Too many people go through life worried that they can’t sing. The reality is that they just haven’t learned how to yet. Even the most seemingly-tone-deaf singers can learn to sing in tune. Here are 11 tips which can help anybody learn to sing in tune.
There are many aspects to having a “nice” singing voice, but the first thing to figure out is whether you have problems with pitch and tuning. If you do, then all the work you do on learning new songs and performing them will be wasted – because your audience will think you’re “tone deaf”.
Master pitch and tuning, and you unlock your full potential as a singer. It’s the foundation on which everything else is built.
So first things first: if you haven’t already, take a tone deafness test to ensure your ears are capable of letting you sing in tune.
Passed the test? Great! Now we can begin…
Tip 1: Find a safe starting note
All singers have a natural range of notes they can comfortably sing, from low to high. You will struggle more at the limits of your range, and if you haven’t had voice lessons before it’s easy to accidentally pick notes which are beyond your comfortable range.
One way to find a good note is to simply talk in your normal relaxed speaking voice. Then try talking in a “monotone” i.e. not adjusting your pitch up and down for emphasis, kind of like a robot. Then try saying the long word “laaaaaa” in the same way. You are singing! With this note which just comes out naturally you may well find it easier to maintain a steady pitch. From there you can start moving up and down in pitch to explore your natural range.
Tip 2: Gender Swap
Once you have a safe starting note you can explore up and down in pitch from there. This can seem strange and intimidating if you haven’t learned to sing before, but here’s a familiar way to try it.
You can already change your speaking voice to be higher or lower. We do this all the time as part of how we convey meaning and emotion when we talk. A more extreme example would be to pretend to be speaking as a woman if you’re a man, or a man if you’re a woman.
Experiment with this a bit and you will find you actually already have some control over your vocal pitch. Controlling your singing pitch is just a matter of refining this control and practicing hitting notes exactly first time, rather than wandering around in pitch until you hit the right note.
Now you know your vocal chords can do what they need to, it’s time to introduce the other major player in the singing game…
Tip 3: Don’t neglect your ears
There are two factors which determine whether you can sing in tune or not:
- Vocal control (i.e. making your vocal chords reliably produce the note you want them to) is important, but your voice is actually only about 20% of the challenge of singing in tune. In fact the far more significant factor is…
- Your ears! 80% of singing in tune relies on hearing what pitch you are singing, and what pitch you should be singing.
You already have some sense of pitch in your ears. As with the speaking example above, you can already hear that a woman speaking is normally higher in pitch than a man’s low voice. If you pay attention you can probably also hear that when someone asks a question, their voice “goes up” at the end.
You can refine this sense of pitch through pitch ear training, and it is important to have a strong sensitivity to pitch as a musician and singer.
This is because to be able to sing the correct note, you must first know what that note is! This means hearing the note before you sing it. Then as you sing out loud, actively listen and compare what you sing with what you are supposed to be singing. It takes some practice, but you can do it!
Tip 4: Learn to match pitch
To sound good as a singer you need to hit each note’s pitch dead-on, right from the beginning, and hold it steady. Otherwise it will sound like you are singing wrong notes (a.k.a. “singing off key”) or that your voice is unsteady and wobbly.
You can begin pitch training for singing by learning to “match pitch”: meaning to sing back a single note you hear. This is the first step towards reliably vocal control, and it’s the simplest possible task: just one note on its own. The great thing is it develops both your ears and your voice.
Practicing matching pitch is simple: play a note and try to sing it back. How do you know if you got it right? You can:
- Listen carefully and use your ears to judge – or ask a friend to do the same.
- Record yourself and listen back.
- Use a digital tuner or interactive app.
The next three tips will look at each of these options.
Tip 5: Listen as you sing
Ever heard someone sing who seemed to have no clue that they were out of tune? They continue to blast out incredibly painful notes happily, not realising how bad they sound. Don’t make this mistake!
The solution is simple: Always listen as you sing. It sounds obvious but this is a mistake most beginners make. They get carried away in the feeling of singing and what’s coming out of them, without paying attention to what their ears could be telling them.
When we open our mouths to sing we tend to focus only on what is coming out of our mouths. We begin to ignore everything going on around us: other singers, the accompaniment, fire alarms… and any other noise that might distract us from listening to our own voice!
So when you are singing make sure you are actively listening as you sing. As you learn to match pitch you build an automatic system for adjusting your pitch to be correct as you sing, and you might be surprised how good at this you already are – but it only works if your ears are turned on and paying attention!
Tip 6: Recording
Recording your singing practice gives you the opportunity to listen clearly and objectively to what you’re producing and how well it is in tune.
But as a beginner singer, the idea of recording yourself is intimidating! You aren’t yet confident in how your voice sounds, so you’re probably nervous to sing in front of people or even hear yourself on a recording.
Here’s the key: remember that only you will hear the recordings and you’re free to delete them after.
It is purely a practice tool.
As you get used to the sound of your own voice you can use this in further ways, for example to develop your own vocal style. Everyone’s voice is unique, so analyse how your voice sounds and how it can produce certain timbres, vocal colourings and styles. Listen to how your voice sounds compared to your favourite artists, and then use that knowledge to shape your own voice.
Tip 7: Tuner Training
One easy to quickly improve your ability to sing in tune is to use a digital tuner. These devices let you set a target note, hear that note, and then show whether your own note is above or below it, and by how much.
Digital tuners are normally used for tuning an instrument, but can actually be a very helpful tool for learning to sing in tune. When you first begin singing it takes some practice to get real control over the pitches you sing. Working with a tuner helps you build up this control fast.
The process of honing in on the target note relies on your ear’s ability to accurately judge the pitch of the target note and your own sung note. As you practice with the tuner your ear will become more reliable until you don’t need to watch the tuner at all, you can simply use your ear to know whether to adjust up or down.
Learn the step-by-step process in our full guide to learn to sing in tune.
Tip 8: Get Control
So far we’ve talked about matching pitch for a single note. The next step is to sing multiple notes so you can start really singing songs.
Your sense of pitch helps you to hear whether you are singing in tune and correct any pitching errors but singers should use ear training to also develop their sense of relative pitch.
Your sense of relative pitch is what allows you to recognise notes in music based on the general musical context, i.e. the other notes being played. Relative pitch is the ear side of what lets you move from note to note and sing each one in tune.
The voice side is called “vocal control”, and though it’s a bigger area than just note-to-note pitching, this ability to move between notes accurately is its core.
Having strong relative pitch skills allows a singer to artfully manipulate pitch (e.g. with slides and vibrato) for the sake of musical expression, creating more powerful performances.
You can learn more about developing vocal control in the Roadmap for Learning to Sing.
As you improve your ability to match pitch and gain vocal control, there are a few more tips to keep in mind…
Tip 9: Check Your Volume
The volume you sing with can greatly affect how easily you can keep a steady tone. If you feel (or hear) that your pitch is wobbling, or you’re having difficulty pitching notes accurately, take a second to check how loudly you’re singing.
- If you’re singing quietly, you may find that singing louder makes it easier to hold a steady pitch.
- If you’re pushing your voice to be too loud that can put strain on it, so if you sing a bit quieter you may find the pitch control easier.
Experiment with a range of volumes and you may find your pitch problems disappear.
Tip 10: Build Up Your Vocal Strength
Remember that your vocal cords are a muscle, and just like any muscle in your body, they can be strengthened – or over-stretched! As a beginner it’s easy to get caught up in enthusiasm for your newfound singing skills, but be careful: your voice needs time to build up the strength to sing loudly, long and often.
Be careful about your vocal endurance. It is better to do a little often rather than big long sessions of these exercises. Never try to force anything out, and instead give your vocal cords time to adjust.
Working on your breath control, strengthening your diaphragm and adjusting your head and tongue positions are a few ways to increase your vocal strength.
Tip 11: Take a Break
If you ever get tired when singing it is better to take a break. This will help you to build up your strength and endurance more effectively.
You don’t have to see breaks as wasted time. You can quietly hum through your song to practice it, or even use the audiation technique mentioned earlier to practice in your “mind’s ear”. It’s also a great time to analyse the song and see if there are opportunities to improve the way you are adding expression, or choosing when to breathe between phrases.
You can also see it as a good reason to practice singing “a little and often”, fitting short practice sessions throughout your day instead of one big session as a block.
With the eleven tips above you have a range of ideas and strategies to help you get past any fear that you’re “tone deaf” or “can’t sing” and begin to wake up your ears and get control of your voice. Learn more in the full How to Learn to Sing guide and Learn to Sing Roadmap.