Poor-Pitch Singing Explained Using Piaget’s Developmental Theory

Most young music students enjoy playing with different instruments, listening to new sounds, and singing along with the teacher. When children can’t reproduce a pitch given to them, it becomes an interesting musical problem. “In a study performed at the University of Illinois, it was discovered that out of forty-nine first graders, nearly 25 percent were not able to discriminate pitches” (Kazez, 46). The research question that will be discussed in this paper is why do some children have poor pitch, while others have perfect pitch, or good pitch? Is pitch accuracy a learned trait, or is it something that we either have or do not have? This paper will discuss how this problem has been addressed in past research, examine how it has been studied from psychological perspectives, and show how this problem would be examined according to Piaget’s developmental theory.

According to an article titled Poor-pitch Singing in the Absense of “Tone Deafness”, poor-pitch has multiple possible causes. Firstly, “poor-pitch singing results from an inability to perceive pitch relationships” (Pfordresher and Brown, 96). Secondly, “poor-pitch singing results from defective control of phonation, most plausibly a lack of precision in motor control” (Pfordresher and Brown, 96). Thirdly, “tone deafness is a deficit of neither perception nor production per se but instead of sensorimotor integration, namely the conversion of auditory pitch information into appropriate phonation targets during singing”(Pfordresher and Brown, 97). And finally, “poor-pitch singing results from a lack of detail in the representation of musical structure in memory” (Pfordresher and Brown, 97).

Two experiments were completed in order to find out which of these four causes is the true cause, or if all of these causes are possible reasons for poor pitch. The first experiment required untrained singers to sing back a four-note melody that had been played for them. Only a small amount of these participants were diagnosed with poor pitch. The experiment concluded that, “ Poor-pitch singing thus appears to reflect a consistent mismapping between pitch targets and phonatory responses” (Pfordresher and Brown, 107).

The second experiment asked participants to sing pitches of the C Major scale from pitch C2 to pitch C5. The pitch sequences were given in a similar manner to the first experiment, but the participants were also asked to pick a note that is comfortable for them to sing. The results showed that when participants failed to produce the pitches given to them, they produced a pitch closer to their chosen comfortable pitch. This shows that when the participants mistuned their sung response, it was tuned rather to their comfort note.

Both of these experiments have shown that tone deafness is the inability to convert a heard pitch into a sung pitch. “Thus, poor-pitch singing results from sensorimotor “mistranslation” during imitation” (Pfordresher and Brown, 112). This conclusion was also found in research work completed by Dr. Dennis Fry. Fry found that “tone deafness was probably a defect in the sensory mechanism of the individual and takes the form of a failure of permanent memory for pitch patterns” (Cox, 62).

Piaget’s theory is very common in music psychology. Using Piaget’s theory, two researchers, Chang and Trehub, discovered that very young children could hear differences in melodies and rhythms (Hargreaves, 87). This shows that poor pitch usually is not a hearing problem, but rather a processing problem or lack of control of the vocal chords. Another researcher, Dowling, discovered that children learn about melody as they proceed through Piaget’s stages. Children globally understand melody at a young age and eventually grasp the idea of tonality (Hargreaves, 88). It is possible that some children can’t grasp the idea of tonality, and therefore have poor pitch.

Zimmerman uses Piaget’s theory to explain musical intelligence. Learning music begins with the child’s ability to perceive played music. As the child gets older and interacts with music, the limitations of the child’s perception get smaller and the child is able to understand more complex pieces (Zimmerman, 32). Tone problems could occur because of the child’s inability to perceive music. For instance, if you play a complex melody for a child who can’t yet understand the complexities of the piece, the child will be unable to produce the correct tones. But, if you play a melody that the child is ready to perceive, the child will be able to produce the correct tones.

According to Piaget, “Development is the sum of innate abilities, experience with the physical environment, social experiences, and equilibration” (Miller, 70). Therefore, perfect pitch or good pitch are innate abilities that children develop through musical experiences with an instrument, musical experiences with a classroom, and equilibration. Equilibration occurs when assimilation and adaptation are balanced, meaning neither dominates the other. In order to gather data for his theory, Piaget would observe subjects and use the clinical method. Piaget would ask the subject a question, and then based off the subject’s answer he would pose the next question.

An experiment using the clinical method addressing the problem of poor pitch would follow these steps. First the person conducting the experiment would observe a classroom of young music students singing a simple, well-known tune. Then the experimenter would note which students are able to match pitch with the teacher, and which students are unable to match pitch. After observing a few classes the experimenter could see which students eventually sing the correct pitches, and which students still struggle. The experimenter would then select subjects from the group that seem to have poor pitch and ask these subjects questions about music and pitch. Based off of the subject’s answers the experimenter would create the next question. The following example shows an experiment done using Piaget’s methodology. This conversation took place with a five-year-old poor-pitch student at one of his voice lessons.

How do you sing a note? – With my mouth
How many notes can your mouth sing?- I don’t know, seven?
How many notes are in (the song)?- I think five or nine
Can you sing all of the notes in (the song)?- No, because it’s hard
Why is it hard?- Because its too hard, I can’t.
You can’t sing it?- No
But you can sing seven notes- Maybe only five.
Can your classmates sing the song?- Sometimes.

Based on this conversation the experimenter can infer that the child understands that when singing, the sound comes out of the mouth. Secondly, the child believes he can sing seven notes, almost an octave, but when singing the simple melody he can’t match pitch. Thirdly, the child is aware that he can’t sing the song and believes that the song is difficult. Finally, the child realizes that his classmates can sing the song with correct pitch.

This paper has discussed how this problem has been addressed in past research, examined how it has been studied from psychological perspectives, and shown how this problem would be examined according to Piaget’s developmental theory. Based on previous research done on the subject, an understanding of Piaget’s theory, and the sample experiment, it has been shown that poor pitch singing occurs because of an inability to convert a heard pitch into a correctly sung pitch. This may occur because the child is too young to perceive the played melody, or because the voice is unable to create the given pitch. It has also been shown that musical knowledge is learned, although young children can perceive music. Additional experimentation is required to truly know what causes poor pitch.


Cox, Ian. “Tone Deafness.” Music Educators Journal 34.4 (1948): 62. Jstor. Web. .

Hargreaves, D. J. “Developmental Psychology and Music Education.” Psychology of Music 14.2 (1986).

Kazez, Daniel. “The Myth of Tone Deafness.” Music Educators Journal 71.8 (1985).

Miller, Patricia H. Theories of Developmental Psychology. Fifth Edition. New York, NY: Worth, 2011.

Pfordresher, Peter Q., and Brown, Steven. “Poor Pitch Singing in the Absense of “Tone Deafness”” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 24.2 (2007). Jstor. Web. .

Zimmerman, M. P. “The Relevance of Piagetian Theory for Music Education.” International Journal of Music Education 3.1 (1984).

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