Sunday, September 20, 2009

How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

When singing with others, it’s important to sing in tune. But what does that mean exactly and how can you learn to do it?

This week I’m going to look at what ‘singing in tune’ might mean. Next week I’ll consider some ways of learning how to sing in tune, and how you can improve your listening abilities.

why can’t you hear how bad you are??!!!

As the current run of X Factor clearly demonstrates, there are many deluded souls out there who believe that they are singing perfectly in tune, but in fact are way, way out! Surely they must realise? After all, it’s pretty clear to the audience when things are off. Why can’t they hear how bad they are?

Often, even when singers are completely out of tune, their friends and family think they are wonderful. Are they hearing something different from us?

If these awful singers can’t hear how bad they are, maybe that means we’re always off too!

One big fear that many singers in choirs have is that they are singing dreadfully out of tune, but the others around them are just too kind to point it out! Most of the time you have nothing to worry about, but let’s have a look at what’s going on.

what does ‘being in tune’ mean any way?

Before you can decide whether you sing out of tune or not, we have to look at exactly what we mean by ‘singing in tune’.

‘To be in tune’ implies that there is something to be in tune with. If you’re singing with others, then you need to be in tune with them somehow. If you’re singing with instrumental backing, then you need to be in tune with the instruments.

There are two ways of being in tune with other singers or with instruments:

  • singing the same note, i.e. matching the pitch
  • singing the right harmony, i.e. finding the right pitch relative to another

The ‘pitch’ of a note is the frequency of the sound being produced, i.e. the speed of vibrations of the sound waves arriving at your ear. We perceive this as a note sounding higher or lower than another. The faster the sound waves vibrate, the higher the note appears to be.

It’s made more complicated because no note from a human voice or instrument is ever pure. There are many other notes going on at the same time known as harmonics which we don’t consciously notice.

singing the same, sounding different

Two singers can be singing the same note, but sound completely different. Each person’s voice has a unique sound depending on gender, physical make-up, culture, singing experience, time of day, singing style, health, etc. etc. It is like a fingerprint.

When a particular person produces a clear, simple note (no affectations, no vibrato) well supported by breath, there are many sympathetic vibrations created in their bodies. This gives rise to a series of harmonics (extra notes that resonate at the same time, but which we can’t usually hear directly) which gives the voice a particular texture, ‘colour’ or quality.

It’s these harmonics which make different musical instruments sound different from each other. It is related to the size of the instrument and the materials it’s constructed from. In the same way, no two human bodies will be able to make exactly the same sounds. The unique sound of each human voice is what keeps impressionists in show business!

So, when two singers sing the same pitch (e.g. the middle C on a piano), they will not sound the same. Usually they are similar enough for us to be able to tell if they are singing the same pitch or not. But sometimes, their vocal qualities are so different that it may appear that one singer is singing much lower than the other for example.

This is why some singers seem to ‘blend’ in well with each other when singing (that’s why your musical director sometimes moves people around in your section) and others don’t. It’s also why you might find it hard to pitch a note from one singer, but much easier from another.


Perhaps, then, it’s not a good idea to try to pitch off your neighbour. Their colour, vibrato, vowel formation, etc. might make you perceive their voice as being too low or too high, or you might not even be able to ‘hear’ the note they’re singing clearly enough.

In this case, try to find someone who you can pitch successfully from. In extreme cases it’s almost like you need someone to translate the note for you. The choir leader sings a note to the choir, your friend then has to sing it to you for you to be able to pitch properly.

Some people find it hard to pitch from other singers and need to hear the note from an instrument, e.g. a piano.

And finally, trying to pitch across genders can be disastrous! I’ve tried to explain before the difficult issue of singing in different octaves (i.e. male vs. female voices) (see Singing the same note - differently!). Not an easy thing to understand or deal with, so try to avoid it when starting out.

harmony can be so perfect

Some harmonies sound blissfully wonderful. We are so used to certain harmonies (e.g. 3rds, 5ths) because we hear them so often in Western pop and classical music. We might not understand the theory behind them, but they seem so familiar that sometimes we don’t even notice them. Sometimes we don’t even realise that a group is singing harmony because the notes just seem to fit in so well with each other.

Which means that sometimes we may be singing harmony against someone else but think we are out of tune. This can be because:

  • the harmony is an unfamiliar one (e.g. 4th, 6th) so sounds ‘wrong’ to our ears
  • we are singing perfectly in tune, in harmony but because it seems to easy and natural we freak out and think that we’re singing the same as everyone else.

there’s nothing to see when we get it right

Suppose we think we’re singing out of tune. How do we know? Unless the person next to us wrinkles their nose and gives us a funny look, we have no way of knowing. But even if they do, maybe they’re wrong too!

If you’re practising for basket ball, for example, you have clear visual feedback – the ball either goes in the hoop or it doesn’t. You then make tiny physical adjustments until the ball does what you want. But when you’re singing, there is no such visual feedback. You might not realise you’re getting it wrong, but even if you do, you don’t know how much to adjust your tuning until you get it right.

be patient

Like exercising any other kind of muscle, it takes time for individuals to learn to be in tune. You might even be an expert instrumentalist, but using your voice is a whole different instrumental challenge.

First off you will begin to notice large scale differences: you are singing the wrong note entirely whilst you are learning a new melody. You will soon hone in on the correct note as you become more familiar with the new song.

Next you will start to become sensitive to when you are slightly ‘sharp’ (a tiny bit above the correct pitch) or ‘flat’ (slightly below the correct pitch). The first step is to notice this, then you can begin to experiment with tiny adjustments until you feel that you are closer to the correct pitch.

Finally, in the advanced stage of learning, you begin to realise that you can express yourself (and each particular song) more clearly by varying pitch ever so slightly, bending notes, arriving at notes from slightly above for example. You will now have full control of pitch matching and can make fine adjustments at will.

This will all take some time, so please be patient!

maybe you need to sing out of tune

I had a friend once who had the most beautiful voice and could sing solo wonderfully. Her tuning was impeccable and she could hold a tune with no problem.

But as soon as she started to sing with others, even in unison, she went badly out of tune. She would sing the same melody as the rest, but ever so slightly out. It turns out that she was a bit of a control freak, and when she sang perfectly in tune she felt that she disappeared into the mix and couldn’t hear herself any longer. So in a sense she ceased to exist and began to freak out. The only way she could hang onto her sense of identity was to sing slightly out of tune with everyone else so she could still hear her own voice!

Singing together is a wonderful experience, and sometimes the music takes over and seems to have a life of its own. Individual singers disappear and the resulting sound seems to create itself. Learn to enjoy these moments and let your ‘self’ go. Give yourself up the selflessness of the music.

most of the time it doesn’t matter

We’re not machines. Nobody can sing perfectly in tune. It’s the slight variations between all the different voices in a choir which gives it such a rich, human texture.

Many singers, especially beginners, worry too much about being in tune. In my experience, most people are roughly in tune most of the time – or at least in the right neighbourhood. The beauty of a choir is that it averages out all the voices. So don’t worry if you think that you are out of tune in your section. Unless the whole section is consistently out, it probably won’t notice. It’s easy to lose sight of the whole if you’re just one person in a large choir (see The bigger picture).

it’s not just you!

Everybody has their off days. Not everyone can sing in tune every time. Some days the whole choir can be out. This can be to do with tiredness (too much rehearsal!), the weather, the key that a song is in, the difficulty of a song, etc. The whole choir might be flat or consistently be getting an interval wrong. But the next week, all will be fine, so don’t give yourself a hard time!

I may be wrong – it’s not an exact science

Sometimes when I hear a group or individual performing, I slightly wince because it seems to me that they are out of tune. Maybe consistently sharp, or just getting the tune wrong. But nobody else seems to notice!

Many times on the X Factor the judges mention that an act was out of tune, but I don’t agree. At other times I think a whole performance is badly flat, but the judges say nothing.

Tuning is in the ear of the beholder – both ourselves and our audience. Both parties don’t always agree! There is enough elasticity in the human voice that tuning can never be an exact science.

learning how to sing in tune

Next week I’ll introduce some simple techniques which will help you find out if you sing out of tune, and help you learn to pitch correctly: Learn how to sing in tune - matching pitch 1.


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