Do you sometimes get the notes wrong when you sing?

At Musical U we strongly encourage every music learner to sing because of the huge positive impact it has on your musicality – but what if you find you just can’t get the notes right? Here’s a clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U where we talk about just that.


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Member Kim, who has been with us for a while and been making good progress, I think. She has been working on her singing and she posted a couple of questions this week that I thought were quite interesting for most singers in fact. I think Kim would probably classify her herself, she’d probably say a beginner, but I think she’s really intermediate. I think she is quite capable once she knows the song, but she has some concerns over finding the right notes. And so she posted two questions this week that I wanted to pick up on because I think they’re of interest, not only to our dedicated singers, but actually to all of our members who are working on singing a bit and trying to get control of their voice for general musicianship purposes. Kim came with two different questions that I think are boiled down to the same key point in a way.

She was saying she has trouble sometimes knowing if the note should change or not. When you have a melody and it has repeated notes, sometimes you can hear that the notes are repeated and sometimes it seems like they change and vice versa. If you have a melody where the notes change a bit, sometimes you think they repeat. And so I think she was finding some of the songs she sings, she was just getting that wrong. And she changed the note when it’s not meant to change or she’d stay on the same note when it was meant to change. And so she was wondering how to get around that. And the second question she had was sometimes she just misjudges how much the note changes. Yes, it should move to a different note, but she jumped too far or she didn’t jump far enough. Those were the two questions and I wanted to just discuss them both a little bit.

The first one, knowing whether the note changes, I don’t want to give a solution here, but I do want to dig into this question a bit and explain why it’s tricky. The human voice is one of the most distinctive and unique instruments. It is unique, clearly, but it has certain characteristics that really set it apart from other instruments. One of those is that it has totally variable pitch. If you go down and sit at a piano, whether or not the piano is in tune, each key plays a particular note. A trumpet would be the same. To some extent a guitar is the same if you just play the frets of the guitar. The instrument is designed to produce set pitches.

Our voice is not like that. You really have to train your voice to hit the notes dead on because our natural speaking voice goes up and down in pitch very continuously. You can slide totally up and down in pitch across all of the notes. And there are other instruments that can do that. For example, a guitar that I just mentioned, you can play slide guitar or you can pitch bend the strings. An instrument like a violin that doesn’t have frets on the fingerboard likewise has a continuous pitch range. But it is something that’s very distinctive about the human voice. And it means when you listen to a voice singing on a recording, it can be very tricky to know if the note is staying the same or going up a bit. And that’s actually amplified, it’s multiplied by the fact that we’re generally speaking. We’re not just singing ah or la, we’re speaking lyrics and words and we’re speaking them with emotion. And actually you can hear it when I just said emotion, my pitch changed slightly. I didn’t say emotion. I said emotion.

And when you listen to a singer, that kind of inflection to give expression to the words and the changing of words can make it very hard to know is the pitch of the note changing? Or is it just the way the singer is singing the note? And so I wanted to just clarify that because it’s not as simple as listening to a guitar and knowing is the guitar changing note? When you listen to a human singer, it can be very subtle to know whether their pitch is intentionally changing and the note is changing or whether it’s just the sound of their voice that’s changing and that can mislead you. That’s why it can be tricky and it can be tricky. And I wanted to reassure Kim that she’s not alone in this. It sounds very simple, is the no changing or not? But it’s not that simple. It is subtle when it comes to the human voice.

And so that leads onto the second question. How do you know how much it’s moving by? And this is why I didn’t want to give an answer to the first question because it’s essentially the same as the second question is, is this moving a little or a lot? It’s just an extension of is this note moving? There are a few factors here. Knowing how much a note is changing in pitch is what we call your sense of relative pitch. It’s knowing the pitch of one note relative to another one. And there are the two fundamental tools we use to train ourselves for this, are intervals, interval recognition. You’ll find a lot of interval modules inside Musical U and the solfa framework, which is, it’s not quite, those aren’t two completely different things. They are very related, but they are the two ways we tend to think about relative pitch. You can recognize the intervals, or you can think in terms of solfa and scale degrees.

And we have modules for both of those in Musical U. Knowing how much a melody is moving in pitch is tricky because melodies, most of the time, move by small steps. If you take most songs you know, there will be leaps, there will be jumps, but for the most part, it’s going to move in step wise motion. Half steps or whole steps, which we also call tones or semitones or major and minor seconds. These are literally the smallest intervals we use. And so when you’re listening to a melody and trying to hear how much the notes move, it can be tricky because the chances are it’s moving only by quite small amounts.

And this is what brings us back to the first question of, is it moving at all? Once you throw in the inflection of the human voice and different lyrics, a semitone difference, a half step can be very similar to just kind of changing the tone of your voice to express anger or frustration or excitement. The melodies don’t always move that much in pitch, so that can be hard to hear. And when they do leap, those big intervals can be quite hard to distinguish. Hearing the difference between a perfect fifth and a minor sixth, it takes a lot of practice. And when you’re talking about a leap in the middle of a melody, getting the accurate both in your ear and your voice, it’s tricky. Again, just to reassure Kim, this isn’t a unique problem. This isn’t a strange problem to have. This is a normal part of what comes with learning to sing.

This does take practice and the big point I wanted to make is it takes practice for a particular song, for a single song and in the big picture. My main piece of advice, I think to Kim and to other people in her situation, is to remember it does take practice to master even one song. You have to be a very good singer before you can pick up any song and sing it well, straight off. Most singers will spend most of their career choosing a new song, spending weeks, days or weeks, practicing that song, learning to master those changes in pitch and those leaps in the melody. And then they will feel like they can sing that song very well.

And the more you do this, the more you practice individual songs, the better your big picture skills become, the quicker you are at learning new songs and the easier it becomes to pick up a new song and actually sing it well straight off. Which ties back funnily to our to score to sound module that I was talking about at the beginning, that ability to pick up a new sheet of music and know immediately and be able to perform immediately how it should sound.

This is a process. Even if you’ve been singing for a while, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to sing any song and always get every note right. It does take time and it takes dedicated practice for each song, not just dedicated practice day to day.

Let’s break down the skill a little bit, because there were a few different bits and it’s really useful to understand what you should be training. It’s not just learn a song, try and sing it, see if you get it right or not. There are a few component skills here.

The first one is your ears. If you can’t hear what the notes should be or what the notes are when you listen to a song, you don’t really have much hope of getting it right. Your ears are really fundamental. And the modules I talked about before the intervals and the solfa modules for relative pitch, really focus on that ear skill. Can you recognize, is this interval different from that one? Is this leap in pitch the same one you heard a moment ago? Or is it a slightly smaller one or a slightly bigger one? Honing your ear skills, honing your sense of relative pitch to be very accurate and reliable is really the foundation for being able to sing accurately and reliably. That’s the first area, your ear skills. And like I said before, we have dedicated modules for this. It does take practice, but it gets easier with time.

The second area is your mind’s ear. And Kim actually posted a follow up comment a couple of days later that talks specifically about this. It’s the skill we call audiation, the ability to imagine music in your mind very vividly. It’s very closely related to musical memory and the more accurately and vividly you can imagine music in your mind, the easier it becomes to then perform that music yourself. And again, you can kind of see it logically. If you can’t hear it clearly, you won’t be able to imagine hearing it clearly. And if you can’t even imagine hearing it clearly, you don’t really have a hope of singing it clearly. And so the trap a lot of singers fall into and maybe Kim was having trouble with this is, you expect yourself to shortcut the entire process. And so you hear a song and you sing the song. And in reality, what’s happening is you hear the song and your ears need to do what they should. And then your mind’s ear, your imagination needs to imagine yourself doing what you should and then your voice needs to do what it should.

And the voice is the third of those three areas I mentioned. Once you can imagine it vividly in your mind, you need to bring it out through your voice. And that sometimes comes naturally, but it doesn’t always. And this is what we call vocal control. And you’ll find we have a dedicated module for this in Musical U with some practice exercises, because it does take time. It does take work. Like I said before, the human voice, it doesn’t have keys. It doesn’t have buttons you can press to produce each note. You need to train your voice, when I want to sing this note, my vocal chords need to be here. When I want to sing a note one step above that my vocal chords need to be here. And obviously you’re not quite thinking through that, but fundamentally you’re training yourself physically to hit those notes dead on and to know what it feels like and what it sounds like to sing a whole step or a half step.

Those are the three areas, your ear, your mind’s ear or audiation and your voice. And like I said, a lot of the problems come when you try and shortcut the whole process and you want to go straight from hearing a song on the radio to singing it yourself and you start getting the notes wrong and it’s very hard to know why or what you should do about it. And what tends to help is to break it down into those three steps and to ask yourself, “Okay, are my ears really up to scratch? Can I hear easily and reliably what the intervals or what the solfa degrees are in that melody? If so, can I then imagine that? Once I’ve heard the song on the radio, if I ask myself an hour later to imagine that song again, do I get kind of a blurry version of the song? Can I imagine each note very clearly in my head? And if not, I need to practice that area. And finally, once I can imagine it vividly and remember it vividly, can I bring it out through my voice?”

And the interesting thing here is if you’ve got those first two steps, the third one actually isn’t that tricky because you’ve got what you need to get the notes right. You may not get it right first time, but you know in your head how it should sound, you can listen to yourself, sing it and you’ve got kind of a feedback loop there that lets you quite quickly train yourself to get it right. And you can make this easy by recording yourself and literally listening back. Or you can do it in the moment just by listening to yourself sing. But as I said before, if you’ve skipped those first two steps, you’re a bit stranded because you get it wrong and you might not even realize you’re getting it wrong until someone tells you or you listen back to the recording. Whereas if you’ve put in those first two steps, it’s very easy because you know you’ve got it wrong and you know if it’s too high or too low, because you can hear in your head how it should sound and you can hear in the real world how it does sound.

If you take it in that three step process, it becomes a lot easier and a lot more, I don’t know, it’s a lot less intimidating. You feel a lot more secure because you know, okay, I know how it should sound, I know how it does sound, I know how to fix it. And I think that would maybe go a long way for Kim who was in this situation of starting to hear that she wasn’t getting it right. And that’s fantastic. If she was aware of that and she was conscious of this being her problem. And now it’s just a matter of her practicing to slowly hone in on getting it right first time. And again, I just come back to what I said was my main piece of advice for her, which is to remember, you need to take each song one at a time and not expect too much of yourself on too many songs at once.

She gave a few examples of songs she’s been working on where she knew she was making a mistake and my advice would just be to pick one of those and really hone in on it. And practice just that section. This is a common thing in choirs or in singing lessons. If you take singing lessons with a teacher, just pick the one bar where you make the mistake and sing that one bar for 10 minutes or however long it takes you to reliably hit those notes. And go slow. Partly the problem is if you’re trying to sing the song at full speed, your brain doesn’t have a chance to think through what it needs to. If you take it a bit slower, bring the tempo down, you have a bit more of a chance to imagine the notes before you sing them.

And in Kim’s case, it seems clear she knows how it should sound and she knows she’s getting it wrong. And so I think just slowing down and spending a bit more time practicing those tricky spots, she’ll be able to pause before singing the note that’s always hard, imagine how it should sound and then sing the right note. And if that last step is tricky, we have the vocal control module that gives some exercises to help you hit the notes dead on first time. But I think that overall process of honing in on the problem spots for just one song and thinking in terms of those three steps, your ears, your mind’s ear and your voice, will make it a lot easier for Kim to quash those problem spots and more and more hit the notes right first time, rather than feeling like she’s jumping too far or not far enough or singing the same note when it should change or vice versa. I think that overall framework should really help her nail them.

I hope that’s useful for anyone else who’s hit this problem before of kind of singing notes wrong and not knowing quite why. If you break it down into those steps, you should be able to pinpoint, oh okay, my ears are fine, but I can’t really imagine the music so that’s why I can’t sing it. Or I can imagine the music, but I can’t quite hit the notes right, I need to work on my vocal control. And so on. Just having that framework can go a really long way from what I’ve seen.

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