So, we have discussed the fact that not being able to accurately sing in tune is not an unchangeable accident of birth, but rather a lack of proper ear training. There are very, very few people for whom singing in tune is absolutely impossible – the figure hovers somewhere under 1% of the population.
Everyone else – almost certainly including you – can learn to sing in tune.
The first, and most important thing, is to relax. If you get stressed, your muscles will tighten up, your adrenalin levels will soar and your voice will automatically rise, even if you try to keep it lower. High levels of stress and adrenalin can also result in a very wobbly voice, or one that drops much lower than the pitch one is aiming at. The secret is to keep trying. The wobbly voice issue is a matter of confidence and muscle control. The more you sing, the more toned the muscles will become, and the easier it will be to control them.
The second thing is about being able to actually *hear* the note that you are trying to sing. Sometimes one’s brain just can’t tell if you are sharp or flat, and however you try to alter your tone, it feels like it is in the wrong direction. Rest assured that this can happen to anyone, depending on how you are feeling, what you are thinking about and 101 other things. In this case, it is usually easier to give up trying to hear where you are going wrong yourself, and use a little bit of technical back up. I recommend installing a tuner app on your phone. I use an iPhone and use Tuner Lite for both ear training and instrument tuning. It’s a great little app, and free if you don’t mind a few adverts on your page. Similar things are available for Android phones as well. If you don’t use a smartphone, then I recommend buying a tuner from a music shop – it is a small device – often about the size of a large box of matches and will do the job equally well. To use either a standalone tuner or a smartphone tuner to help with ear training, try the following:
- hit a note on your keyboard (if you don’t have one, you can get one for your phone or your computer).
- Try to sing that note back. If you can’t hit the note, or aren’t sure if you’ve hit the note, turn on your tuner and try again. The tuner will then tell you which note you’ve hit, and you can move up or down until you hit the note that you are intending.
- Try again, listening carefully to the note on the keyboard and moving your voice up and down until you feel that you are in the right area.
An hour or so of this once a week (or even better, spaced out over the course of a week) will help your ear training hugely. You will also find that after doing this exercise for a while, you will find it easier to find the right notes. However, don’t be discouraged if you lose the ability to replicate notes between one session and the next. The ability will last longer between sessions, the more often you practice.
The main reason that most people get singing lessons is often because they struggle to pitch notes correctly. They are then told by people around them who don’t know any better that this means they can’t sing.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS WRONG.
Being able to hit the right note 100% of the time is a learned skill. Some people are better at teaching themselves this skill than others. Very often they have grown up with music constantly around them and have learned to differentiate and copy notes at a very early age. However, make no mistake – it has been learned, it is NOT an innate skill. If in any doubt, listen to small toddlers singing and the range of noises that they make. Very, very few of them make anything like a true copy of the notes that are being sung to them. Go back to the same group of children in 10 years time and you will see that 80% or more have learned to more accurately reproduce a note or series of notes sung to them in the intervening years. Now go back in another 6 years as the same children leave school after going through the normal teenage phases of listening to music, taking weekly music lessons, singing hymns in assembly and so forth. I’d be surprised if you found any more than 5% who had real problems holding a tune. Interestingly, another ten years after leaving school and getting into the workplace, the situation will change again, and those who could sing accurately will have lost the ability, or find it considerably harder. Why? Because they simply aren’t doing it regularly anymore and their skill has diminished with practice.
Having seen this pattern repeatedly over many years as a teacher of Early Years & Primary students, a parent of teenagers and a choir leader for adults, I can say with certainty that the key is practice and habit. The more you listen to music, the easier you will find it to hit the correct pitch. The more you sing out loud, the easier you will find it to hit the correct pitch. The more you listen to yourself, the easier it will become (but listening to yourself is hard, I know).
There are a number of very real reasons why you may find it hard to sing in tune:
- Tension & fear: If you’ve become nervous about singing out of tune, your system floods with adrenalin and the ‘flight or fight’ syndrome kicks in. You will have less control of your muscles, particularly your vocal muscles.
- Hearing problems: Much more common than you’d think. Some people have real problems hearing certain pitches and this makes it much harder to replicate a sound. Technology can often get around this.
- Lack of breath support. Without the air with which to control your throat muscles, you are fighting a losing battle.
- Untoned vocal muscles. Like any other muscle, your throat needs to build up to be stronger so that you can control it with enough accuracy to hit the notes you desire.
- Ear training. As mentioned above, some people never get the very early training in terms of hearing music, and need to start from scratch when they are older. Don’t be put off – contrary to popular myth, adults learning *much* faster than most children!
The most important thing is to be easy on yourself. Understand that the way you are going to learn music is completely different to most people, because everyone is different. You will learn at a different rate, and need different exercises and aids along the way. Just because you find something hard now is no reason why you should continue to find it hard in a year’s time.
We’ll look at things like ear-training and exercises in more detail in the upcoming weeks!