How can one stay on key when singing? Most people go about it the wrong way. Instead of controlling and correcting your pitch while you sing, I’ll explain what makes us sing in/out of tune and how you can develop the skills for hitting all the right notes.
What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Ringo once implied that if one sings out of tune, one no longer deserves to be loved:
“What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?”
And he’s not alone. Many people feel that if there is a problem with their tune, or pitch, or key, whatever you want to call it - pitch inaccuracy is a death sentence for their voice. No one wants to hear it, and it is a stain which can never be removed.
Then it becomes their supposed condition:
I can’t carry a tune.
My friends pay me to stop singing.
I’m a bad singer.
The common (but wrong) way to sing in tune
Especially people who haven’t learned singing yet (but often trained singers as well) try to correct the pitch actively and consciously. They aim for a certain note and try with all their might that it will come out right. If it doesn’t, they try to move the pitch up or down. Sometimes they move the head, throat muscles and tongue up and down with the melody.
Aaaannnnd…that’s wrong? Yes, that’s wrong. I’ll go out on a limb and say this. If you are actively correcting your notes you are most likely using muscle tension and extra air pressure to do that. That will create tension and pressure on your vocal instrument - and good luck controlling anything about your voice at this point.
As we will learn in the next section, the voice box need flexibility and room for the vocal cords to stretch. Have muscle tension around your voice box (larynx)? That will limit the possible movement of the vocal cords.
We are different than other animals, amongst other things, in the fact that we can make speaking and singing sounds. The fact our larynx is not fixated in one place enables us to make those sounds! Did you know that? The larynx wants and need to slightly wiggle and tremble, if that's interrupted - you have less control over your voice. That's why we want to eliminate as much tension around the throat as possible.
How does our voice hit the right note?
How is it even possible that we humans can sing melodies? We just know the note in our head and it comes out! That’s a miracle, if you ask me.
How does it even work??? That’s a question most people never asked or answered. Read carefully because this might shake everything you thought you knew about singing: The pitch is determined by the length and thickness of the vocal cords. They stretch and thin up for higher notes, and contract and thicken for lower notes.
Get this - the muscles responsible for lengthening and shortening are not controlled consciously. In fact, We still don’t know exactly which parts of the brain actually make the melody.
I name this elusive, subconscious part of the brain which changes the pitch ... George
So George is the one responsible for getting the notes right. And the important point is - you can’t control him, he's independent, and he knows what he's doing (in most cases! But we'll talk about the other cases as well).
You heard me. You don’t control the pitch. George does. And the sooner you wrap your head around this strange idea - the easier your pitching is going to be.
You can watch this video I made for you which sums up this entire article and shows you the problem AND the solution:
Three things you can do to start singing on key
- Vocal health: Most of us who struggle to sing on pitch don’t have a good technique yet. Think about it for a sec. If you don’t know how to use your voice to sing, you are probably using effort, creating tension around your instrument. Then, you expect it to work properly and give you the kind of tone and tune you want?! First learn good technique, then we’ll talk. In my experience, correcting vocal technique will lead to a a correct pitch about 90% of the time.
- Pitch awareness: A lot of people who struggle to sing on pitch are not used to doing it. They don’t know how to follow a melody because they are not sure if they are following it. Maybe they never worked on it, or they grew up imitating parents/siblings who sing out of tune. They might not be wired to follow a tune and stay in tune but they also haven’t tried!
- Find a comfortable key/register: Some people find it difficult to adjust their voice to the right pitch if the song is too low or two high for them. Then the voice will try to find a place in the middle. And it won’t be able to. It will sound and feel awful, because someone else is singing in a different key!
Ad 3) Take my parents for example: whenever they try to sing a song together - it’s a mess. My mom usually starts, and my dad follows. He can’t sing as high as she does, but he doesn’t know how to jump down an octave (or that would be too low, sometimes), so nothing makes sense. So he sings at his own height. And sounds like he is off key. But whenever he sings by himself, he’s perfectly on pitch, no problem.
Muscle tension prevents you
from singing in tune
My integral voice training system will teach you how to free up your voice
personal feedback included
Train pitch awareness, not correcting the pitch
So we established that you shouldn’t be correcting your notes actively. Don’t try to match the note to what you hear or want to hear. Instead - first work on your vocal technique.
Next step (which can also be done in parallel to vocal technique) is to work on your pitch awareness. So you try to follow a singer or an instrument, or use a pitch training app.
There is a gamified, fun way to get used to singing on pitch. You sing and see your voice pitch in comparison to the note you wanted to sing, so you know if you’re in tune or not!
Here is me showing you a tool I have discovered, called Singing Carrots. You can watch it to see how to best use this to improve your pitch:
Pitch training should be about awareness and getting used to following a certain melody. You are not to do it by force. With the above tool you simply enjoy the games and exercises and pay attention to your progress. To troubleshoot your pitch - learn vocal technique (a good place to start would be taking my free singing quiz.
But.. but…what if I am tone deaf?
The first thing I'll say about that is - you are probably not, because very few people are. You might be super special, I don't know.
Most people who sing out of tune (sometimes, or most of the time) actually have vocal technique issues, not pitch accuracy issues. So that's good to know, phew! Right? Correct your technique - and you'll correct your pitch. Yay!
About the small minority with actual pitch problems, That also doesn't necessarily mean they are tone deaf.
I wrote a bit about the research done on tone deafness and what I think about it in the article Can anyone learn to Sing? But long story short - I’m skeptical. A core definition of tone deafness in those researches is the inability to tell different pitches apart. So - pitch awareness. And my experience showed me that pitch awareness can be trained and developed.
I have not met a single person in my studio who couldn’t develop the musical ear, start following the piano and eventually sing in tune, if they indeed could not to begin with. Bottom line - don’t waste your time thinking what if. First, learn to use your voice, then we’ll talk.
Use an easy song to improve your pitch
Whichever your case may be - either you have actual tuning problems or it's your vocal technique that needs help - while you improve your intonation you should be singing easy songs. Any skill you are still working on should get your full attention, so you need to focus on it, not on how hard the song is.
High notes, riffs, big jumps in the melody, wide range - all of these are a distraction and will inhibit your plan to train your pitch accuracy. You can go to this article to choose an easy song to sing. There are some really good easy songs out there - doesn't have to be twinkle twinkle!
What’s the next step?
Do you think you sing out of tune? See if you fit in the majority group that needs to focus on improving vocal technique, or if you are the minority who needs to learn pitch awareness. Do as I showed above and learn to develop that awareness, then learn some good technique and see if there’s an improvement.
Let me know how it goes, or if I can provide any further guidance,