Many people think that they aren’t good singers, or that they can’t “carry a tune.” There’s only a small percent of people who are actually “tone deaf.” Truth is, 98% of people actually do have the potential to sing well. While there are many facets of singing that make a voice “good,” the first and foremost thing is intonation. Here’s what to do if you need a little help to sing in tune.
How to Sing In Tune
“Intonation” and singing “in-tune/out-of-tune” are other ways of describing your pitch accuracy. That is to say, how close your voices expression of a note matches its correct frequency.
First you need to identify the extent of your trouble.
If you record your voice and listen to it, you probably know how accurate you are. Occasionally, you might not be able to discern that yourself, in which case it’s time to enlist the help of a friend (one who “can” sing.)
Here are the steps you need to take:
Step 1: Test Your Pitch Discernment
In other words, can you hear the pitch accurately?
Your friend is going to help you evaluate your ability to discern high and low notes.
Have your friend play or sing two different notes. Your job is to identify which one higher and which note is lower.
Do a few different rounds of this where the notes are far apart. This should be fairly easy, but if it isn’t, have your friend make the notes even farther apart.
Slowly bring the notes closer together in each subsequent round. If you have trouble with this, you’ll need to practice this exercise with a friend. Aim for a few times a week if possible.
Step 2: Evaluate Your Ability to Match Pitch
Once you know that you can hear the difference between high and low pitches, you’ll need to evaluate your ability to produce specific pitches.
Again, you’ll need the help of a friend, preferably a friend with about the same range as you.
You friend should sing a note in the middle of your range. You sing that same note back. From the Step 1, you should be able to tell if you are higher or lower or the same as your friend.
If your pitch is not the same:
Sing the note you were just singing (yes, I do mean the “wrong” one). Your friend should match the pitch you are singing (you should be singing at the same time here).
Then, your friend should SLOWLY slide (yes, slide, not step) their voice to the “right” note. Your job is to try to “drag” your voice up/down with your friend’s voice.
Now that you are singing the same “right” note. Take a breath and both of you sing the same note at the same time.
Take a breath. Now your friend repeats the note (by themselves), and then you sing the same note again (by yourself).
Tip: If you have trouble sliding your voice up/down with your friend: Touch your foreheads together while you sing. This will allow you to feel the vibrations created by your voices.
When your friend’s voice moves and your voice is slightly off that pitch, the vibrations will intensify (because your frequencies are clashing).
Slide your voice up/down to try to meet your friend’s voice. Once you are singing the same pitch, the vibrations will be more comfortable again.
Again, you should practice this a few times a week, if possible, until it is easy for you.
Step 3: Sing the "Center" of the Pitch
Once you have no trouble with pitch discernment or matching pitch, the next thing to tackle is singing the “center” of the pitch.
You’ve probably heard of singing “flat” or “sharp.” On a basic level, that means that the frequency of the pitch you are singing is slightly below (flat) or above (sharp) the note you want to sing. The difference is so small that you aren’t quite singing the next note up or down on the chromatic scale.
What is the "Center" of the Pitch?
Human voices don’t really sustain a single pitch frequency and actually vacillate between two frequencies on either side of the pitch they want to sing.
The average of those two frequencies is the center of the pitch. (On a side note: How far apart the two frequencies are that you are singing determines your vibrato. The closer they are to pitch, the more “straight tone” the note is.)
It sounds like if your “center” is higher than the intended frequency, then you are singing “sharp,” and when your “center” is lower than the frequency of the pitch you want to sing, then you are singing “flat.” But this is NOT how intonation works.
Intonation is actually more complicated than that. Your voice is more than just air vibrating between your vocal folds. The sound you hear is produced there, but then it goes through a resonating chamber, your pharynx. Basically that means the sound bounces around in your head and throat.
The resonance produced by the sound bounding around in your head is what makes the pitch have color, what makes your voice yours and not anyone else’s.
Vowel Shapes and Intonation
Generally speaking, singing flat or sharp is a function of the shape of the vowel. The shape of your mouth (your lips, how far apart your jaws are, the placement of your tongue) is what determines the exact frequency of the note your voice is producing.
A little science (but not too in depth): Resonance produces something called “formants.” Simply put, formants are frequencies on the harmonic series.
Each vowel shape emphasizes certain frequencies of the harmonic series over others.
The closer the formants produced by your pharynx are to the formants of the actual vowel, the more “on-center” your pitch is.
In my post How to Sing High Notes, I detailed what those formants are for each vowel and well as Scott McCoy’s 6 Rules for tuning your formants.
From those rules I derived several techniques for correcting your pitch. I’ve copied them below for you.
Correcting "Flat" Singing
Most of the time, if a singer is out of tune, chances are they are singing under the pitch, or “flat.” Here are 4 things to try to raise the formants of your vowels.
1. Lower Your Jaw
Lowering the jaw will raise the first formant 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.
2. Raise Your Soft Palate
For example, raising your soft palate increases the space in the back of your oropharynx. This causes an increase in the F1 of your vowels.
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 jaw.
- Pretend to yawn while varying the positions of your tongue.
- Pretend to yawn while varying the positions of your lips.
Pay attention to the actions of the tongue and larynx when you lift the soft palate. You’ll need to consciously relax them in order not to invite tension into your voice.
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.
3. Lift Your Upper Lip
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.
4. Lift 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 I don’t recommend putting 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. My first voice teacher used 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 vowel.
Correcting "Sharp" Singing
Occasionally, you’ll find that some of your notes are a little sharp. Those tend to happen with very “bright” vowels, especially “ee.”
You might think that to correct sharp singing, you need to do the opposite of what you do for flat singing. But that’s not strictly true.
1. Make the Lips More Narrow
Many singers tend to open the mouth out wide when they sing- especially for that bright vowel “ee.”
In order to counter that overly bright and sharp sound, make your lips taller instead of wider. This does not necessarily mean that you have to change the position of your jaw.
In fact, your teeth for a closed vowel like “ee” should only be about 1-finger-width apart. However, you can keep your jaw in exactly the same place but most your lips.
2. Don't Lower the Soft Palate
If you lower your soft palate, instead of correcting the pitch to center, you’ll more likely make the pitch flat, and definitely nasal. You always want a high soft palate when aiming for a classical sound.
3. Lower the Position of Your Tongue
When singing with a bright sound, the back of the tongue generally tends to be lifted rather high to direct the placement high.
If you lower the position of your tongue slightly, you should notice a change in placement and therefore a change in your pitch.
4. Relax the Larynx Down
The 3rd rule of formant training states that a longer larynx lowers all formants of a vowel. Therefore, if you lower your larynx, the formants will be lower.
Most of the time, untrained singers sing with a raised larynx, especially since that is the way that most popular music is done. If all your life you’ve emulated pop singers, then your larynx will most likely be in the same position as those singers you’ve been emulating.
Therefore, you’ll need to consciously lower the larynx.
Please note that I am not advocating for artificially lowering your larynx. Don’t push it down and keep it depressed while singing.
If may be helpful, however, for you to do some exercises of that manner just to get the idea of the extreme positions of the larynx and then you’ll be able to relax it back to a proper mid-level position.
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