This page is for those who love the idea of singing along with guitar/ukulele, but who have little idea of how to actually sing in tune. I don’t have any magic solutions, and my voice is just average, but I have picked up a few tips over the years that may help.
Singing seems such a natural thing to do, and so many people do it so well that it can be frustrating if it doesn’t come naturally to you (speaking as one who knows). It’s like sports, reading or anything else, some people just seem to be able to do it and for others it’s a struggle. I can’t turn you into a great singer (if I could, I’d be able to sing better myself!) but I have worked with children and some adults on developing their singing awareness.
As far as I can see, singing has 4 parts: awareness of pitch, memory of a tune, awareness of rhythm and actual voice production. We can all talk, but singing involves much more fine-tuning.
Let’s address these 4 parts separately:
Pitch refers to is how high or low a note is.
The hardest part for those who ‘can’t sing’ seems to be actually singing a note or series of notes and hearing if they’re in tune (i.e. hitting the right note/s).
Unless you are a ‘natural’ or you’ve been taught this skill when you were young (and kept it up), it can be difficult to pick up. I’ve noticed that here in Australia, children sing at school when they’re young, but often boys stop singing as they get older, and after their voice breaks they find it hard to sing (and don’t really need to) so they lose their ability to sing in tune. Sad, really… maybe singing should be an essential part of high school!
If pitch awareness is your problem, here’s what I suggest: you need a tuner with a microphone… maybe you have a chromatic guitar tuner that will tell you if you are playing a note correctly, or you can use an online tuner such as www.tunerr.com (free).
Make sure your guitar or ukulele is in tune first. Then pluck one of the strings. The tuner will tell you what note it is. Stop the string vibrating, so the tuner re-sets, then try to sing the same note you just played. Check if you are singing the same note (don’t worry if you’re not quite in the green range for the note, yellow is fine). Experiment until you can repeat some of the notes. You may find the lower-pitched strings easier to copy, so focus on those if it helps.
When you can ‘sing’ one of the open string notes, try pressing your finger ‘on’ the first fret of a string (actually just behind the fret), to raise the pitch of the string one semitone. See if you can sing that note. Try going up one fret at a time to about the 5th fret (by then you’ll be playing a note on the next string, so you can just play the next string). Keep practising until you can hear and copy lots of notes.
Now we’re going to find a good key for you to sing in. We’ll start with Achy Breaky Heart (sorry if you can’t stand it but you can just sing da-de-da-de-da if you like). This song has only 2 chords and a very easy, repetitive tune with a limited range of notes- an excellent beginner/warm-up song.
The chords are (same for verse and chorus):
[C] Don't tell my heart my achy breaky heart
I just don't think he'd under- [G] stand
And if you tell my heart my achy breaky heart
He might blow up and kill this [C] man
The starting note is C - i.e. 1st string, 3rd fret on ukulele or 2nd string, 3rd fret (or 5th string, 3rd fret) on guitar. Note: 1st string is the highest in pitch/closest to the floor.
Play the starting note and check with your tuner that you are singing C. Then play and sing along. You don’t have to sing the whole song. If you find your voice straining on the low or high notes, you’ll know it’s not your key.
Try playing in other keys *. Strum a few bars until you can ‘hear’ the tune in your head before you start singing. Here are some keys to try (find the starting note on your tuner):
Key: D - chords D, A; Starting note: D
Key: G - chords G, D; Starting note: G
Key: A - (Not so easy on uke) chords A, E; Starting note: A
If you have a guitar, it’s easy to make each key gradually higher by putting a capo on the 1st, 2nd then third fret (so C would go up to C#/Db, then D, then Eb… often a good key for male voices). You could try a capo on a ukulele but it’s not so good as it has a short neck anyhow - maybe just try it on the first fret to change D into Eb.
Experiment until you find a key that is easy to sing in. Often C or D is good for female voices, and Eb seems to suit a lot of male voices (play D chords and use a capo on 1st fret).
*You can download a song sheet of Achy Breaky Heart with the chords for several keys- the main chord is shown as I (in red) and the second chord is shown as II (in blue):
I guess this is really an Auditory Processing task- remembering a series of notes. It’s something I find tricky! If you can read musical notation or tabs, you have an ideal aid, but remembering by ear needs skill and/or lots of practice. I just listen to a song lots of times, and sing along to get the tune in my head (but then I often have trouble remembering it late on…).
Singing with others is a big help, especially if they’re strong singers. Playing a guitar or ukulele also gives support; if you play the Starting Note (marked on my song sheets), or play the chords of the intro (or the first verse/chorus), this can help you recall the tune.
Once again, this is something that should be developed in childhood, but some people seem to have trouble with it. Keep tapping along to music with your foot or hand whenever you can, so your body gets used to feeling the rhythm. Sway, dance, bob your head, whatever you like… find some music with a really catchy beat and play it lots until you feel you have it!
People who are used to singing on their own can have difficulty singing with others, as they’re not used to having to fit in with the rhythm of a group or an instrument; this takes practice and focus on listening as well as singing. Playing an instrument can help to define the rhythm (if you don’t get into the habit of just following your singing- this is fine if you’re just playing/singing by yourself but it won’t work if you play with others).
Establishing good rhythm can be a problem with playing guitar or ukulele … try to get the rhythm going through your body to your hand, and practice tapping in time - then strumming. Don’t worry if you don’t get it at first- strumming strings is a new skill and you need to work on the angle of your hand, the force of your touch, how far you sweep up and down, what part of your finger/s and/or thumb hits the strings… oh, and reading the music, forming the chords with your other hand, etc …! It will all come eventually, but be kind to yourself if you don’t get it all instantly!
You can talk, and your voice goes up and down to some extent when you do, e.g. to add expression or ask a question (mind you, this isn?t always natural - it?s one thing I have trouble teaching some of my Reading students!)
Once you've trained your ear to hear if you?re reasonably on pitch, and you can remember a series of notes, you want to work on your voice to improve its quality, efficiency and accuracy. This is a huge area, and there are many ways of learning these skills - joining a choir, vocal lessons, online courses, etc. You can find some good, free tutorial videos on YouTube.
Here are some tips:
· Allow your lungs to work - your voice shouldn?t be produced by squeezing your throat to force the air out. Try to let your diaphragm (the big muscle that goes across below your lungs) do its work to push the air up out of your lungs. This will give you a more natural and powerful air flow. Watch that when you?re playing guitar/ukulele you?re not hunched over - sit up (or even stand up) to play!
· Do some gentle warm-up exercises before you start singing challenging songs - you don?t want to strain your muscles and maybe cause damage to your voice box. At the very least, sing a few ?easy? songs at the start. You can get vocal warm-up exercise from other singers, lessons, DVD (try a library or buy one) or on YouTube.
· Play around with your voice - make your mouth into different shapes, put your tongue in different positions, try singing down in your throat or up through your forehead or your nose, make silly noises; your voice is an instrument (and it's free and completely portable, too), so experiment with it and see what it can do! Have fun with it!
· Try to sing in a comfortable key - change the key of a song to suit your voice if you need to (transpose the chords and/or use a capo if you can). This way, your singing will be easier with more satisfying results. You don't have to sing in the same key as Celine Dion (unless you're singing along with her, in which case you can let her hit the high notes!)
· Find songs that are suited to your voice - you may not have the vocal range of top recording artists, so you may find some songs very challenging to sing. There's no shame in that (and you can still enjoy trying), but give yourself the pleasure of singing some songs that suit you. You may find a particular singer that sings easier songs (and better still if they're in 'your' key). If you're a bloke, try Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones songs.
A personal request of mine (you may disagree): try singing with your voice. You can have fun doing a Strangled Cat voice like Willie Nelson, falsetto like the Bee Gees and a full-on Irish accent when you're doing Irish songs, but use your own voice, too. Certainly it's easier to sing with a very nasal voice, but it grates on me when I hear young girls forcing their voices through their nose (and trying to sing every song like an American pop star, even if it's 'Advance Australia Fair'). There are lots of ways to sing, so experiment and don't feel you have to be someone else.
Well, those are my tips for now - as I say, I'm certainly no expert, but as I only have an average voice, I can relate to other people who want to improve, and I've seen people develop with practice from reluctant singers into enthusiastic singers and even into reasonably confident performers.
Please contact me (via Guestbook or Facebook) if you have any queries or comments about this page or anything else on the site. Don't worry if a question seems silly- probably someone else is wondering the same thing. I find it hard to explain things in a way that's neither too brief nor too detailed, as everyone has a different level of experience/understanding.
If you have any other tips or free resources you'd like to share, please let me know. I'll add to this page if I get more information/ideas
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