How To Sing in Key
Learning to sing in key is very important when you’re learning to build a great voice. I mean, who wants to listen to off key singing that is completely off pitch? Learning how to sing the right pitch is very simple with the right approach, and starts with the foundation elements of your singing technique.. I often tell my students that their singing will only be as strong as the foundation they’ve built it upon, so make sure to set up your posture, breath support and resonance placement first so you can sing in tune with ease.
This lesson is going to show you how to sing in key while also strengthening your vocal technique for a powerful singing voice and confident, consistent singing – every time you sing.
What is singing in key?
Singing in key is perfecting the frequency that makes up the ‘note’ that you’re aiming for. Great singers master how to sing in key and sing on pitch even in the most demanding or dynamic of vocal phrases. Pitch is a frequency vibration, for example 440Hz. Notes are the names given to each pitch, an example being 440Hz referred to as an “A” note in the fourth octave, or simply known as an A4. Timbre is the character of your voice while you sing, and tone is quite often used in exchange to describe a pitch, timbre or note – I personally refer to tone as a description of character in ones singing, for example a dark tone, a bright tone, a pleasant tone est..
Learning how to sing in key means you need to develop control over these important elements of your singing voice, the frequencies with which you sing, known as a note and is sung in a specific tonal character. If you’re struggling with off-key singing and singing on pitch, this is generally due to a lacking element in your foundation such as support, placement, onsets or proper vowel production.
Learning to sing in key with support
Your foundation starts with a correct posture, which will allow you to breathe using Appoggio singing technique. Posture makes up the initial step of your foundation, starting with a raised head, keeping your shoulders back, looking forward with your chin parallel with the floor and finally the extra step of widening your ribs. Widening your ribs allows you to control your breath support via engagement of the diaphragm instead of the rib contraction used in speech. Managing your breath control in this fashion is often called Appoggio, or simply support. Using this healthy posture, you can now breathe using solely your diaphragm – in essence, the diaphragm cannot really be controlled, as it only engages in response to the adjoining muscles and is controlled involuntarily.
Learning to sing in key requires you to maintain support in this manner so your ribs aren’t allowed to collapse when you are ascending in pitch for high notes. Balancing between airflow and air pressure is an important tool that comes with time, practice and an efficient approach.
Not that you’ve set up Appoggio, your next step is controlling your frequencies with vocal placement. In my approach to singing and coaching, vocal placement is the process of limiting excess frequencies which don’t resonate efficiently in your singing voice – baritones in particular often have issues with placement, but is also an important technique for every voice type and even higher vocal types.
The most efficient vocal placement exercise is a simple “N” exercise while holding the intention of limiting any frequencies that occur below your top teeth – I often remind my students that singing exercises are only as useful and helpful as the intention behind them, so there’s really no point in practicing scales if you’re not sure how or why they work. Limiting your frequencies for placement with this resonant “N” sound will train you to control your frequencies better and eventually form a separation between speech tone and your singing voice – an important point: Your speech and singing voice are unrelated in their process and application, so stop ‘singing’ in the same way that you ‘talk’.
How to improve singing in key with frequencies
Remember, the intention you hold is the most important part of an exercise – practising scales won’t actually improve pitch, only getting to the reason WHY you are singing off key and then learning to develop an approach that improves singing in key the right way.
It’s common for singers to become pitchy due to improper placement, which causes inefficient resonance and as a result – singing off key. A pitch is simply a frequency, and notes are simply the names given to each frequency. If you are singing off key, you are actually singing an incorrrect frequency and need to get to the cause why your frequencies aren’t being formed in the right manner. In singing, a frequency is simply the SPEED at which your vocal chords vibrate, and this vibration gets created via closure of your chords (referred to as adduction) combined with air pressure release allowed by extension of the diaphragm – sure, you’ll learn articulate and EQ this frequency into vowel sounds and words with time, but for now, it’s best to break down your technique to it’s core and work out why and where your pitch and key is going wrong before you can learn to sing in key better. If you are setting up your posture, breathing via engagement of the diaphragm and ensuring placement of your frequencies, your pitch will improve drastically – you now know that any inconsistent or out of key singing is due to improper creation of your vowel sounds and likely the way you begin your resonance, which in singing is known as an onset.
How to sing in tune with a balanced onset
Singing with a balanced onset is one of the most important parts of great singing and will not only help you sing and sound better, it will help you retain vocal health. Your onset is the way that your vocal chord closure and airflow coordinate together to create a nicely balanced onset or without proper training and development, a glottal or breathy onset – two of the most damaging parts of poor vocal technique. An onset occurs on a resonant sound like your vowels, so if you find you’re able to sing scales and exercises in key, but when you add in words and the vocal line it gets pitch – your onsets and the way you create your consonants are likely the reason.
Singing with a balanced onset creates the perfect ‘start’ to how you resonance, and with time will help you learn how to sing in key with a pleasant resonance that is powerful, but not forceful or weak.
Learn to sing on keywith vowels
Learning to sing on key with vowel sounds is the secret sauce of great vocal technique, and will make the difference between singing scales, or singing actual songs. As we discussed, singing and speaking are different in their application, and while they do use of the same mechanism, they are ultimately a separate process. In speech, vowels are often pronounced with the lips, teeth and tongue – where in singing it’s important to create your vowel sounds by forming a specific tongue shape and matching your vocal tract width to each vowel sound. A great example is an EE vowel, the most narrow while requires you to raise the back portion of your tongue, whereas an AH is relatively wider and requires a lowered and concave tongue to allow proper resonance. Learning to create your vowels this way will have you singing in key much sooner than scales or exercises.
Proper vowel production is an important part of singing in key and will ultimately give you better frequency control and clearer diction without strain. If you struggle to sing a specific word or vowel sound, you’re not creating vowel sounds correctly using your tongue shape while altering your vocal tract width.
How to sing in key with Middle Voice
Beginner singers generally experience a pronounced ‘break’ in their voice that splits chest voice from head voice – inability to connect these two registers plays a part in your ability to sing in key and pitch the right notes while singing in tune. In a litereal sense, there is no physical vocal break, but for beginner singers I’m sure you’re aware it IS a reality – the solution is treating this difficult passage of your voice as a figurative middle register that occurs with balanced engagement of the muscles that create your chest register, and those of your head voice – the TA and CT muscles respectively.
Cricothyroid Thyroarytenoid Balance
The TA, or throarytenoid muscles are how you control your vocal fold weight, in essence they ‘thicken’ your chords and allow deeper and more rich resonance production while allowing slower frequencies you identify as your low range – often known as chest voice. Males often ever-engage the Thyroarytenoid ligament and sing with incorrect vocal fold mass into the middle part of their voice, only to then have their vocal chords ‘snap’ to a thinner weight or even complete lack of TA engagement – this is often called head voice.
The cricothroid muscles control tension or ‘stretch’ in your vocal folds and is often thought of as ‘head voice’ – tension and stretch with no weight. By balancing your Cricothyroid and Thyroarytenoid engagement, you create the honorary third register that is sometimes called middle voice or Mix voice, and you will be able to retain the depth of your chest register while accessing the extensive range we possess in head voice – without a vocal break and always sung in key because your frequency production and use of your resonators is more efficient.
How to sing higher pitch notes in key
Beginners often struggle to sing high notes in part because of improper coordination between their registers. This results in the a ‘pushed’ chest voice, or a ‘flip’ up into a heady tone that is weak and disconnected. By coordinating your chest and head voice with cricothyroid thyroarytenoid balance, known as Mix Voice, your voice will easily resonate at the appropriate frequency to sing in key with ease and confidence.
Singing higher notes in key is a skill many singers want to develop and learn – but it really shouldn’t be confusing or difficult to develop your high range, as singing is often a balance of coordination rather than muscular force. If you’re pushing and straining in the high range, your first point of call is to inspect your foundation and go through each step we’ve spoken about, from posture, breathing and placement, through to vowel production and register release. Once you can coordinate your registers in a balanced way, in essence the way your voice was designed to function, you can then alter the width of your vocal tract as you sing higher, which in part ensures a perfect balance of your frequencies are always resonating at any given pitch and key.
Continually alter the vocal tract width – sometimes known as ‘tuning your vowel’ or vowel modification allows you to sing higher into your range with a blend of each different resonator in your voice. The first vocal break can often be remedied by slightly widening your vocal tract, and then returning to a more neutral space in the middle of your range. A common way to achieve proper tuning is called vowel modification, basically, a slight change in your vowel character as you sing through the more difficult passages of your vocal tract. A great example is the “AH” vowel, requiring a concave tongue and relative wideness o f the vocal tract, and how a slight change towards an “OH” or “AWE” around your first vocal break – you’ll see how this actually removes your break and permits you to sing in key into your high range with ease.
Your vowel will then return to neutral before narrowing up to your higher range. An important note to make is that every vowel is unique in the way it resonates, so no two singers will really modify their vowel in the same way. The most efficient way to develop tuning of your resonance is control the tongue root, the tongue and the soft palate, which will allow you to make subtle changes in a fine-tuned way without the need to mangle your words which sometimes happens with vowel modification. Toggle between the AH to OH vowel character again without moving your mouth, and focus on the back of your throat – with time you will identify how the tongue root moves at the base of your tongue (not the ‘back’ of your tongue itself), allowing you to tune your resonance to ensure proper space and efficiency for singing higher notes in key.
Singing off pitch is improper frequency production
Pitch is simply a frequency with which your vocal chords are vibrating at – if you are singing off-key, you aren’t creating the right frequencies or speeth for the corresponding note you want to sing. Place your frequencies properly when you first start warming up and you’ll eventually learn that the pitch and key of a note doesn’t come from ‘hearing’ the pitch, it instead occurs with frequency control allowed by breath support, vocal fold closure and placement – you actually only ‘hear’ a pitch after it has been created, so training your ear often doesn’t actually help in learning how to sing in key. Control your frequencies properly to ensure that singing out of key is a thing of the past with the following steps:
- Proper Posture
- Breathing via the diaphragm
- Support (aka Appoggio)
- Tongue shaping your vowels
- Vocal Tract Width
- Resonance Tuning and vowel modification
- Register control (aka Mix)
- Onsets and Consonants
Learning how to sing is a process of coordination, so if you find you’re straining to sing in key, then your vocal technique is most likely lacking a key element from your foundation. Use the troubleshooting guide in the navigation bar to your right for help with every aspect of your voice, and of course you’re also welcome to email through a clip of your singing with any issues you’re experiencing for an honest and professional appraisal as to where your singing might benefit from some tweaking and training.
Since launching in 2010, Bohemian Vocal Studio has grown steadily into the premier online vocal studio providing professional vocal coaching to students all across the globe. Coaching beginners and touring professionals alike and helping them reach their vocal goals sooner has become the motto of Kegan here at BVS – Make sure to book a Skype Session today so you can control your frequencies and learn how to sing in key!
If you have any questions about singing in key, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.