Many times we want to sing better, but don’t quite know what’s wrong to begin with. It just sounds bad.

There are as many ways of singing badly as singing well. Understanding just what makes a voice sound bad will help us to see that there are steps each of us can take to improve and learn to love our voices.

Recording yourself is a powerful tool to improve your voice. We all sound funny to ourselves at first. Go ahead, record yourself singing and listen back. No one else has to hear it!

Wait! Before you press the delete button, listen again, try not to wince, and ask yourself these questions:

1. Am I in control of my voice?

Is what I’m hearing in my head the sound that actually comes out? You may have heard talk about singing “on key.” Sounds vibrate at a certain frequency, known as pitch, and when we sing we want our voices to match the vibration we hear. Some people do this naturally, but for those of us that don’t, it can be learned through pitch ear training.

2. Does my voice have a good tone?

You can sing all the “right” notes, and still sound bad. One easy thing to listen for is how you sing your vowels: singers with good tone maximize clear consistent vowel sounds, such as “ah”, “oh” “ee” etc. rather than “ch” “ss” “th” etc.

The subject of tone also covers the overall timbre (characteristic sound) of the voice. For example, is it hoarse or smooth, hard or soft, broad or narrow, light or heavy, and so on. None of these timbres necessarily good or bad, but you want to be aware of them (see question 6 below).

→ Learn more about singing tone

3. Am I pronouncing my words clearly?

Good singers shape their words clearly. This takes more effort than we generally put in when talking to each other. Have you ever freeze-framed on a singer’s face?

Expressive singer

Those crazy expressions are a product of good vocal enunciation. Try really exaggerating your pronunciation while singing. Of course, the level or style of enunciation will vary according to the style of music (see number 6 below).

4. Does my voice sound weak or strong?

When we sing, our bodies are the musical instrument, so it makes sense that whatever we are doing with our body will affect the sound that’s coming out. Good singers breathe much more deeply than mere mortals, and use that breath to support their sound. Good singing posture directs the breath and the sound to maximize your expression.

5. Am I too loud? Too soft?

Even if you sing the right notes with good tone and your pronunciation is crystal clear, nobody wants to listen if you’re too loud or too soft compared to the background music and the occasion. Good singers are always aware of their own volume and whether it fits their musical surroundings.

6. Does my singing suit the style?

Screamo has its place, but is that how you want to sing every folk song? Even well trained professional singers have to be careful when they try other genres. Listen carefully to the tone, enunciation, and phrasing (see question 7, below) of the style you wish to emulate. With your new-found vocal awareness, and a little practice, you’ll become a regular singing chameleon!

7. Am I consistent?

Last year I attended the performance of a wonderful opera singer, who sang every note to perfection–except for one high note that went “ACK!” Even though the song as a whole was magnificent, it’s that ack that I remember most. Learn from the good parts of your performance and apply these lessons to the rest.

8. Am I boring?

You love the song. The lyrics are deeply meaningful to you. So why does your singing sound so lifeless? Phrasing means how the singer “shapes” each line of the song. It’s a combination of pitch, volume, tone, enunciation and more. Consistency is the foundation for a good performance but phrasing makes the singer sound like a person rather than a robot!

Bored Audience

9. Am I straining to hit the notes?

Your favorite singer makes it all sound so easy. But when you try to sing the song, you’re straining for the high notes, or can’t reach the low ones. Don’t despair! All good singers knows their vocal range – the highest and lowest notes they can sing–and choose songs that fit. The good news is that even if the song doesn’t fit your range, you can transpose, or move all the notes a specified degree higher or lower until the melody is within your reach.

10. Do I take care of my voice?

If you want to have a good voice, learn to take care of it. That means warm up before singing difficult passages, learn proper breathing support, take it easy when you have a sore throat, and avoid straining your voice trying to reach notes beyond your range.

Listen, Really Listen

How do we develop all these skills? Good singers with self-awareness use their ears as much as their voice! Listening carefully to ourselves and to others is the key to all of the points we have made so far. Record your singing practice and (after you get past the strange feeling of hearing your own voice) you will be able to pinpoint exactly what can be improved.

Still don’t sound good? Maybe you’ve been too busy thinking about singing in tune, elongating your vowels, making silly enunciation faces, breathing deeply, standing up straight and having just the right tone… Be patient. Pick two or three things to work on at a time. Remember to have fun with it!

Now that you’ve figured out what made your voice sound bad, listen for what you really love about your voice. Build on these qualities with regular practice and enjoy the transformation you hear!