How to Sing on Pitch
One of the most common problems beginning singers face is learning to sing on pitch. But learning how to sing in tune is not always easy, even when if you have an amazing musical ear.
But why is that? “I know I have a good ear”, you may say, “but why can’t I sing in tune?”
If you have a hard time hitting the right notes, know that singing off key doesn’t necessarily mean you’re tone deaf.
There are lots of reasons you may not sing on pitch. For many people, the reason you’re singing flat is totally physiological.
Before we talk more about learning to sing in tune, keep in mind this article is talking mostly about adult learners that are having a hard time singing on pitch. If you’re interested in teaching children to sing on pitch, check out this blog on the best ways to learn to sing.
Why Am I Singing Flat?
The most common reason a vocalist is singing flat has to do with what the vocal folds (cords) are doing, rather than the ear.
Singing on key is actually a very complex task for the vocal cords. As a matter of fact, just to sing the note A4, the vocal folds must be opening and closing 440 times per second to hit the correct pitch!
That’s because the vocal folds sing a pitch by stretching or shortening to increase or decrease the vibrating length of the instrument. Increasing or decreasing the length raises or lowers the resulting pitch. Confused yet? Read on.
Try this at home:
I like to use a rubber band to demonstrate this. Hold a rubber band loosely between your thumbs and pluck it. The band is so slack that there is no audible noise. Next, stretch the rubber band taut between your thumbs and pluck it. There should be an audible “thoink”.
If you stretch the rubber band even further, the sound produced by the rubber bands is even higher in pitch.
The pitch of the rubber bands rises because as I increase the vibrating length of the instrument, it vibrates faster, resulting in a higher pitch. Cool huh?!
Some kids even stretch rubber bands over an empty tissue box to make an improvised guitar.
The Vocal Folds and Pitch
The vocal folds work in the same way as the rubber band. A vocalist sings a given pitch by unconsciously stretching or shortening the vocal folds to the point that the speed of the vibrations produces the pitch they want to sing.
Now, if all this scientific stuff is happening and I’m not even thinking about it, how do I learn to sing on pitch?
Simply put, most pitch problems are the result of the vocal cords being the wrong length or depth for the desired pitch.
If I’m trying to sing an A3 in my chest voice and my vocal cords are too thin and stretched for the thickness required to hit it, will my pitch be higher or lower than the A3? Since the vibrating length of the instrument is too long, my pitch will be higher and I will sing sharp.
As a voice teacher, we have a name for when the cords are too thin and stretched in the chest voice range. We call this light chest and it’s a huge barrier to singing low notes on pitch.
If I’m trying to sing a high C4 and my vocal folds are thicker than the stretch required to hit it, will my pitch be higher or lower than the sound I want? Since the vibrating length of the instrument is too short and thick, my pitch will be lower and I will sing flat.
As voice teachers, we call this abundance of thickness in the cords vocal weight.
How to Stop Singing Flat
As we’ve seen, singing flat is the result of the vocal folds being uncoordinated for the particular note that you want to sing.
So here are some tips on how to sing on pitch.
One of my favorite tools for working with singers is vowels. Vowels are the speech sounds produced by the open vocal tract between consonants. “Ah” is an example of a vowel.
But in addition to being a huge part of language and singing, vowels have a strong effect on the pitch making process. There are vowels that tend to produce more chest voice and thickness in the vocal folds. There are also headier vowels that stretch and thin the vocal folds.
If You’re Singing Flat
Try singing scales with a wide range (bigger than an octave) on a heady vowel such as “ooh” or “ee”.
These vowels tend to direct towards more head voice and hence more stretch in the vocal folds.
A great exercise that I love to do for a song is find the passage where I’m singing flat and sing the melody on “Goo” or “Gee” to help my folds find the perfect configuration for those notes.
When I feel comfortable singing the melody on “Goo” or “Gee” and I’m sure that I’m on pitch, I switch back to the original melody and lyrics and am always shocked to find that I am singing on pitch.
If for some reason you’re sure that you’re singing the incorrect pitch, go back to the “Goo”s and “Gee”s until you find the correct pitch again and repeat.
If You’re Singing Sharp
Try singing scales with a shorter range (less than an octave) with a chesty vowel such as “Ae” or “Uh”.
Since these vowels tend to direct more towards the chest voice, the resulting vocal folds will be thicker and shorter resulting in a lower pitch.
If you’ve been having a hard time singing a song at the bottom of your voice, try singing a “Nae” (as in “Nasty”) or “Guh” (as in gutter) instead of the melody on the difficult passage.
When you feel that the exercise is giving you a bit more security on the low notes in the song, try switching back to the melody and lyrics while trying to retain the feeling those chesty vowels gave you.
I’m always amazed at how this simple exercise helps singers (often females with light chest) sing these lower notes perfectly on pitch.
If for some reason you’re not singing the correct pitch, go back to the “Nae” or “Guh” until you find the right pitch again and repeat.
A Few Things to Note
Most people learn to sing on pitch in their youth, but not everyone is exposed to music and singing early on. Usually this means they haven’t developed their ear enough to hear and produce the correct pitch.
So even though these exercises can be incredibly helpful for anyone, it may not help those that still need to develop their musical ear. Only ear training will do that.
But remember, even for those with a great musical ear, we ALL sing off pitch from time to time. This is completely natural but we want to do everything in our power to honor the music we’re singing by finding the correct pitch. One of the best ways of doing that is by using vowel exercises to get the vocal folds to stretch or shorten the desired amount and then revert to the original lyrics.
If you believe that you’re not executing these exercises correctly or you just want a trained ear, consider booking a trial free lesson so I can hear exactly what you’re doing.