How to Sing in Tune

Singing in tune requires two things – the ability to accurately hear pitches and the vocal technique to accurately produce them.

How to practice matching pitches
Sit at a keyboard (or other instrument), play a single pitch and then sing it. Did the pitch you sang match the one you played? If yes, continue with another pitch.

If you sang the wrong pitch, figure out in what way it was wrong. Were you too high (sharp) or too low (flat)? By a lot or a little? Play the pitch again and concentrate on adjusting the note you sang in the right direction. I tell my students to image a radio tuner or a guitar tuner and to narrow in on the pitch. Or to image the note as a target and to sing in the center of the pitch.

You can also work at this from the other direction. If you can’t sing the same note you play, see if you can find the note you sang on the piano. (This is useful because it can help you identify if you are singing above or below the first pitch and by how far.)

Note: If you are truly unable to tell if you have sung the pitch that you played, don’t despair. Try recording yourself to see if you can tell if the pitches match when you’re not trying to sing. You could also recruit a friend or find a teacher who can give you feedback.

Become an intonation detective
If you generally sing in tune, but are singing the wrong notes in a specific song, figure out why. Are you unfamiliar with a section of the melody? Do the notes move into an uncomfortable part of your range? Is something that happens in the accompaniment throwing you off?

Work to notice where intonation is at its worst. (Remember to acknowledge good intonation, too! *smile*) A lot of intonation problems are actually technique problems. A singing situation arises in which the voice does not understand how to coordinate the requested pitch, so it sings a pitch does know how to produce (but is “wrong”).  This can happen with notes that feel too high or too low, or when trying a new exercise or technique.

Trouble with timbre
It can be challenging for inexperienced singers to separate pitch from timbre.*
They might be unable to match a pitch I play on the piano, but can match a pitch I sing to them. Male students can also have a hard time finding pitches sung by women and vice versa, particularly if the note sung is out of the listening singer’s range or in a different octave.

(*If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of timbre, imagine a cello and trumpet are sounding the same note. Everything that makes the trumpet sound like the trumpet and the cello sound like the cello falls into the category of timbre.)

The internal and external voices
Due to the bones and muscles surrounding the larynx in our bodies, each of us hears our voice differently from how listeners hear it. (Sound waves travel through our bodies to our eardrums and “add” to the sound waves we hear through the air.)

I call the voice we hear when we sing our internal voice. I call the voice that listeners hear or that a device records when we sing our external voice. For my students who struggle with intonation, we work to align the external and internal voices.

How? Mostly by increasing the amount of the external voice they hear when they sing. You can accomplish this in a number of ways: find an echo-y place to sing (bathrooms, parking garages, etc.), record yourself, use a microphone and monitor to send your external voice back to your ears while you sing.

Most important …
Stop telling yourself you can’t sing in tune! In most cases, the voice does what we ask – after all, it’s our tool for communicating.  So, if we tell our voices – and ourselves – over and that we cannot sing in tune, our voices believe us. (Remember, half this game is ninety percent mental. *smile*)

If you have trouble singing in tune, don’t give up hope. Patient, attentive practice can vastly improve pitch matching. ~sg

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