Singing 101: Pitch Problems

Sharp, Flat, Just Right.

I’ve coined a phrase with my students when we’re working on vocal technique and I’m trying to get them to find a balance-point, or middle-ground with finessing whatever it is we’re working on: Goldilocks That Shit.

Need some context? Sure! What I mean when I say this is that there’s a delicate balancing act in almost all elements of singing: not holding the breath nor overblowing it, being free + relaxed yet active + engaged, engaging the vocal cords to produce an engaged, balanced tone, while also ensuring we’re keeping the vocal tract (throat, palates, mouth, you get the gist) open and resonant. Sometimes, I’ve found that when a student is trying to correct a certain element of their singing or fix a bad habit that we’re working on, they tend to overcorrect, and go a little too far to the opposite end of the spectrum. For example: someone who has a very breathy tone might try to overcompensate when made aware of this by starting to push or squeeze, resulting in a more “pinched” sound. This is when I tell them: Goldilocks That Shit. As in, find the justright place or sound, and sing from there.

Hey, my brain works in mysterious ways.

One of the most important parts of singing - and spots that can lead to the biggest insecurities - is pitch, and problems with matching pitch. I have a lot of people come through my door who are fearful and worried that they aren’t singing the right notes in songs, are worried they are chronically “off-key” and feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and self-conscious by both the not-knowing as well as the not-knowing-how to fix it. In this installment of Singing 101, I want to address this and offer some answers/insight/reassurance, as well as some tools for relaxing into and improving pitch problems. Shall we get started?!

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What Is Pitch? + How We Create Pitch

First of all, before we get all scientific here, I want to stress that MOST pitch problems have absolutely nothing to do with you being tone-deaf. Go ahead, let out a big sigh of relief. The concept of “tone-deafness” is vastly misunderstood and thrown around in our culture by people who don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Being truly tone-deaf is actually quite rare, and is an actual cognitive impairment called amusia - this impairment means that the brain cannot process musical sounds or make sense of them. Again, breathe easy here babies! Researchers have found that less than 5% of people actually have this condition so, chances are, you are not actually tone-deaf. Which means you are not “hopeless", which means: you can train yourself to hear and sing your notes in key! Glory hallelujah! When people say someone is “tone deaf” we mean that they can’t tell musical notes apart, and may have a hard time knowing if they are singing the right, or wrong, note when they are singing; since they have difficulty distinguishing between notes, they will undoubtedly make some mistakes while singing - all of which compounds this idea that we lack some sort of magical skill that is reserved for those who are “born with it.” The truth is, perceiving and distinguishing pitch is a skill that can, and needs to be, developed and trained. Most pitch problems are a matter of lack of ear training (teaching oneself how to hear and differentiate between pitches), and, largely in my experience of teaching, an improperly-placed voice.

So, what the hell is “pitch” anyway?!

We create pitch (or sing a certain note) by our vocal cords pulling to different pitch openings. Each pitch, or note, has its own frequency - depending on how taut or slack our cords are, they will vibrate at different rates of speed - longer, slower vibrations create a lower frequency, or our low notes, and faster vibrations create a higher frequency, or our high notes. Basically, we vary pitch, like tuning an instrument, by controlling the tension of muscles moving across vocal cords in the larynx (voicebox - see my Singing 101: How The Voice Works article for a quick + dirty overview). Our brains control this movement without us being aware of it. So, that’s the good news: our voices, like every other system in our bodies, knows how to work itself without our input or involvement. The issue then, of course, becomes us getting involved with this process.

As we hear pitches, our brains process the frequency, and our ears process the frequency. However, with vocals, matching that pitch that we hear with our ears becomes a little bit tricky because 1) we haven’t trained our ears + voices to work together to process AND then accurately reproduce that same pitch 2) we haven’t trained our voices how to properly APPROACH our pitches, and will likely default to what feels most comfortable/obvious to us (pushing our speaking voices to try to create the pitch, for example), and 3) we then start THINKING about the pitch, getting nervous that we have no idea how to reproduce the pitch, which causes further physical tension (thus affecting your instrument - see where I’m going here?), which causes us to hit the wrong pitch, which then causes us to beat ourselves up and declare ourselves tone-deaf, hopeless singers. Whew! It’s a whole vicious cycle now, isn’t it?! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: singing, using our voices, is one of the most personal, and vulnerable pieces of ourselves. It makes sense we’re hesitant to open them up and let them fully out. Furthermore, since singing, more so than any other instrument, is viewed as an inherent “maybe she’s born with it” type of trait, we allow very little room for error with ourselves. We conclude we’re awful singers, which leads to more and more tension and tensing when we sing, which leads to more and more bad singing habits as a means of trying to “get it right.”

So, the good news! Are you ready for some good news now?! The good news, if you’ve caught on by now is that singing is 100% a teachable skill. We just have to do a little training + trust the process.

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The Process

So what, exactly is “the process”, you ask?

The first step of the process, as I see it, is remembering that we need to be kind and patient with ourselves as we’re embarking on this journey of working on pitch problems. Pitch, just like any other skill, might be easier for some people than it is for others - but beating yourself up about it ain’t gonna help matters or magically transform anything. So, be kind to yourself.

Be curious, and to trust the process. I know, it’s all very Fight Club here now. But it really is important: try, if you can, to suspend judgment, or frustration, any of the mean/not helpful/destructive comments anyone else (or yourself!) has said to you about your singing; even any of the good-natured (but often quite hurtful) jokes about being “tone-deaf.” Try to allow yourself to trust yourself and your ability to match pitch. I find that most students, given a safe space and a kind/curious/non-judgmental person to help guide them through this, respond really quickly and improve in their pitch amazingly once they are aware of what matching-pitch feels like, and have a few positive experiences doing it successfully.

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Feeling vs. Thinking

Feeling is such an important part of singing - not just in the sense of conveying emotions, but I mean quite literally feeling: where we are tensing in our bodies (and impeding our own sound / tone production) as we sing, where we are resonating or “placing” our voices (see my Singing 101: Placement article for more on the wonderful world of vocal placement! My favorite thing!), where we want to approach from for any given phrase we’re singing.

Repeat after me!: We want to stop “intellectualizing” pitch, and try to start feeling pitch instead. I mean this very literally! I ask the same question to every single person who has ever walked into my studio having issues with pitch, and that is: “Are you thinking about the pitch, like intellectually trying to THINK yourself to the right pitch right now?” They always invariably say yes, and then we invariably get to the point where we admit that if we really think about it, we really have no reference for the pitch they’re trying so hard to THINK themselves to. Since “perfect pitch” is also quite rare (more on this in a second), most of us have what we call “relative pitch". But, if we have nothing to sing relative to, then we’re just sort of feeling around in the dark of an unfamiliar room, and then beating ourselves up for not being able to find the light. At this point, I like to try something different - instead of thinking about the pitch, I ask the student to try to “turn off” their brain and instead try to trust their ears and bodies. I have them close their eyes (cutting off visual stimulation, and allowing them to go “within” a little more), and do one of two things:

1) I play a pitch and ask them to simply listen and hear the note around them. Then, I play it again and ask them to listen, take their time, hum it quietly to themselves, and then allow themselves to sing it a little more loudly on whatever vowel sound (or continuing the hum) feels most comfortable to them.

2) I have them sing or hum a pitch that feels comfortable to them, and then I try to “meet them” here, by singing and finding the note on the piano or keyboard.

Once we’re in the same place, and I’ve gotten them to just match one pitch, they’re already feeling a little more at-ease; still maybe a bit guarded and nervous, but a little more hopeful. At this point, I tell them to really pay attention to how it feels as they are singing this pitch, in-tune, along with the keyboard. I ask them if they can sense the resonance between their voice and the keyboard. I may even ask them to describe it for me, or imagine how they’d explain it to someone else. Just bringing your awareness to these things, the subtle sensations and senses or feelings, that you may not even realize were things to BE aware of, seems to help in singing across the board a great deal. This is all designed to get them to feel what it’s like to be singing the right pitch. Then - and this part is crucial - I tell them to stay singing this same pitch, and that I’m going to play a different pitch, so that they can feel what it feels like to sing the wrong pitch. I will typically simply step down a half-step while they’re holding their note, which usually immediately causes the student to adjust their pitch, reflexively, to match the one I’m playing. This is when they really get what it feels like - on a very intuitive level - to be singing “off” the pitch. Cueing the body and ear like this is a really important step to helping the student build confidence in trust in their ear - especially highlighting that when they were “wrong” they immediately, instinctively, “fixed it.” In this way, by mimicing the “wrong” way, you can gut check yourself and start to identify what it means to be “sharp” (too high) or “flat” (too low), so you can start to fine-tune your ear and ability to match the pitch more accurately.

After this, I’ll get them to follow me up and down and through their voices, and - voila! - they’re matching pitch and feeling a huge sense of relief, and also better about themselves + their voice = an important first step to any singing study.

The Approach: Placement + Pitch Issues

As mentioned above, sometimes the issue of matching pitch is about an untrained ear, or lack of experience, which will benefit from singing scales on a regular basis, and practicing singing along with a keyboard or pre-recorded scale, trying to be cognizant of when one is or is not matching the pitch. Often I find at first that simply singing along with scales several times a week will start to improve someone’s pitch just by virtue of them doing it more frequently and practicing using their voice in this way.

Other times, it’s not so much about an inability to hear the correct pitch, but is simply about the approach.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Vocal Placement, I highly recommend you read through my Singing 101: Placing the Voice Properly article to get an overview of what it is. But, in a nutshell, the way we “approach” our notes in our different registers can sometimes make or break our ability to sing the pitches correctly.

A common occurrence of this is obviously when singing a song and we can’t quite seem to reach a given note or notes, resulting in us singing the wrong note, either sharp, or flat. What I hear very frequently in singers that have issues with pitch is that they aren’t switching registers properly - either down into the Chest Voice, or allowing their voices to “break over” into their Mix or Head Voice. I find that a fair amount of singers have a bit of a mental block against allowing their voices to “switch” - there’s this pervasive, and frankly, problematic, notion in popular culture that says the voice needs to sound like “one register all the way up.” This could not be further from the truth. This is not only physiologically incorrect, but encourages really unhealthy singing habits wherein singers are constantly trying to “muscle” their chest voices all the way up through their range - resulting in a lot of physical strain, tension, poor singing habits, and sounds that they don’t want. Remember, the vocal mechanism is supposed to shift registers - and it’s really important that we start to identify which register we’re singing in at any given time. This is especially important in contemporary music - we’re not talking classical music here, people! In classical genres or choirs, singers are typically separated out into a section depending on their voice type (see my Singing 101: Vocal Typing article for more on this!), which means they’re maybe more likely to stay largely in one register over another. But we’re singing contemporary stuff here, babies! That means, we’re likely going to be using our whole voices throughout the course of even one song - making our flexibility to switch between registers quickly and easily very important when we’re singing. So, getting familiar with your different registers - Chest, Mix, and Head Voice - and what each feels like, will be an important first part of your vocal work. (Again, more on this in my Singing 101: Range & Registers article).

Listen up. Here’s an important, easy, simple rule of thumb I want you to remember:

If it feels like you are reaching, straining, or hitting a ceiling while trying to sing a note, you need to shift registers. You need to think more in the Mix or Head Voice, or think of singing the note from a higher place.

More often than not, I find that people are not allowing their voices to shift registers into the Mix or Head Voice, which results in them pushing, reaching, squeezing, and straining to reach the notes. Many singers can sense that something isn’t quite right, and they can also feel or sense the “switch” as the vocal cords switch between registers. It will feel like a little “click” in your throat or neck; or you’ll sense the need for your voice to shift “upward.” This is your cue to approach the notes from a different, higher register, to switch your mental visualization of the note to help you physically access your Mix or Head Voice registers. The problem is, a lot of people feel this shift and think they’re doing something wrong or incorrect - or incorrectly identify the register shift as a “crack” when all it is is the natural extension of the tone getting a little lighter (as it should as you sing higher!) as you shift registers. Repeat after me: register shifts are supposed to happen! This is absolutely what you want your voice to do - so, as usual, listen to, and trust your body. The voice is working as it should - the problem, again, comes from us trying to fight it.

So, next time you are singing a song and you feel like you aren’t quite hitting the right notes - especially if it’s in a slightly higher place - try approaching it from a different place. Try singing it a little lighter, or floatier, and see how it feels then.

When people make this shift, I often hear one other concern: they are worried that the resulting sound is too “light” or “weak”. To that, I say that it very well may be that the resulting note IS weaker, or lighter - but all this means is that it simply needs to be strengthened. Our Head Voice, especially, needs to be able to work, to do some “heavy lifting” without interference from the Chest Voice, in order to strengthen and produce more of the tone we ultimately want. The problem is, the Chest Voice muscles will ALWAYS overpower the Head Voice muscles by virtue of them being bigger + bulkier; we need to “bench” the Chest Voice for a little bit to ensure that the Head Voice muscles have a chance to work and get equally as strong, if we want to have a strong Head Voice + high notes. So, while it may result in a lighter, or weaker, sound for the time being, it’s really important that we continue to sing up here properly, so that the notes CAN get stronger. Trust the process, remember?

Another source of confusion is when the notes are a little higher - but not quite so high that we’re in our full Head Voices. This is - you’ve probably guessed it by now! - your Mixed Voice, and has been the bane of many a singer’s existence. The Mixed Voice is confusing because we don’t always know where exactly to “put it” - it’s not low enough to feel like full Chest Voice, nor high enough to feel like full Head Voice. If we’re not really attuned to our register shifts, and allowing our voices to get thinner as we ascend higher, we might miss the cue to shift our placement a little higher, maybe more in the Mask area of our faces (eyes/nose/cheekbones), and instead just keep muscling through with the Chest Voice. My advice when singing in the Mix, especially at first, is to err on the side of more towards the Head Voice - again, the more chance we give our Head Voice muscles to work, the more it will benefit us in the long-run. I promise you, I am with you in wanting you to be able to belt these notes, and deliver them strong, and big, and not “light” - but we’ve gotta work up to it first! These are steps that can’t be short-cut or skipped, so again: trust that process.

Next time you’re singing a song and having trouble with the pitches, try to see if it could simply be a matter of your approach to the notes. Ask yourself:

1) WHERE the note or phrase sits in your voice (do you feel it more at mouth-level? In the top of your head, forehead, or temples? Or maybe more in the middle, around the eyes, nose, or cheeks?)

2) if you can try to approach it from a different place than you’re singing it in

See what results! Another helpful check on this is to record yourself and play the role of the listener while listening back. Remember the really-fun sneaky bit about Acoustic Perception, and how it sometimes warps our perception of our voices as we’re singing, since we’re listening in our own skulls? Sometimes, simply listening back outside of your own skull can be really illuminating. I sometimes tell people to record themselves singing a note or phrase two different ways - Option A or Option B - and to notice the resulting pitch/tone/overall sound. More often than not, our high notes will be pleasantly surprising upon listening back - stronger-sounding than we may perceive them to be when we are hearing them in our own skulls. So, be curious! Play around, experiment, hell, do it the “wrong way” a couple times and compare and contrast. As long as you’re being gentle and not pushing or straining (you know what not to do, so don’t you do it!), you can take some liberties and see what results.

Pitch vs. Tone

A quick note on pitch versus tone that I want to make. Sometimes what we are hearing, when we’re not happy with a certain pitch we’re singing, really isn’t “pitch” at all. It’s tone. Think of the difference this way: Pitch is like the color (red, blue, green, marigold - my favorite), and Tone is the specific shade (warm, cool, light, dark, bold, soft, breathy, pinched, clear, gravelly, you get the idea). Sometimes what we are not loving is simply the tone we are getting - we can be singing the correct pitch, but in a way that doesn’t quite resonant as nicely as another tone might. Here, getting really specific with yourself (again, be kind!) about what it is you want to hear more or less of: is the tone too breathy? Too strident? Pinched? Too light? Too heavy? Shoutey? This way, you can maybe tweak the way you are delivering the note to make it more to your liking - and to make it sound a little “correct” or “balanced”.

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Perfect Pitch vs. Relative Pitch + A Note on Perfection

People who come in with pitch problems are usually very curious about the concept of perfect pitch, but I find that this also warrants an explanation. Let me let you in on a secret: “perfect pitch,” much like amusia, is also a rare auditory phenomenon, just on the other end of the spectrum. Perfect pitch, or “absolute pitch,” is a phenomenon wherein a person can identify or reproduce a given musical note or pitch without a reference note. Some of the characteristics of perfect pitch include some or all of the following:

Identify by name individual pitches (e.g. F♯, A, G, C) played on various instruments

Name the key of a given piece of tonal music

Reproduce a piece of tonal music in the correct key days after hearing it

Identify and name all the tones of a given chord or other tonal mass

Accurately sing a named pitch

Name the pitches of common everyday sounds such as car horns and alarms

Name the frequency of a pitch (e.g. that G♯4 is 415Hz) after hearing it

Impressive, yeah?! Yeah….it is pretty cool, and a rare skill to have as a musician, for sure. We’ve all hoped for “perfect” pitch at some point or another but the truth of the matter is that most musicians have relative pitch., meaning most of us need some sort of reference pitch to use as a jumping-off point. This can be trained, of course, and some musicians can train themselves to have almost-perfect relative pitch; but, the important thing to remember is that since most musicians (including those you know and love) don’t have perfect pitch, this is in no way reflective of, or a precursor to, musical talent or ability.

I promise you this, absolutely.

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Singers = Not Robots

Not to get all philosophical here (okay, who am I kidding, that’s exactly what I’m about to do, as I’m wont to do; y’all know how we do at Caveness Voice), but what do we know about perfection? That shit is a fallacy, pure and simple. Sure, it’d be great to never, ever, ever have to worry about pitch; as singers, not only are we constantly and in-the-moment creating, quite literally, the shape + sound of our instrument, but we’re dealing with an ever-changing landscape since our instruments live inside our bodies. How much stress, sleep, food, drinks, or what have you that we’ve gotten, how much we can hear ourselves, if we’re sick or the weather is a certain way, all make a difference in how we sound on any given day. While of course we need to be cognizant of, and striving for, correct pitch when singing, I think we also need to remember that singers are not robots. We are human beings, with a very temperamental instrument, sensitive and subject to a wide range of factors that other instruments just simply are not. I’d take a guttural, raw, wrenching performance over a perfect, smooth, sterile one any day of the week - sometimes, slight imperfections or flaws are the very things that make a piece of music or art so beautiful, so meaningful, so raw, so human. Please don’t misunderstand me: work on your pitch. No one wants to hear a sloppy performance. But don’t castigate yourself in the name of perfection. If you’re a shade off while going for a big, wrenching, belty note, but you’re delivering a blistering performance; if you’re so nervous and uptight and miserable every time you go to sing, robbing yourself of the joy of something you love because someone said unkind things to you about your singing voice; if you’re hyper-focused on this one aspect of singing at the neglect of the more nuanced, expressive pieces; in my professional opinion, I say: fuck. it.

The reason the voice is such an expressive, dynamic, emotional instrument is because it is human. It lives inside of us, and with that, it is inextricably linked to all our deepest desires, and insecurities, our passions, our struggles, all of it. Let your voice be a vehicle for your expression of the kaleidoscope of your inner landscape - learning to trust your voice, learning to accept your voice, learning to be honest with it and work on it where it needs to be improved without judging or berating or being unkind - these are lessons not just of the voice, but of the human experience.