The 5 Basic Components of Singing

singing basics

Whether you’re a complete singing beginner who doesn’t quite know how to pitch it right or you’re a naturally gifted vocalist who can carry a tune without a second thought, knowing and understanding the basic components of singing will help you to break your singing practice down into different key areas, allowing you to work on each part in a more focussed and effective way.

Most singing tutors agree that the act of singing is made up of five main components. These are:

We’re going to explain each component, how they all work together, and how you can work on each to improve your singing performance.

Breathing

1. Breath

This might sound like a given – after all, we’ve all been breathing our whole lives! However, it’s important to understand the role of breathing in singing in order to know how to train yourself to breathe in such a way that will allow you to have more control over your voice.

You may have heard the phrase “breathe from the diaphragm” – and you may have wondered: “how can I breathe from a different part of my body?”. It might seem difficult to break the habit of lifetime, but it’s easier to train yourself to breathe from your diaphragm than you might think.

Why do singers need to breathe from their diaphragm?

All the power of your singing voice stems from how much air you have to push up from your lungs, through your vocal folds, and out through your mouth – and how much control you have over that air. For our day-to-day activities such as walking and talking, we don’t need anywhere near as much air, so we don’t go to the extra effort of effectively filling our lungs or concentrating on how we empty them.

If you don’t have enough air in your lungs or enough control over your airflow when you sing, however, you’ll soon find that you struggle to reach higher notes and higher volumes – plus, you won’t be able to sing for nearly as long. This is where our friend the diaphragm comes in.

Diaphragmatic breathing actively engages the diaphragm, which is a large muscle that sits beneath your lungs and ribcage. Your diaphragm is naturally pulled down when you inhale to allow your lungs to fill up with air, and naturally moves back up when you inhale to help push the air back out again.

When you breathe diaphragmatically, you are actively pulling your diaphragm downwards, which creates more space and lets more air flow into your lungs. As we now know, more air equals more singing power – so let’s engage that diaphragm!

How do I breathe from my diaphragm?

From the outside, you can tell the difference between regular breathing and diaphragmatic breathing by seeing and feeling how your body moves as you inhale and exhale. You can see and feel the effects of shallow breathing in your chest and shoulders, whereas you can see and feel the effects of deeper breathing lower down in your stomach.

As you take a breath, look down at your torso. You will most likely see your chest rise as you breathe in, and fall as you breathe out, and you may also feel a tightening in your shoulders.

This time, as you breathe in, imagine you are inflating your stomach, rather than your chest, as you would a balloon. You will see your stomach rise instead of your chest, and you will probably not notice anywhere near as much tightening in your shoulders.

The key to using diaphragmatic breathing to improve your singing is to master a slow, controlled exhale. This will allow you to sing longer and louder.

For more breathing exercises, read our article about breath exercises for singers.

sing in tune

2. Pitch

If you’ve ever heard anyone describe singing as ‘in tune’ or ‘in key’ (or, indeed, out of tune or key), they’re referring to ‘pitch’. Pitch is the frequency that your vocal folds are vibrating at when you sing a particular note, and if you can match the frequency that another voice, instrument or sound source is vibrating at, you will be producing the same pitch and will therefore sound ‘in tune’.

How is pitch measured?

Pitch, or rather, frequency, is measured in Hertz (Hz), with a single Hz unit representing one complete sound wave cycle per second. To put that into context, the lowest frequency the average human ear can hear is around 20Hz – and even this will sound like a tuneless rumble to most.

If you’re a piano player, or have had any singing tuition, you may have heard of the note ‘middle C’, which is the central note on a standard piano, and is also a note that is common to all voice classifications, from the highest soprano to the lowest bass. To show you how precise the frequency of a pitch needs to be, in western music the middle C is commonly pitched at 261.625565Hz – meaning that even if the pitch you’re singing at is 261.625566Hz, you’re technically not singing in tune!

How do I sing in tune?

If you’re a guitar player, you tune your guitar by tightening or loosening the strings, which raises and lowers the pitch. If you need to adjust the pitch of your low E string so it’s in tune with your A string, you can position a finger on the fifth fret of the low E string and tighten or loosen it until you can’t hear the difference between the sound of it and the open A string – because these strings will be (approximately, at least) vibrating at the same frequency, and therefore producing the same pitch.

The same goes for your voice – try playing a single continuous note on an instrument, or a piano or guitar app on your smartphone or portable device, and move the pitch of your voice upwards and downwards until you can no longer hear the difference between your voice and the continuous note. We’d recommend starting on a middle C!

For more tips on how to improve your pitch, read our article about how to improve pitch and stay in tune.

metronome

3. Rhythm

As well as singing ‘in tune’, you’ve also got to master how to sing ‘in time’ – which brings us to rhythm. The rhythm of a song is the beat – it’s where the notes, as well as the pauses, fall.

In music notation, pieces are broken down into bars, which consist of a number of beats indicated by its time signature. One of the most common time signatures in popular western music is called ‘4/4’, which refers to four beats in each bar, and four bars in each phrase.

How do I find a song’s beat?

If you’ve ever heard a drummer click their sticks four times to count in their bandmates, they’re about to play a song in 4/4. It’s sometimes easiest to count along ‘1, 2, 3, 4’  to the drum part of a song in 4/4 – imagine a simple ‘bass, snare, bass, snare’ pattern falling on each number you count (or, better still, a ‘We Will Rock You’-style stomp and clap!), and you’ll have found the song’s ‘pulse’.

Once you’ve found the song’s pulse, don’t lose it! All the other notes, however on- or off-beat they may be, will be in relation to that heartbeat – you might also find that clicking your fingers along to pulse will help you navigate through the song’s rhythm as it develops.

The complexity of the rhythm varies from song to song, with some genres, such as jazz, favouring highly complex rhythms which use ‘syncopation’ (a rhythmic technique which puts emphasis on off-beats). Other genres, such as pop and rock, will use a moderate amount of syncopation, but will generally have an easier-to-define pulse.

How do I keep time when singing?

Another important aspect of singing in time is matching the tempo of a song, which, simply put, is the speed that it is played. The tempo, or speed of the song, is measured in beats per minute (bpm) – so a song with a beat on every second would be played at 60bpm, and a song with two beats every second would be played at 120bpm.

Singing at the right tempo is less of an issue when you’re singing to pre-recorded music, because the tempo is predetermined and therefore beyond your control – you’re just along for the ride. However, it’s important to discipline yourself not to speed up or slow down at the wrong moments, otherwise, you may find it difficult to sing in sync with a live group.

A good way to practice your tempo is to keep time with a metronome – either a physical one, or an app. When practicing your song a cappella (without musical accompaniment), set your metronome to a lower bpm and practice the rhythm over the beats while keeping to the metronome’s tempo, then gradually increase the bpm as you gain confidence.

For more advice on keeping to the beat, read our article on Timing, Tempo and Rhythm.

Diction for Singers

4. Diction

Singing with clear diction is important for the same reason as speaking with clear diction – it’s easier for your listeners to understand your words. To start with your best foot forward, ensure your lips, tongue and other singing muscles are primed and ready to go –  read our vocal warm-ups to whip your singing voice into shape article.

As you probably know already, the words we say are made up of vowels and consonants. The part of the word that we actually sing is the vowel, but those words won’t mean much without the definition that the consonants give them – without clear consonants, “I – O – O” could just as easily mean “I – Don’t – Know” as it could “Why – So – Low”!

Why do singers pronounce words differently?

Although singing and speaking both place a lot of importance on clear diction, there are some differences – and it’s all to do with maximizing your airflow to allow you to sing at your best.

Firstly, consonants are far less pronounced when you sing. Consonants restrict your airflow in different ways to shape different words – and it’s those very restrictions that you as a singer want to minimise.

The main issue here is that in natural speech, our tongues move freely to help us shape different consonants – but in doing so, our tongues are actually getting in the way of our singing. A good technique to soften most of your consonant sounds and keep your airways clear is to keep your tongue positioned flat and at the front of your mouth, against your teeth.

Another useful technique is to lead into certain consonants with a vowel sound. Some ‘voiced’ consonants, such as ‘B’, ‘M’ and ‘W’, require you to make a sound before you can pronounce the vowel that they precede (as in the ‘mmm’ sound you have to make before you say ‘mmmaybe’), whereas other ‘unvoiced’ consonants, such as ‘P’, ‘S’ and ‘T’, do not.

For such voiced consonants as ‘W’, you can sing an ‘ooh’ vowel sound before making the ‘W’ consonant sound. If you’re familiar with the musical Grease (as the best of us are), just think back to the “ooh-Well, ooh-Well, ooh-Well” that leads into the Summer Nights chorus!

Secondly, vowel sounds are often modified by singers to make words easier to sing. The five main vowel sounds are modified as follows:

  • ‘A’, as in ‘bat’, becomes ‘AH’, as in ‘baht’
  • ‘E’, as in ‘bet’, becomes ‘AY’, as in ‘bait’
  • ‘I’, as in ‘bit’, becomes ‘EE’, as in ‘beat’
  • ‘O’, as in ‘bot’, becomes ‘OH’, as in ‘boat’
  • ‘U’, as in ‘but’, becomes ‘OO’, as in ‘boot’

So the sentence “that sentence is not good to sing” modifies to “thaht sayn-taynce ees noht goo-d too seeng”!

singing styles

5. Voice

Aside from singing clearly in tune, in time and at an audible volume, the quality of your voice is one of the main aspects that will make it stand out to your listeners. Some singers prefer a cleaner, purer tone, whereas others prefer a raspier, harsher tone – find out what genre of music suits your voice.

No matter what singing style you find the most appealing, you must first and foremost look after your voice. Not only will this make your singing voice sound better, but it will also allow you to sing stronger, and for longer!

For more vocal health tips, read our article on how to keep a healthy singing voice.

Summary

So to recap:

  • you breathe power into your singing voice
  • you aim your pitch to hit the right notes
  • you find the rhythm and keep the tempo to release those notes at the right time
  • you change the way you pronounce words so they’re easier to sing, but maintain clear diction so you can be understood
  • you find your own style to make your voice stand out – but take good care of it!

Those are the 5 key aspects of the singing voice – master each of these, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an excellent vocalist!