascending major 6th, descending major3rd.

O Canada”? Ascending minor 3rd, then Descending Perfect 5th. The Golden Mean.

Not long ago we rented Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Except for the hair, it holds up.) This time, with my newfound knowledge, I got a lot more out of the scene at the end atop Devil’s Tower, where the alien ship descends and a guy at a keyboard takes direction for the first extraterrestrial communique.

“Play a D.”

“Now up a whole note.”

“Now down a major third.”

“Now down an octave.”

“Now up a perfect 5th.

DECCG. We are not a-lone.

Then I realized something. That Perfect 5th: it’s the same Perfect 5th that opens Star Wars. The two films were released the same year. John Williams did the music for both. Could it be a kind of dialogue?

Welcome to Planet Earth. We’re off just now to explore galaxies more interesting than yours. Please turn the lights out when you leave.

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