Are You Singing in Tune?

Are You Singing in Tune?

01song1Good intonation – singing in tune – is an obvious skill that clearly divides the pros from the wanna-bes’s.  Yet you hear singers performing at open mics, clubs or even talent shows like American Idol and The Voice who seem clueless that they are off-key.  Either no one ever told them, or they don’t care.  On the other hand, some people quit singing too soon because they were told by an uninformed teacher that they were “tone-deaf.”

Either approach is wrong.  Good pitch is a fundamental skill for every singer, but luckily it can be improved through practice.  Singers must learn if they are singing out of tune, but it’s not helpful to be told “you’re pitchy” without being given precise and constructive advice on how to improve.   I don’t like to watch the talent shows, because too often the criticism is dished out without the advice.  Telling someone they are “pitchy” is pretty vague.  Is the singer flat (under pitch) or sharp (over pitch)?  On what notes? In order to improve, the singer needs to know, and then needs to understand whether it’s an aural issue or a technical one.

Yes, pitch is crucial, but luckily it can be improved through practice.

Aural Issues

While there is a tiny percentage of people with hearing or brain disorders that affect their ability to discriminate pitch changes, most people who have trouble matching pitch have nothing wrong with their ears; they have just not had enough practice.  Certainly some folks are naturally more musical then others, just as some people are better at languages, and yet most people can learn another language if they apply themselves.   It’s the same thing with singing.

How can you improve intonation? A good voice teacher can give you feedback on whether you are singing each note in tune and, if not, help you to adjust.  Ear-training courses, which generally focus on memorizing the sounds of the intervals between notes are also very valuable and can be taken at any community music school.   (If you’re not able to take a course try my friend Gaye Tolan-Hatfield’s great audio program Eartraining on the Run.)

There are also apps available like Do Re Mi Voice Training (developed by former student David Charlton) which gives you valuable visual feedback on your pitch.   You just play a note on the keyboard in the app, sing into the microphone on your device, and the app graphs the frequencies, showing you whether you are above or below the pitch.

Faulty Technique

There are also technical reasons that can cause pitch problems, even when the ear can distinguish the correct notes.  The most common problems tend to be in the passagio – the “passage” or transition in the voice where we shift from chest to head registers. Here the muscles need to be very finely coordinated.  If certain notes in this area are too heavy and chest-dominant, they may go flat, while if they are too light and “heady,” they may go sharp.  Practicing good vocal technique such as that taught in Somatic Voicework(tm) – The Lovetri Method fine tunes the register balance in the break so you can shift smoothly and correct the pitch in this area.

Another common issue which affects mostly high notes is a lack of breath support, which can be corrected through breath management practice (see my blog: Breathe Better, Sing Better).

During adolescence the muscles in the larynx become larger and thicker and the voice drops – for both sexes, though more dramatically for boys.  This can affect the pitch and be distressing as the voice doesn’t seem to work the way it used to.  I experienced that in high school, and was told by the sister directing the choir not to sing because I was flat.  Being the rebel that I was, that only made me more determined.  I kept singing, eventually studying voice technique and ear training and did correct my pitch.  But I have run across many people who became so discouraged by receiving feedback like this that they stopped singing completely.


The copious use of auto-tune – not only in studio recordings but in some live pop performances – can make it seem sometimes like the art of singing in tune is becoming passe.  But it’s an easy way out and one that can backfire,  as it did last year for Britney Spears when a terrible vocal track was leaked sans auto-tune. 

Recording your rehearsals and shows and listening to them critically can be crucial in perfecting your intonation as well as other aspects of your performance.  Some people have a hard time listening to themselves at first but it’s the only way to hear what your audience actually hears, which may be a little different than what you are hearing in your head.  I believe this is a way of respecting your audience, who deserve you in-tune and at your best. Try to be accepting and compassionate of yourself, while objective in identifying areas of improvement, or have a teacher or trusted colleague go over your performance with you.

Through careful listening, practice and help on any problem areas, you can develop a voice with beautiful intonation that you – and your listeners! – will love to hear.



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