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One of the most asked questions about singing is, “how to sing high notes?” In fact, when I first started teaching high school chorus, the first question I remember one of the students asking me was, “are you going to teach us to hit the high note?” It was kind of a big obsession with them.
This obsession with “hitting” high notes is troublesome. If you do, in fact, “hit” a high note, it really won’t sound very good. Think about the definition of the word “hit.” It’s forceful, it’s violent. Now think about what you want to sound like when you sing. I don’t think “forceful” and “violent” are the words with which you’d want to describe your sound.
Instead, you might like descriptors like “beautiful,” “full,” “vibrant,” “clear,” or “floating,” to name a few. “Hitting” a high note will deliver none of these qualities.
Biology and Singing High Notes
The other trouble with this is the idea that everyone must be able to sing high notes to be a good singer. Are Sopranos and Tenors the only “good” singers, and solely by the virtue of the length and thickness of the vocal folds? Because that’s what determines how high (and conversely, how low) you can sing- biology. Unfortunately, the secret that other voice coaches don’t tell you is that you don’t have control over how high (and likewise, how low) you can sing.
Singers come in a variety of ranges and qualities and can be described in so many ways (called a “fach“), but the 6 most common classifications are Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass.
These are the ranges (the lowest and highest notes of the voice) and tessituras (where your voice is most comfortable) for these adult classical voice types in general. Obviously, people are individuals and may fall within or outside of these ranges.
For the sake of clarity, when used, the terms “male” and “female” refer to the genetic expression of a human, not their gender which may not be the same.
Biologically Female Adult Voices:
|Soprano||C4 (just above middle C) – C6||E4 – Bb5|
|Mezzo-Soprano||G3 (below middle C) – A5||C4 – G5|
|Alto||F3 – E5||A3- D5|
Biologically Male Adult Voices:
|Tenor||C3 (C below middle C) – A4||F3 – G4|
|Baritone||A2 (A below C3) – F4||
C3 – E4
|Bass||F2 – E4||A2- D4|
The high notes outside of this range, for females “whistle tones” and falsetto for males, are also not used in classical singing. Remember, the falsetto and the head voice in males are not the same.
Contrary to Popular Belief, You Cannot Train to Become Another Voice Classification
Your voice does not remain the same for your whole life. As a very small child, you have a small range of only a few notes. As you grow into an adult, the vocal folds change in size and thickness, altering your range so that by the time you are 25 you have somewhere between an octave and a half and 2 octaves (on average).
At this point, your voice classification is pretty much set. Although the voice will continue to change slightly with age, it won’t be so much so that your classification will change.
That being said, what you can do is stretch. Much like you can increase the flexibility of your hamstrings, you can increase the flexibility of your voice muscles (remember the Thyroarytenoid and Cricoarytenoid muscles are what control the pitches you sing).
You can slightly increase your range through careful practice. But most importantly, you can work with the range your body was designed with, improving the quality of your highest notes with good technique.
How to Sing High Notes More Beautifully
Before you read this technique section: If you are not familiar with how phonation actually happens in your voice, I suggest you take a moment to read about it.
When you learn to play an instrument, you can see its parts; you can see what happens when you press a key or string, strum, or strike. You can’t do that with your voice, so it’s important that you know what’s going on in there to be able to learn to control it.
It will help to make some of these techniques make more sense when you better understand what is happening inside.[/box]
At the end of the post, you can get a PDF copy of the techniques I list below!
1. The Breath
All singing starts with good breathing technique. If your high notes are breathy, then you do not have enough breath pressure. Exercises that work on achieving good breathing technique will help your high notes to have more clarity.
If your high notes are strident, then tightness is probably your trouble. There can be two factors at play here.
- Your adducting muscles are working too hard. Try phonation exercises that focus on balancing the adduction of the vocal folds and the breath.
- The muscles of the neck, throat, and face may be contributing to tension. Try doing some exercises that help release the tension from your vocal tract.
The vowels you use when you sing high notes are incredibly important. This is because, not only are you singing a pitch, but the sound that is carried by vowels (which are created by the shape of the vocal tract) have fundamental frequencies of their own. And those 2 things have to jive.
Each vowel has a formant that resonates on a spectrum of frequencies, each having a fundamental frequency (refered to as F1). To demonstrate, try this little experiment:
- Whisper the vowel [a], notice the pitch of the sound
- Now change the whispered vowel to [o], you should hear the pitch drop
- Do this action quickly, listening for the pitch changes that result
- If you move through the vowels [i, e, a, o, u], you should hear the resulting pitch dropping with each different vowel.
The manipulation of these formants is actually how you change pitch when you whistle. Now try this variation of the experiment:
- Round your lips for the vowel [u]
- Whistle and try to change the pitch
- Notice that you have to change the position of your tongue in order to do this
For an idea of where different vowels formants are, pay attention to the numbers on the right of this chart (F1)
By Любослов Езыкин – Own work, License CC BY-SA 4.0
6 Basic Rules for Formant Tuning
According to Scott McCoy, professor of voice pedagogy at Ohio State University, the most important factor in vowel formants is the position of the tongue, then the shape of the lips, then the opening of the jaw. In his book, Your Voice: An Inside View, he outlines 6 basic rules for understanding formant tuning:
- An anterior constriction (closed vowels, [i] & [u]) results in a lower first formant (F1) and a higher second formant (F2)
- A posterior constriction (open vowels, [a], [ɛ] & [o]) results in a higher F1 and a lower F2
- A longer vocal tract lowers all the formant frequencies
- A shorter vocal tract raises all formant frequencies
- Lip rounding and lip spreading lower all formant frequencies
- Opening the jaw raises F1
Why is this important to understand when singing high notes?
In order to sing in tune, the frequency of the pitch you are singing needs to match the formants of the vowel you are singing. This means that you need to modify some of the vowels of your high notes to sing in tune and with good quality. If you don’t modify your vowels, the sound will become strident and harsh. Not to mention, it puts a great deal of tension on your voice.
Depending on your voice classfication, you’ll either need to open or close your vowels.
What happens if I don’t modify my vowels?
If the vowels are not modified in the manner described above, the quality of the sound is very unrefined and even brash. What is happening in all these cases is called “register violation.” Here, the formant for the vowel being sung doesn’t jive with the harmonic of the pitch’s frequency. Therefore, the formant must change by altering the shape of the pharynx. Such changes include, but are not limited to, lowering the larynx, changing the position of the tongue, rounding the lips, or lowering the jaw in accordance with McCoy’s 6 rules set above.
Female Vowel Modification
In female voices, the vowels need to open up when singing high notes. This is because of Rule #1- the vowels [i] (as in feed), [u] (as in food) are closed (constriction at the front of the mouth) and their fundamental frequencies are low (between D4 and F#4).
In order for the low F1 to get closer to the high pitches in female voice, the entire vocal tract has to change to raise it, resulting in more open vowels. In fact, all cardinal vowels except for [a] have F1’s below G5.
A handy little chart for you. I’ve written “open toward” because the change is a gradual shift of the pharynx- there are vowels that exist between the cardinal vowels. The notes given for each voice part are approximate. You’ll have to try it out in your voice and adjust as needed.
|Vowel||begins to open toward||around the pitch|
|[i] as in “heed”||[I] as in “hit”||B4|
|[I] as in “hit”||[ɛ] as in “fed”||E5|
|[ɛ] as in “fed”||[a] as in “father”||G5|
|[u] as in “soon”||[o] as in “so”||D5|
|[o] as in “so”||[ɔ] as in “saw”||F5|
|[ɔ] as in “saw”||[a] as in “father”||G5|
Male Vowel Modification
Whereas females need to open the vowels as they sing higher, males need to close their vowels. For example, [a] closes to [ɔ], [o] moves closer to [u] and [I] moves closer to [i], whereas the vowels [i], [e], [u] don’t need further modification and will not sound distinctly different from chest to head voice.
The reason for this is that high notes for men are around where the fundamental frequencies of closed vowels are: [i] is around 270Hz (C#4) and [u] is around 300HZ (D4).
4. Lower Your Jaw
As stated in #6 of McCoy’s rules, lowering the jaw will raise F1 of the vowel. Depending on how high the note is you are singing, you may only have to lower it negligibly. Obviously, the higher the pitch, the lower you may need to place your jaw.
Yet, that doesn’t mean you should just drop it as far as it will go. Dropping your jaw, opening up your mouth as tall as you will invite all kinds of tension into your singing, as this action will likely raise the larynx. Pay attention to the interplay between your jaw position and your larynx and consciously relax your throat to avoid this.
5. Raise Your Soft Palate
When you sing, the sound is bouncing off all different surfaces of inside your mouth- your tongue, your cheeks, your hard palate, your soft palate, your teeth, and your lips. Some of these are mobile, some are not. Changing the position of those mobile resonators will change the quality of your sound.
For example, raising your soft palate increases the space in the back of your oropharynx. According to the 6 rules set above, this causes an increase in the F1 of your vowels, allowing them to sync with your higher pitches more easily.
If you’re not sure how to raise your soft palate, try this:
- Open your mouth and pretend to yawn. It’s ok if you actually do yawn right now.
- Feel what is happening in the back of your mouth. That thing you feel moving in the back on the roof of your mouth is your soft palate.
- Pretend to yawn while varying the positions of your:
Eventually, with enough practice, you will be able to control the degree to which you raise it. Also, as you do this more and more, you’ll begin to notice how the rest of the roof of your mouth is affected by this movement, giving you a more precise control of the pitch.
6. Lift Your Upper Lip
As I stated before, your lips are part of the resonating chamber for your voice, and they happen to be one of the more mobile of the set. Hence, you can control your sound by changing the position of your lips.
According to rule #5, rounding the lips lowers all the formants. Therefore, lifting your upper lip above your front teeth raises the vowel formants. Use your smiling muscles to change its position. You can play with it’s position while singing to see at what pitch you should employ this technique and how much you need to lift it.
Remember that not just the middle of the lip can lift, you can also raise the outer edges of the upper lip.
7. Raise Your Cheeks
Just like the lips can change your sound, the other muscles in your face have an effect on your resonance as well. While it is not recommended to put on a big, huge smile when singing because it will spread out your vowels and give them a brash sound, raising the cheeks has a positive effect. I like to call it “smiling with your eyes.”
Try raising your cheeks and pay attention to what happens to the roof of your mouth. You may not be able to feel it at first, but over time, you’ll begin to notice that it seems to lift the space above the hard palate.
I cannot quantify why this happens. Perhaps this is more of an indirect action, as the cheek muscles are not actually attached on the inside on the face. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that it was the movement of the sinus cavity caused by the movement of the cheeks.
In any case, a change in the shape of the resonating space changes the formants of the vowels.
8. Stretching the Vocal Folds
Just like you can stretch out the muscles in your legs to increase their flexibility, you can stretch out your voice muscles to help you reach the full potential of your range. It’s important to note that you do not have to actually make sound to stretch your vocal folds.
- Warm up your voice. Use some of the exercises that I listed in my phonation article. Lip trills are my favorite for a quick, effective warm-up.
- Vocalize your voice to the highest note you can sing comfortably using the vowel modifications I just described.
- Without actually phonating, pretend to sing a note higher than this most comfortable note, hearing the note inside your head.
*When you do this, your hyiod bone will actually continue to tip, lengthening your vocal folds, without vibrating them. Doing this will allow them to stretch without causing any other tension.*
- Hold this position for a few moments until you need to inhale again.
- Repeat the silent “singing” of high pitches that are not yet comfortable to sing.
- Do this exercise daily and eventually your highest comfortable pitch will rise.