When you ask yourself “what makes a good singer?”, you might think of such answers as tone, power and range. However, all of these other qualities go out the window if you can’t sing in tune – in fact, they might even become more of a hindrance than a help.
While it’s true that some people do have ‘perfect pitch’, meaning they can immediately identify the pitch of a note they hear, and some people are ‘tone deaf’, meaning they can’t recognise the pitches of different notes, both of these conditions are rare. If you struggle to identify the pitches of different notes, then don’t worry – you can still learn to sing in tune.
But before we tell you how, let’s take a look at what singing out of tune is.
What is ‘Pitch’
A ‘pitch’ is a frequency of sound – so a note at a ‘high pitch’ is a high frequency, or a higher amount of vibrations per second, than a lower pitch. Frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz), with 1 Hz being 1 vibration per second.
A ‘note’ or ‘tone’ is just a named pitch – a frequency which everyone agrees is equal to a certain note. Middle C, for example (which is the fourth C note from the left on a standard piano keyboard), is generally agreed to be pitched at 261.63 Hz – which means 261.63 vibrations per second.
So singing ‘in tune’ or ‘on pitch’ means that each note you sing is at the right frequency. This is important for all musicians, including singers, to understand, because in order to be truly in tune with another instrument or singer, you need to match the number of vibrations they’re producing per second as precisely as you can – in other words, you’ve got to be on the same wavelength!
The meaning of sharp and flat in music
As you delve deeper into the rich world of musical theory, or if you’re taking singing lessons from a highly critical coach, you’ll come across notes being described as ‘sharp’ (#) and ‘flat’ (?). These terms basically mean ‘higher than’ and ‘lower than’ the note they are describing respectively (for example, A# and B?).
As you know by now, each note of the scale is represented by a letter. The reason why sharp and flat symbols are used is so that each of the seven letters from A to G is always used, no matter which key you’re singing in.
This is also why the notes produced by the black keys on a piano keyboard each have two names: in the key of B major, there’s already a natural B, so the letter B is taken up, but there is no natural A, so the letter A is free to be sharpened into A#, whereas in the key of B? there is no natural B, but there is a natural A, so the letter A is taken up but the letter B is free to flattened into B?.
Neither sharps nor flats are anything to worry about when they’re being used in the context of a key signature – but they do become a cause for concern when used by a highly critical music teacher or disgruntled choirmaster to describe your singing voice.
When you reach for a certain note, particularly if you haven’t properly warmed up your voice, it’s likely that you’ll either aim too low or too high. This means you’re literally ‘pitching’ it wrong – so if you’re singing a middle C flat, the frequency of your note would be lower than 261.63 Hz; if you’re singing sharp, the frequency would be higher than 261.63 Hz.
When you’re singing by yourself, it’s less noticeable – as long as you’re singing in tune relative to yourself, that is. However, this becomes a problem when you’re singing along with other instruments and people, or to a recording, as you’ll notice (as will everyone else) that the note coming out of your mouth is not the same as the note they’re making.
Singing flat is more common than singing sharp, but it’s all to do with putting the right amount of power behind your note (blasting the right amount of air from your lungs and through your throat, making your vocal cords vibrate at the right frequency). Too little, and you won’t be able to quite reach all the way up to the note; too much, and you might overshoot it.
As you sing more and more, you’ll recognise where you can feel certain notes vibrate, which makes it easier to know where to aim your voice. For example, you’ll notice that notes you sing at a lower pitch will vibrate further down towards your chest, whereas notes you sing at a higher pitch will vibrate further up towards your head. This will get you straight in the right area – it’s just fine-tuning from there.
Now you’ve learned a little bit of theory, let’s look at how you can put it into practice:
Match your voice to a pitch
This is the first thing you should try to do to hear how close you already are to singing in tune. Find a way of producing a note, whether this is on a musical instrument or a music app, and see if you can copy it with your voice.
To make things easier for yourself, find a note that’s close to your natural speaking voice – you’ll find it much easier to control notes that already feel comfortable and familiar. Don’t strain yourself trying to sing notes which are too low or too high.
Start with a single note, and try to recreate its pitch by saying “ahh” after you play it. Then, play the note again, but this time sing along to it at the same time. Are you singing sharp, flat, or slap bang in the middle?
Another way to check whether you’re matching the pitch of the note you’re aiming for correctly is to use a digital tuner, like a guitar tuner or a tuner app on your phone or mobile device. In the same way a digital tuner will tell a guitarist whether they need to tighten (or sharpen) or loosen (or flatten) their strings to match the desired note, you can sing to a tuner to find out how close the note you’re singing is to the correct pitch.
Memorise intervals by learning degrees or solfège
An ‘interval’ is the name given to the gap between two different notes, and is usually measured in semitones, or half notes. If you are using a piano, a semitone is the difference between a black key and the very next white key; if you are using a guitar, a semitone is different between a note you play on the fretboard and the note played at the very next fret.
These intervals go by a few other names too, but the two naming systems that will be most useful for you as you improve your pitch are scale degrees and solfège.
The position on the scale (a sequence or pattern of notes) that each interval takes you to from the starting (or ‘root) note is called a ‘degree’, and these are named in numerical order – not so different from the positions runners finish in a race (first, second, third, etc.).
These positions are called ‘degrees’ – and if you’ve ever wondered what Leonard Cohen was referring to when he sang “it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth” in his song ‘Hallelujah’, it was in fact the fourth (F) and fifth (G) degrees of the C major scale.
Even if you haven’t heard the term solfège before, you’ve likely heard the phrase ‘do re mi’ before, and may even have heard the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ song that Maria sings in ‘the Sound of Music’. Some people find the simple solfège syllables easier to remember than the more technical-sounding scale degrees. Whether you’re on Team Leonard or Team Maria, or just want to count how many semitones each interval is worth on your fingers, what matters is that you recognise which intervals you’re hearing.
Let’s visit our old friend middle C to help us understand these intervals in the context of the C major key.
|Letter notation||Semitone(s)||Note value||Scale position||Solfège|
|C to C||0||0||First||do|
|C to D?/C#||1||1/2||Second (flat)||di/ra|
|C to D||2||1||Second||re|
|C to E?/D#||3||1 1/2||Third (flat)||ri/me|
|C to E||4||2||Third||mi|
|C to F||5||2 1/2||Fourth||fa|
|C to G?/F#||6||3||Fourth (flat) /Fifth(sharp)||fi/se|
|C to G||7||3 1/2||Fifth||so|
|C to A?/G#||8||4||Sixth||si/le|
|C to A||9||4 1/2||Sixth||la|
|C to B?/A#||10||5||Seventh (flat)||li/te|
|C to B||11||5 1/2||Seventh||ti|
|C to C||12||6||Eighth (Octave)||do|
Learning the value of each of these intervals is crucial for developing your pitch. Whichever method you use to familiarise yourself with them, you’ll find that any melody you’re trying to learn will be made up of a sequence of these intervals.
Now for a singing exercise! Have your musical instrument or music app at the ready.
Find your home note of C (male vocalists may find it more comfortable to go an octave below middle C to C3), then work your way through the above table, increasing your interval by one semitone each time. Generally, singers find it more difficult to pitch wider larger intervals, so start small and work your way up.
Once you’re confident with your intervals, try playing a short sequence of notes which uses a few different intervals, then try and sing the whole pattern. Take note of how much higher or lower you need to aim your voice for each note in the pattern, and remember how each one feels.
For more sequences of notes to practice singing, read more about scales and arpeggios and how they can improve your singing in our singing practice article.
Sing whilst covering your ears
At first, this can seem counter-intuitive (how are you supposed to sing in tune better if you can’t hear the music as clearly?), but this will actually make your voice sound louder and clearer to you.
The most effective way you can block your ears is by wearing ear plugs. Ear plugs are an essential purchase, as not only will they protect your eardrums from damage when exposed to loud volumes, but they’ll also help you focus on your voice.
When you block your ears, you’re not only shutting out any outside noise, but you’re also sealing your own sounds in. Because you’ve created an air-tight (or sound-tight) chamber by blocking up the exits (your ears), your singing voice will resonate louder inside your head, allowing you to zero in on how precise you’re pitching it.
If you don’t have any ear plugs to hand, you can achieve a similar effect by sticking your fingers in your ears (but not too far!), cupping your hands around your ears, or finding a corner in the room you’re in and facing it as you sing, letting the sound of your voice reverberate back to you from where the two walls meet.
Learn the song
You’ll find it much easier to aim for the pitches that the melody of the song you want to sing once you’ve committed it to memory!
The easiest way to learn a song, like with most things you try to memorise, is through repetition. However, when it comes to storing a song in your memory bank, you’ve got both the melody and the lyrics to learn.
We strongly suggest starting with an easier song with simpler lyrics and a simple melody. It’s also worth choosing a well-known song, as you may find that you’ve learned a lot of it already after hearing it so many times.
Here are a few well-known songs whose melodies are based on only a few notes, which are also close together on the scales of their respective keys:
- Mr Brightside – the Killers
- Wonderwall – Oasis
- Back to Black – Amy Winehouse
Many singers find it easiest to learn the melody first, so we recommend giving this a go. Listen to a recording of the song you’re learning, and hum along to the main vocal melody.
You might find this easier if you break it down into sections, such as the verse only, then the chorus only, then putting the two together. If you’re learning a popular song, you may well be able to find a karaoke version or backing track of the song for free on YouTube – this is a great way of testing whether you can carry the tune on your own.
Once you’re confident you can hum your way through the entire song without getting lost, it’s time to add in the lyrics. In most cases, the lyrics to each chorus will be the same, so you may find it more straightforward if you memorise the chorus lyrics first, then get to work on learning the verse lyrics.
It might seem like the ultimate cringe-fest, but the best way to improve is to be honest with yourself, and accept that you might not like what you discover straight away. It can be frustrating to hear yourself tripping over the same phrases time and time again, but each time you do is another step in the right direction.
Nowadays, most of us are fortunate enough to carry around a portable recording device that fits into the palms of our hands – so don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you shell out for a home studio just to listen to your mistakes!
Don’t be discouraged if, when you listen back to your recording, you’re not quite singing in tune – try to look at this in an analytical way. You’ll likely be able to hear which parts of the song don’t sound right when you sing them, so those are the areas for you to target.
Transpose the song into another key
Once you’re familiar with the song you’re learning, a good test to make sure you can still hit all the notes of its melody is to transpose the song into a higher or lower key. This is a way you can prove to yourself that you’re not relying purely on your memory of how certain notes feel when you sing them, but can adapt your singing voice to match the pitch of the music that’s reaching your ears.
This is easiest to achieve if you play the guitar – all you need to do is either attach a capo to your fretboard, or retune your guitar. Lindsey Buckingham often performs the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Never Going Back Again’ in the lower key of F major, rather than the original F# major, by positioning his capo on the third fret of his guitar rather than the fourth, and Wings-era Paul McCartney would on occasion perform the Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’ on a guitar tuned a whole step down, placing it in the key of F major rather than the original G major.
Many electronic keyboard instruments also have a ‘transpose’ function, meaning you can play the keys and the chords in the same position, but the sound that they produce will be higher or lower than the original key.
If you play an instrument and are quite familiar with different key signatures, then you can work out how to play a song in another key by starting from the root chord. Noel Gallagher has been known to play the Oasis song ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, which was originally recorded in the key of C major (C-G-Amin-E) in G major live (G-D-Emin-B), and Hanson, who recorded their hit song ‘MMMBop’ in the key of A major (A-E-D-E) when they were still all underage now usually perform the song in the key of E major (E-B-A-E) to suit their more mature voices.
If you don’t play an instrument or don’t feel comfortable transposing the song you’re learning into another key, you can use free software such as Audacity to raise or lower the pitch of an audio file. Alternatively, you can search for free backing tracks on YouTube, but specify in your search that you’re looking for a lower or higher key than the original song was recorded in.
Find a qualified singing teacher
Finally, if you are still struggling to sing in tune or are unsure whether you are, it’s worth considering finding yourself a qualified singing teacher and booking yourself some lessons. While singing lessons are an extra cost, you can’t put a price on your dream of becoming an excellent singer!
A singing teacher’s sole purpose is to make you into the best singer you can possibly be. They will be able to identify what sort of singer you are, what sort of songs your voice is suited to and where you need to improve much more quickly and in a lot more details than you’ll be able to on your own – and, more importantly, they’ll be right there to answer any questions you want to ask.
We hope we’ve given you a few things to think over as you continue your quest for the perfect pitch. Keep practising these techniques, and make sure to record your progress so you can see how far you’ve come!