Learning How to Sing
Do you love to sing? Whether you dream of performing onstage someday or you just want to step up your shower singing skills, anyone can learn how to sing better.
A common misconception about singing well is that you’re either born with it or you’re not. While physiological differences do play a role in the voice, the fact is that vocal training can make all the difference between an amateur singer and a professional.
If you’re interested in reaching your full potential as a vocalist, there’s no substitute for singing lessons. Since we all have unique vocal qualities, personalized feedback is critical when it comes to learning how to sing properly. With that in mind, there are some tried-and-true methods for learning to sing, which we will explore in this post.
If you’ve taken beginner voice lessons before, you may have been surprised by how slowly your voice teacher went at first. You may have examined your posture, done some warm-ups, or run through breathing exercises, all before you started singing a song.
It may feel like there is a lot to remember as you’re learning to sing. Don’t worry — the fundamentals will soon become second nature to you. Once you know the secrets of singing, you’ll notice your voice getting stronger, smoother, and better each day.
Videos on Learning How to Sing:
Ready to get started? Let’s review the 10 things you absolutely need to know.
1. Vocal Health for Singers
As a singer, your voice is your instrument. Just as a piano player regularly tunes his piano and a guitarist changes her strings, caring for your instrument is incredibly important! Without an understanding of the basics, you may be setting yourself up for unnecessary strain, fatigue, or even irreversible damage.
Start with the simple things: pay attention to your nutrition and health in general, including eating well, staying hydrated, not smoking, and getting enough sleep.
From there, consider how your health influences your singing. A proper warm-up is incredibly important before using your voice, as is staying hydrated at all times, which keeps your vocal cords from getting irritated.
You also might notice specific foods that affect your voice — some singers find they don’t perform well after eating or drinking dairy, for example. Or, you might feel lethargic after eating fast food — keep that in mind if you have a performance coming up!
There are also natural variations in vocal health throughout the year. On some days, our vocal cords may just not want to play along. One good way to conduct a daily voice check-up is to let out a nice and noisy yawn in the morning. If your voice easily slides into a high register, you’re good to go. If not, you may want to consider toning down the vocal exercises that day.
Now it’s time to dive deeper into the secrets of singing — check out the resources listed below to learn all about vocal health for singers!
- » About the Voice — via Lions Voice Clinic
- » 10 Tips for a Healthy Voice — via LiveScience
- » Vocal Health Information — via Duke Voice Care Center
- » 4 Easy Tricks To Keep Your Voice in Tip-Top Shape
- » Truth or Myth? The Reality Behind 6 Common Tips for Singers
- » 5 Surprising Things That Affect Your Singing Voice
2. Breathing for Singers
Outside of keeping up your health in general, if you don’t know how actually to use your instrument, your performance will suffer! But what exactly does that mean? First things first, you need to know how to breathe.
One common tendency among new singers is to fill up with air vertically instead of horizontally. Take a deep breath and sing a phrase of a song. Did your shoulders move? If so, you are pushing a good amount of that valuable air into your shoulders, where it has absolutely no use to you. Locate your diaphragm below your chest and above your belly – buried behind muscle, but detectable when you notice your chest expanding on the inhale. The goal is to direct all your inhale air into your balloon-like diaphragm – not your shoulders.
The good news is that you can reprogram your breathing habits in a relatively short amount of time. Throughout the day, be mindful about where your breath is coming from. Let that air come into your belly region rather than into your chest – this is where your vocal power will come from!
Learn more breathing exercises for singing in the videos below:
Is proper breathing for singing the same as normal singing? Alexander Massey explains in his article on the Oxford Singing Lessons site:
As long as they breathe in well – opening the back and lower ribs – singers can breathe in the same way they would do for everyday life. There is no need to try to take in extra or large amounts of air.
In fact, that is counter-productive. When singers try to take a ‘big breath’, they tend to tighten their shoulders. They also tend to tighten neck and throat muscles, even holding the air in by shutting and gripping the vocal folds. As a result, the vocal folds are tight just when we need them to be free, and the resonating space above the larynx (‘voice box’) becomes shorter and narrower and less resonant.
[Instead,] singers can and should breathe in basically the same way they would do for healthy, efficient, everyday breathing, and include the SPLAT – ‘Singers Please Loosen Abdominal Tension’.
Incorporate the following exercises into your singing practice to focus on your breathing.
Breathing Exercise #1
- Pacing yourself, inhale for a count of four so that your diaphragm is fully extended, then exhale for a count of four so that your diaphragm returns to rest.
- Repeat the exercise for a count of eight, and then for a count of 16.
- You’re expanding your breathing capacity while training your muscles to ration out the available air – an important tool for singing phrases of varying lengths.
Breathing Exercise #2 (via Singwise)
- Inhale, feeling the movement of the upper abdomen and lower ribs, and then exhale while saying, ‘Ahhh’. (This sound should have a duration of two to three seconds.)
- Toward the end of the exhale, switch to just breath (no ‘Ah’) and feel the air whoosh out of your body. Breathe out your voice.
- Feel how the body supports the breath and the action of the diaphragm whether or not there is sound being made at the laryngeal level. Feel how the entire exercise happens on one continuous stream of breath.
Breathing Exercise #3 (via How to Improve Singing with Katarina)
- Inhale slowly, suspend your breath for a second or two; then let the air out with a steady “hiss” (“sss” sound). Listen to the hiss and make sure there are no bursts of air making the hiss louder or faster. Keep the exhalation steady.
- You can also practice a steady air flow during exhalation while singing a high note (choose a comfortable note in your head register). The tone should feel light and steady. If you feel any variations in volume or tone quality, you are letting inconsistent amounts of air out. In this exercise, focus on quality, not quantity.
3. Singing Posture
Now that you have correct breathing down, let’s tackle the next important element of learning how to sing better.
Remember what we said earlier about your body being your instrument? It’s true — and it’s your entire body, from your head to your toes! When you pay attention to what it’s doing, you might notice what’s holding you back.
Correct singing posture allows for the breath to flow freely throughout your entire vocal range. Slouching constricts the breath and affects your tone. Proper posture will free up the space in our chest for our lungs to expand effortlessly.
Practice standing in front of a mirror and check your posture. Here’s what each of your body parts should be doing:
- The A-O Joint: Your very top vertebra, the atlas, is named for the Greek god Atlas, who carries the globe. Your tiny atlas forms a joint with the bottom of your skull (the occiput) to support your “globe.” Balance your head on this joint (the A-O joint) so that you are neither looking up nor down. A properly balanced A-O joint reduces neck and jaw tension.
- The Neck: Your neck is just part of your spine. Streamline it with the rest of your spine rather than craning it forwards. If you balance your head on your A-O joint, your neck should move into this position.
- The Shoulders: Your shoulders are not connected to your ribcage, so they shouldn’t move while you sing. Do not counter this by standing to attention! Instead, float your shoulders into a relaxed, neutral position.
- The Arms: When you are not gesturing, relax your arms at your sides. Do not make fists, clasp your hands, or fidget with your clothes; this adds tension and makes you look (and feel) nervous.
- The Torso: Your torso contains your lungs, along with the many muscles that help them work. For optimal breathing, balance your torso on top of your hips and allow it to feel large and open. Do not try to flatten your spine; it is naturally curved and flattening it hinders breathing.
- Hips: Position your pelvis directly under your torso so it can provide maximum support. It should not be pushed forwards or backwards.
- Legs: Soften your knees so that they are neither bent nor locked. Position your legs directly under your body, feeling their support.
- Feet: Feet should be about shoulder width apart. Balance your weight across your feet evenly so that you are not leaning forward or backward.
Perfect singing posture can be hard to achieve on your own, so be sure to work with a qualified vocal coach to correct any postural issues you may be unaware of. For more information, check out this infographic about posture for singers.
4. Improving Your Tone
You’ve probably heard the word tone a lot — but what exactly does it mean? Is tone something you need to improve or develop? Well… not quite.
Voice teacher Molly R. explains it this way:
Tone can’t be changed! It’s your unique “vocal thumbprint.” It is primarily determined by the shape of your head, throat, and sinuses. You are an instrument, and will sound different than someone with another shape!
Although the specific qualities and colors may sound slightly different (especially when you think about different singing styles and genres), when it comes down to it, a good tone is one that’s supported by good vocal technique. As you’ve learned in the previous sections, that means starting with proper breath control and good singing posture.
Beyond that, improving your singing tone is best done with the help of a professional. Since there are many reasons your tone could be suffering, working with a voice teacher can help you identify what you need to work on — whether that’s insufficient breathing, a limited range, or understanding how first to attack a note or phrase.
Additional Resources for Tone:
- Defining Tone in Singing via Singing for Dummies, 2nd Edition
- 9 Steps to Improve Your Singing Tone via Steven Memel’s The Science of Switching On
- 5 Secrets to Make Your Voice Sound Better via Cari Cole
5. How to Sing On Pitch
Pitch is defined as the quality that allows us to classify a sound as relatively high or low. It’s determined by the frequency of sound wave vibrations; knowing how to sing on pitch is what sets apart great singers.
Some musicians are born with this natural “ear” for hearing and matching pitches; others may need a bit of practice, and that’s totally OK! Many singers — even professionals — have a tendency to slide sharp or slide flat, and it’s something they have to continually practice and correct.
So, how do you strengthen your pitch-matching abilities? One way is to do simple aural drills online or with your teacher. Start by playing a note on a piano to find your pitch. Sing along, and then subtly slide your pitch one way, and then back to the note. You’ll start training your ear to really hear the varying pitches.
Want more exercise ideas? Take a look at the infographic to the right — identify the problems you run into regularly, and add the recommended exercise to your daily routine. We also recommend checking out our guide to ear training.
6. Learning Basic Music Theory
The best part about singing? Anyone can learn to sing, without any prior knowledge of music theory, structure, or history.
But you’re not just anyone, right? If you really want to set yourself apart from the pack, learning music theory will help you be a more knowledgeable, well-rounded musician… and even help you book gigs!
Here are some of the ways knowing music theory can help you be a better singer:
- Learning Music: For those who have no or limited music theory knowledge, learning how to read music is certainly not impossible, but it’s certainly not fast or efficient. Think of music theory as a set of tools — explanations, vocabulary, ideas — that make you a better, and faster, music learner.
- Versatility: It’s one thing not to know any music theory and sing easy beginner songs, but you’ll be at a whole new level if you can improv riffs in a jazz song or harmonize with another singer or musician. This all takes a knowledge of music theory!
- Auditions and Competitions: Many vocal auditions, competitions, and scholarship opportunities are based on a music theory exam or assessment. Learning music theory opens up opportunities for you as a music student and a competitor.
- Collaborating with Other Musicians: Music is a language, and knowing music theory allows you to communicate clearly with other musicians. If you know how to understand the key signature, rhythm, chords, and scales of a song, you can work out a vocal accompaniment in a much more efficient way.
Learn more about how music theory helps singers here.
Music Theory Websites and Resources:
- 5 Ways Learning Music Theory Can Make You a Better Singer
- Top 10 Free Music Theory Websites
7. Diction for Singers
“A good way to practice agility is to actually RAP your song lyrics! Not only will your words be clearer — you’ll be singing nice and rhythmically, too! If you’re a classical singer, make sure you invest in a good book or two about foreign language diction, such as Diction for Singers by Joan Wall.” — Molly R., TakeLessons Voice Teacher
Diction is how well we pronounce our words while singing. It’s also known as articulation.
In most contemporary music — especially pop, country, and rap — the lyrics are an integral part of the song. That’s why writing song lyrics can be so tough!
So as a singer, it’s your job to share those lyrics with your audience. If you’re quiet, muffled, or sloppy, the message and story of the song can get lost.
Moreover, some singers don’t even recognize when they have poor diction. This is where recording yourself singing, or getting feedback from your voice teacher, can make a huge difference. From there, your teacher can work with you on practicing vowels (which are very important for singers!) and making consonants crisp and clear.
Here’s a great video to get you started:
Additional Resources for Diction:
- IPA Source – Transcriptions and translations of opera arias and art song texts
- Why is Diction Important? – via Vocalist.org
8. Finding Your Vocal Range
We all know those few amazing singers with expansive vocal ranges – Mariah Carey for her five octaves, famous for her low, high, and whistle notes; Ariana Grande famous for her full voice and head voice notes; Toni Braxton and Brandy for those low sultry notes. Everyone would love to be able to sing their songs and hit every note, but everyone’s range is different.
Instead of trying only to mimic the greats, it’s important to work with a vocal teacher to understand your own personal range, and keep it in consideration as you’re warming up and selecting repertoire.
How to Find Your Range
To find your vocal range, start by playing middle C on a piano or keyboard. (Don’t have a piano? You can also use a tuning app to find your note.) Then, sing along as you move down notes; the last note you can sing comfortably and clearly is your lowest note. Next, sing along as you move up the piano to find your highest note.
You can also follow along with the video to the below find your vocal range.
Also, make sure you understand the difference between your chest and head voice! Learn more in this video below.
9. Staying Motivated and Improving
You’ve learned all the basics, and you’ve been listening to all the greats for inspiration. But remember: you simply can’t expect to improve without regular practice!
Practice every day, if possible – even short practice sessions, conducted on a regular basis, can make a big difference. It’s also important to focus on strategic, quality practice (see the infographic to the below and learn how about how to structure your singing practice here).
If you feel like practicing for a longer time, go for it, but don’t overdo it. You need to feel inspired and motivated, and feeling like you “have to” is detrimental to a singer’s progress!
Make your practice sessions FUN. Create your own silly warm-ups — try singing with “nonsense” words. Make a simple song a warm-up. You can also spend part of your session practicing performing. By pretending you’ve got an audience, you’ll be ready for when you actually do have one. More on this in the next section.
10. Being a Confident Singer
Last but not least, one of the most important qualities a singer can have is not necessarily a gorgeous voice, but CONFIDENCE!
If you are firmly planted on stage with a relaxed presence, you’re inviting your audience in and opening up your voice. If you struggle with stage fright (and so many singers and performers do!), don’t be so hard on yourself. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, and most importantly, don’t let your nerves hold you back!
The more you perform, the more your confidence as a singer will grow.
There you have it – the 10 steps to vocal excellence. As you work through these resources, don’t forget to check in with your vocal coach to make sure you’re on the right track. If in-person lessons aren’t possible, you can learn to sing online with TakeLessons Live – wherever and whenever you like!
No matter where your singing journey takes you, remember to breathe deep, have fun, and sing your heart out!
- 5 Excellent Online Resources for Singers
- Search for a voice teacher near you
- Take Online singing classes in groups
- 10 Things Your Voice Teacher Wants You to Know About Singing Lessons via TheFullVoice.com
Molly R. teaches online and in-person singing lessons in Hayward, CA. Her specialties include teaching beginner vocalists, shy singers, children, teens, lapsed singers, and older beginners. She joined TakeLessons in November 2013. Learn more about Molly here!