Sing Higher Notes Without Straining [5 Hacks]
If you’ve been trying to learn how to sing higher notes without straining, these 5 vocal hacks will have you singing higher than ever before with just a few simple tweaks to your singing technique. Singing is all about frequencies, and learning ot sing higher notes without straining is no different – singing high notes isn’t like lifting weights or building strength at the gym, it’s actually more to do with efficient resonance, balance and of course, frequencies. A low note in singing is simply a ‘slow’ frequency of vibration in the vocal folds, and a high notes is simply a ‘fast’ frequency of vibration in the vocal folds – so all that pushing and straining you’re doing as you try to hit high notes is actually slowing your vibration down and making it an impossible job. With these 5 vocal hacks, you’ll be able to sing higher notes without straining. Lets get started!
#1 – Vowel Shaping
Vowel shaping is one technique in particular that absolutely changed my whole life as a singer. While some accents, like various American dialects and even Italian have some similarity between singing and speaking, and hence singers who are blessed with these accents might find the process of singing vowels fairly intuitive, someone with an Australian accent like mine (and also many of my European students) often struggle with the concept of shaping vowels with the tongue instead of pronouncing with our thick accents. Vowel shaping is the reason why a fantastic singers loses their thick ‘speaking’ accent when they sing – the truth being that singing and speaking are often two very different things considering your accent, voice type and many other important variables that make us all unique and different as singers.
A simple way to introduce the concept of vowel shaping to you is for you to alternate between an EE and an AH sound a little like “EE-YAH-EE-YAH”. If you pay careful attention, you’ll notice that the EE sound features your tongue raised at the back and the AH sound features a lowered and concave tongue. Learning to make this differentiation and use it appropriately when you are singing these vowel sounds in songs will make you the most consistent singer possible. In short, there are three main vowel shapes in singing;
- EE – Tongue up at the back
- AH – Tongue low and concave
- OO – Tongue back in the throat and lips forward
And from each of these main vowel shapes you can make slight alterations to sing any/every other vowel sounds and even a few consonants too. Learning these three base vowel shapes is the most efficient way to learn vowel shaping and ingrain this simple but effective technique as a healthy habit in your singing. Now, this tutorial is titled “how to sing higher notes without straining” so you might be wondering exactly how vowel formation effects your high range/contributes to your ability to sing high. Lets talk about it in hack #2.
#2 – Resonant space
Now that you’re setting up your vowel shapes effectively, it’s time we started getting to the fun stuff – your high range. In singing, each vowel has three main elements; the shape of the tongue, aperture of the mouth and finally resonant space. Resonant space is how you manipulate and allow your high (fast) frequencies to vibrate with ease so you can sing higher notes without straining. A simple introduction to this would be for you to sing an appropriately shaped AH vowel up towards your first vocal break. Instead of pushing and yelling at your first break, if you send your vowel towards the back of your head instead of forward while allowing the character of the vowel to change to more of an OH sound, so, AH to OH, you’ll notice that your vocal break magically disappears and you can sing moderately higher with this slight OH character (AWE for you Americans out there). Now, the reason this happens has very little to do with the sound of your vowel or your pronunciation, and everything to do with resonant space. If you open up resonant space on a pure AH vowel shape through your middle range, the alteration of your vocal tract gives the illusion that you are singing with a subtle OH character to the vowel – congratulations, you just discovered resonant space.
Now, simply singing towards OH is a mass oversimplification because each vowel sound is different and requires it’s own unique set of character tuning, or vowel modifications as the concept is sometimes called. Learning how to alter the character of each vowel in the vocal tract instead of with pronunciation is the key to forming appropriate resonant space and one of the first important keys to sing higher notes without straining. In general, most singers widen their vocal tract a touch through the first break, and then incrementally narrow as they ascend higher in range – but again, every singer is different. Learning to tune your vowels in this manner WILL help you sing higher notes without straining, but it does take time, patience and consonant practice.
#3 – Balanced Onsets
If I had a dollar for every time I shared the importance of balanced onsets… In singing, a vocal onset is literally the onset of your resonance, the way that you begin to sing. While the voice is capable of balancing in various different ways, resulting in varied onsets, the only onset that you should form as a habit in your voice is a balanced onset where airflow and vocal fold closure meet at the very same moment to create instant, and you guessed it, strain-free resonance.
Now, if you release air before you achieve closure, you’ll create a breathy or ‘aspirate’ onset which is popular with many pop and folk singers – literally releasing air in a breathy manner before you sing. This often results in flat intonation and has the detrimental effect of drying out the vocal folds while also hindering proper vocal fold closure. While a breathy onset can be used sparingly for dramatic effect, it’s risky and generally not that professional sounding. Now, on the flip-side, if you achieve closure before releasing airflow, this will result in a glottal or ‘harsh’ onset which is exactly what it sounds like, a harsh slamming sound that is generally sharp in pitch, causes wear to the vocal folds and again you guessed it – creates vocal strain.
A balanced onset is the only healthy way to initiate resonance in singing, and any strain created by an imbalanced onset like a glottal or aspirate onset will translate and carry on through to your high range. If you’re currently pushing and straining in the high range, pay special attention to your vocal onset – the solution to your vocal strain might be easier and more obvious than you think.
#4 – Support is key
In singing, support really is key to so many things. Support is really just a fancy word to describe the balance between airflow and air pressure – a supported tone is skewed towards airflow, and an unsupported tone is skewed towards air flow. Of course, like every aspect of singing an element of balance is really key to using vocal technique effectively. You don’t want to over-pressurise, and you don’t want to sing with excess aspiration of air.
Many singers often link their chest voice with support, but the truth is very far from this – while pushing chest voice requires support, support doesn’t mean that you need to extend or push your chest register, in fact, quite opposite. A powerful head range, a connected middle range and of course a rich and full chest voice all require support and balance in your airflow. If you find that support makes you push your low register, you’re inadvertently pushing chest at the same time and you need to learn how to separate these two very different vocal elements.
I personally suggest developing support in the head register first to avoid this bad habit of pulling chest voice – remember, support is simply a balance between airflow and air pressure, and this is not necessarily related to chest resonance. Learning to sing with mix voice through the middle of your range is the key to effective support, and learning to SUPPORT your mix register through the middle of your range is the key to doing so without pushing.
#5 – Compression
Now, hack number five is a little bit more advanced and comes with the caveat that you MUST be able to implement all four other hacks perfectly before attempting to sing with compression. The reason we spoke at length about how support and a full chest voice are not the same thing is because compression may at first have a similar sensation to pushing or pulling chest, however with the right approach will actually allow you to sing higher chest voice notes, allow a powerful connection between chest and head voice and as a final cherry on top, allow you to sing higher notes without straining. Compression is linked to the manner with which you support your voice and requires consistent air pressure and limited air flow when you sing – the final step to compression is actually locating the supraglottis and making the differentiation between a glottal onset, pushing, and healthy compression.
A great place to start with these 5 vocal hacks is the foundations 101 singing course available here at BVS which will show you how to set up a rock solid foundation for your voice so you can implement these 5 vocal hacks with ease and start working towards extending your range and building control, balance and consistency in your voice every time you sing!
If you have any questions about how to sing higher notes without straining, you’re welcome to leave any questions or feedback 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.