Do you enjoy singing… but worry that it doesn’t sound good to other people?
There are two factors which determine whether you can sing in tune or not, and the good news is that both are within your control.
One of them is big and the other relatively small – and you might be surprised which is which!
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.
20%: Controlling your voice
You might think that singing in tune is solely a matter of training your vocal chords. In fact this is quite a small piece of the puzzle, and it’s a part of the problem which doesn’t take long to fix.
If you can change your speaking voice to be higher or lower – for example to pretend to be speaking as a woman if you’re a man, or vice-versa – then you know you have some control over your pitch. Controlling your singing pitch is just a matter of refining this control and practising hitting notes exactly first time, rather than wandering around in pitch until you hit the right note.
If you’re worried you can’t sing in tune, this aspect of the problem (controlling your voice) is actually far less crucial than the mental and aural aspect of singing in tune…
80%: Hearing the note you should sing, and hearing the note you are singing
You probably already have some sense of pitch. Continuing with our speaking example, you can probably hear that a woman speaking is normally higher in pitch than a man’s low voice. 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 sense of pitch is applied in two ways when you want to sing in tune:
Part 1: Hearing the target note
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 – either:
- Out loud. For example, if you are singing in a choir and surrounded by other people singing the same notes as you, or
- In your head. For example if you’re singing solo or accompanied by chords
You can practice this ability to hear the target note using two particular ear training techniques which correspond to the two cases above:
- Audiation: Practice imagining music accurately and in detail in your head. You probably already have some ability to do this, but you can develop the skill further, and in particular hone your internal sense of pitch.
- Active listening: There is a difference between just listening, and actually hearing. Active listening practice trains you to really pay attention to the notes you hear, including their exact pitch.
By practising these two techniques you will teach your brain and ears to be more sensitive to pitch and tuning, which will have a big positive impact on your singing.
Part 2: Hearing the note you are singing
Perhaps the biggest and scariest part of having a problem with singing in tune: Not knowing!
If you don’t know whether or not the note you’re singing is correct, you will never be a confident singer, and it can be very demoralising when somebody comments on your tuning.
Once you can hear the target note (as discussed above) your next step is to practice hearing whether or not you are correctly hitting that pitch when you sing.
First, check that you are not tone deaf with an online test.
Then, to develop your skills you can:
- Start actively listening to yourself and those around you when you sing in a group
- Record yourself singing and listen back. It’s easier to hear pitch issues when you’re not also trying to sing at the same time!
- Use a digital tuner to practice matching pitch, using its automatic feedback to correct, and paying attention with your ears
- Listen for blending (consonance) as you adjust your pitch to the target note. You will develop a “feel” for whether the note is fitting in properly with the musical context.
How to learn to sing in tune
So now that you understand the different components of being in tune when you sing, here’s the step-by-step for learning to sing in tune:
- Begin by learning about pitch ear training
- Learn to match pitch when singing, using a digital tuner
- Practice audiation to develop accurate pitch in your inner hearing
- Start actively listening while you sing (alone or in choir)
As you work through these four steps you will find it increasingly easy to hear whether or not you are hitting the right notes when you sing, and quickly adjust your pitch if necessary.
This will soon become second nature to you, and you won’t need to think about it. Your tuning problems will disappear and you will be able to automatically and confidently sing in tune!
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