The Secret to Singing In Key
If you want to build a great voice, it is essential to learn how to sing in key. Singing off key really means that you are singing the wrong notes, and as a singer, that is something you definitely don’t want. Singing the right pitch seems hard, but it doesn’t have to be if you develop the right approach. Developing a good singing approach starts with the foundation elements of your singing technique. Remember that your voice will be only as strong as the foundation it’s built on. So, in order to sing in tune with ease, you have to set up your posture, breathing and resonance placement. Only with a strong foundation, you will be able to sing in key while at the same time strengthening your vocal technique for a powerful singing voice.
What Singing in Key Means?
Singing in key actually refers to perfecting the frequency of the note you are aiming to hit. Great singers know how to sing in key and always sing on pitch, even when it comes to most demanding or dynamic vocal phrases.
Pitch refers to frequency vibration, and notes are the names given to each pitch. For example, frequency vibration of 440Hz is known as the “A” note in the fourth octave or A4. Timbre refers to the character of your singing voice, and tone is used to describe a pitch, a note or a timbre. So, we can define a tone as a description of a character in ones singing. Therefore, a tone can be dark, bright, pleasant and so on. I am explaining the difference between these words because, in order to sing in key, it is necessary to master each one.
So, to sing in key, you need to take control of the frequencies with which you sing (notes) and learn how to sing them in a particular tonal character. Having problems with singing in key means there is probably an issue in your foundation.
How to Sing in Key with Support
As I mentioned, a proper and a solid foundation starts with a proper posture. Only by maintaining a proper posture, you will be able to breathe properly using Appoggio. Posture, as the initial step of your foundation, starts with keeping your head raised, your shoulders back and looking forward with your chin parallel with the floor. You also must widen your ribs in order to be able to control your breath support. While singing, you shouldn’t breathe and manage your airflow by contracting the ribs as you do in speech. Breathing and airflow management should be done only through your diaphragm. Controlling your breathing in this fashion is professionally called Appoggio and it means support. By using this healthy posture, you can breathe only using the diaphragm. In order to sing in key, you must maintain support in this manner, and your ribs mustn’t collapse when you are ascending in pitch. Balancing between airflow and air pressure is not easy at first, but with practice, and most importantly, an efficient approach, you will master it in no time.
Now that you know how to set up Appoggio, in order to control your frequencies, you have to learn to sing with placement. Vocal placement is the process that involves limiting excess frequencies which don’t resonate efficiently in your singing voice. As a baritone singer, I often had issues with placement in the past. However, no matter what type of voice you have, vocal placement is a technique you must master if you want to become a great singer.
To practice vocal placement, I recommend a simple “N” exercise which is focused on limiting any frequencies that occur below your top teeth. Every singing exercise will be useful to you only as much as you understand how it’s supposed to help your singing voice. For example, if you don’t know how scales work, there is no point in practicing them, and expecting to sing better.
Over time, the “N” exercise will help you train yourself to control your frequencies and form a separation between speech tone and your singing voice. Singing in the same way as you talk is not good because these two processes, although they use the same mechanism, are actually unrelated in their operation and application.
How to Improve Singing in Key with Frequencies
Remember, the intention you hold is the most critical part of any singing exercise. As I said, practicing scales won’t improve your pitch, but when done the right way, it will help you understand why you are singing off key. Understanding why you are doing something wrong will help you develop an approach that will actually address the problem.
Singers are often pitchy due to improper vocal placement. Without proper vocal placement, your voice won’t resonate properly, and you will be singing off key. Since pitch is a frequency, and notes are the names given to each frequency, singing off key actually means you are singing an incorrect frequency. So, to explain the root of your problem – you are singing off key because your frequencies are not being formed in the right way.
In singing, frequency is the speed at which your vocal chords vibrate. Vocal cord vibration is created via adduction (closure of your chords) combined with air pressure release that is allowed by extension of the diaphragm. In order to identify why and where your pitch and key is going wrong, you have to break down your technique to its core. When you know that the problem is not in your foundation, you can focus on learning to articulate and EQ a particular frequency into vowel sounds and words. But typically, the problem with off-key singing is, as I previously said, in your foundation, and not in the way you articulate and EQ a particular frequency. Once you learn how to set up your posture, breath only through your diaphragm and ensure proper vocal placement, your pitch will also improve drastically.
How to Sing in Key with a Balanced Onset
Out of key singing can also be caused due to the improper creation of vowel sounds, and the way you begin your resonance, also known as you onset. Singing with a balanced onset is a vital part of great singing and retaining your vocal health. An onset is a way your airflow and vocal chord closure coordinate together. With proper training, these two will coordinate together, creating a pleasant tone. Without professional training, your onset will be glottal or breathy. Glottal or breathy onsets are both a result of a very poor vocal technique. Singing with a glottal or breathy onset will not only make you sound bad, but it may also severely affect your signing voice and lead to a vocal cord strain.
How to know if your onset needs to be fixed? If you are singing scales and other exercises in key, but you struggle when you add words, you are not creating your consonants and onsets in a proper manner. A balanced onset helps you create that perfect start, and sing in key with a pleasant and powerful resonance.
How to Sing in Key with Vowels
Learning to sing in key with vowel sounds is one of the secrets of great vocal technique, and it will definitely make a difference between singing scales and actual songs. As we already mentioned, singing and speaking are very different in their application, even though they use the same mechanisms. In speech, vowels are pronounced with your lips, teeth, and tongue, and in singing, vowels are created by shaping them with your tongue and matching it with a corresponding vocal tract width. For example, the most narrow EE vowel requires you to raise the back portion of your tongue, and the AH vowel is relatively wide and requires a lowered and concave tongue for proper resonance. Learning to shape your vowels will help you sing in key much faster than singing scales or doing similar singing exercises.
Once you master proper vowel production, you will gain better frequency control and also have clearer diction. If you struggle to sing a specific word, you are not creating vowel sounds correctly.
How to Sing in Key with Middle Voice
Beginner singers often struggle to sing with their middle voice. This is experienced as a break in their voice that splits chest voice from head voice. Middle voice manifests when the two registers, the chest voice, and head voice are connected together. The middle voice is very important for gaining the ability to sing in key. In order to reach your middle register, muscles that create your chest register, and those of your head voice (the TA and CT muscles) must be engaged in a perfect balance.
How to Achieve Cricothyroid Thyroarytenoid Balance
The thyroarytenoid muscles are the ones that control vocal fold weight. Basically, these muscles are responsible for thickening your cords which allows deeper and richer resonance production, often known as chest voice. The cricothyroid muscles control tension in your vocal folds. Tension and stretch with no vocal fold weight is typically known as ‘head voice’. By balancing cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid engagement, you can create a third register, that is typically known as middle or mix voice. Your middle voice is characterized by both the depth of your chest register and the extensive range of your head voice. The middle voice is always sung in key because your frequency production and the use of your resonators is more efficient.
How to Sing Higher Pitches in Key
Due to improper coordination of their registers, beginner singers often have issues singing high notes in key. As a result, chest voice is aggressively pushed or may flip up into a heady tone that is weak and disconnected. By coordinating your chest and head voice, and accessing your middle register, your singing voice will easily resonate at the appropriate frequency to sing in key. Singing higher notes shouldn’t be difficult for you because signing is an act of coordination and balance rather than use of muscular force. If you’re straining in the high range, you are doing something wrong. The first step to fix this is to break your technique to its core elements, which means you have to go back to your foundation. Once you set up a proper posture, breathing, and placement, and went through vowel production and register release, you will be able to coordinate your registers in a balanced way. Our voice was designed to function in a certain way, and to sing in key at high pitches, you must learn to alter the width of your vocal tract as you sing higher.
Vowel modification or continually altering your vocal tract width will allow you to sing higher into your range in key. The first vocal break can be mended by widening your vocal tract a bit and then returning to a more neutral space in the middle of your range. A common and easy way to achieve vowel modification or proper tuning is to slightly change your vowel character as you sing through more difficult passages. For example, the “AH” vowel, requires a concave tongue and keeping your vocal tract relatively wide. But as you change it to “OH” or “AWE” around your first vocal break, you will notice that this removes your break and allow you to sing in key into your high range with ease.
It is very important to keep in mind that each vowel is unique, and resonates in a unique way. Basically, two singers cannot modify their vowel in the same way. Another efficient way to tune your resonance is to control the tongue root, the tongue, and the soft palate because they are responsible for making subtle changes. Without learning to control them, during vowel modification you may feel the need to mangle your words. A great exercise for this is to toggle between the AH to OH vowel character without moving your mouth, and focusing only on the back of your throat. Over time, you will identify how the tongue root moves at the base of your tongue and not at the back, which will further allow you to tune your resonance and ensure proper space and efficiency for singing higher notes in key.
Conclusion: Singing off Pitch is Caused By Improper Frequency Production
To summarize this lesson, I must remind you that pitch refers to frequency vibration and that frequency is the speed at which your vocal chords vibrate. Therefore, singing off key means you are not creating the right frequencies for the corresponding note you want to sing. In order to learn to sing in key place your frequencies properly first whenever you start warming up. With proper training, you will eventually realize that the pitch and key of a note don’t come from ‘hearing’ the pitch, but from proper frequency control that is achieved through adequate breathing, support, vocal fold closure and singing with placement. The truth is that a pitch is heard after it has already been created, so training your ear won’t actually help to sing in key.
The best way to control your frequencies properly and ensure you are singing in key is to set up a solid foundation, starting from your posture, breathing, and placement, to maintaining quality support and shaping your vowels. Next, you have to work on controlling your vocal tract width, vowel modification, register control and singing with a balanced onset. Since singing is a process of coordination, having troubles to sing in key is most likely caused by improperly applying or completely missing a key element from your foundation.
A great place to start is the free foundations courses here at Bohemian Vocal Studio, and then when you’re ready to take your voice to the next level with professional vocal coaching you can book a Skype Session and we’ll get started extending your range, strengthening your foundation and most importantly cementing your skills to pitch notes properly.
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.