Friday, September 21, 2012


Singing is as much about listening as it is about making sound. Your ears and your voice work together to produce great singing. The better you can hear, the better you can sing.

Lots of people claim that they can’t sing because they are tone-deaf. The truth is, almost no one is truly tone-deaf. The vast majority of people are masters at recognizing pitch.  Think about how you communicate questions, anger, joy, skepticism and even sarcasm in your daily speech. And consider how you recognize those qualities in the speech of others. The sound of someone’s voice often tells you more about what they mean than their words do. If you can tell over the phone that your friend is mad at you, even though she claims to be fine, you can hear more than well enough to sing.

Developing good pitch is just a matter of training your ears to hear musical pitch as well as you hear verbal pitch.

Here are some simple ways to get started. 
  1. Relax. Singing should be fun, not stress you out. Let your voice come out naturally. Don't force anything.
  2. Practice singing 5-note scales (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol). Focus on singing each pitch exactly in the center every time.  Practice with a piano if you like. Match your voice to the pitch of the piano as closely as you can. When you have mastered 5-note scales, try something a little more difficult, like arpeggios (Do-Mi-Sol-Mi-Do).
  3. Sing along with recordings.  Trying to perfectly match the pitch of your favorite singers on recordings can help you develop both your ear and your singing voice.  You have to listen, adjust and sing all at the same time.   It’s great exercise for your voice.  Just be sure to choose songs within your range. And choose singers that have good pitch themselves - no screamers, please. 
  4. Try singing harmony parts along with recordings.  I love doing this.  It is a great way to practice both pitch and voice control. Back in high school I remember one occasion when I was working on an art project with friends. We had music playing in the background as each of us worked on our own section. I was hard at work, concentrating on the artwork in front of me. Without even realizing it, I started singing harmony with the CD just out of habit.  My friends looked at me like I was insane.  It was a little embarrassing, but at least the harmony part I sang was in tune. Mostly.
  5. Learn your intervals. This is a more advanced skill. Intervals are defined as the distance between two notes. Knowing your intervals and being able to both sing and identify them will help you develop good relative pitch, and will make you a better overall musician. The intervals to learn are listed below, paired with a familiar song:
    1. Minor Second - Beethoven’s Fur Elise 
    2. Major Second - Happy Birthday
    3. Minor Third - Brahms’ Lullaby
    4. Major Third - Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (opening notes)
    5. Perfect Fourth - Wagner's Wedding March (Here comes the bride...)
    6. Diminished Fifth (or augmented fourth, sometimes called a tritone) - Maria from West Side Story
    7. Perfect Fifth - ABC song
    8. Minor Sixth - We Are Young by Fun (...set the world on fire, we can go higher...)
    9. Major Sixth - NBC theme (N-B-C)
    10. Minor Seventh - Somewhere from West Side Story (There’s a place for us...)
    11. Major Seventh - Don’t Know Why by Norah Jones (I wait-ed ‘til I saw the sun...)
    12. Octave - Somewhere Over the Rainbow
There are lots of resources online that can help you train your ears (just do a search for "ear training" and you'll get millions of hits). But you don't have to do anything complicated. Just listen to lots of good music, and sing along!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

HOW TO SING LIKE A PRO: Listen, Part One


Duh, you are probably thinking.

This may seem obvious and easy, but actually it is harder than it sounds. Just ask anyone who has had to listen to their own karaoke performance.

To me, pitch is the most important part of singing.  Bad pitch ruins a performance faster than anything else.  Train yourself to actually hear your voice while you are singing.  If you can hear, you can tune, and if you can tune then you can sing in the correct pitch.

There are tons of things to concentrate on while performing. Listening to yourself and being able to adjust your pitch as necessary should be a top priority. 

This is one reason why so many people like to sing in the shower. Bathrooms are full of tile, which sends the sound bouncing around like mad. You hear yourself good and loud, which can make anyone feel like they are Pavarotti.  Hearing yourself clearly boosts your confidence which just improves your voice even more.  It is a joy to sing a song you love and hear your own voice sounding great.

When I was in college and singing with an a cappella group I knew a lot of singers (including me) who liked to practice in stairwells.  Their voices would echo in the enclosed space, and they could hear themselves very well. Plus they liked showing off (including me).

I am a fan of singing in the shower, singing in stairwells, singing with microphones – anything that will allow you to hear your voice loud and clear.  For one, it is less tiring.  If you can hear your own voice clearly, you will be less likely to strain your voice by oversinging.  Find a place to practice where you can hear yourself easily, and you will not only enjoy your singing more, you will also protect your voice from strain. 

Train your ears to hear pitch, and develop good relative pitch.  This means that when you are given a reference note you can identify the correct pitch of any other note given to you.  Good relative pitch provides an excellent foundation for singing with good pitch, and it will help you not only develop your singing but your overall musicianship.

Some people have absolute pitch, meaning they can correctly identify notes even without being given a reference pitch. It’s a neat trick and useful as a musician, but unnecessary. 

If you don’t have good pitch, don’t get discouraged.  It takes time to develop.  For some people it comes naturally, and for others it takes a lot of training.  Relax, and go at your own pace.  You don’t have to develop good pitch overnight.

Next post will give you some ideas for what you can do to improve your ears and your relative pitch.