The Woodshed: Improving Vocal Pitch Accuracy

Many people have trouble singing in tune for various reasons. Try these musical exercises to improve your intonation.
Jeannie Gagne
Jeannie Gagne
Susan Wilson

The human voice is truly amazing. It’s infinitely variable; responds to subtle thoughts and emotions; and is capable of a wide variety of colors, tones, volumes, and pitches that can change in an instant. We picture a note and a volume, we inhale and exhale, and out comes that note. Simultaneously, we use the mouth to shape the note’s tone and timbre, all while expressing language. How cool is that?

Human beings can hear and sing many more tones than are part of the equal-temperament system. Singing in tune means eliminating many of those tones, learning agreed-upon notes, and matching our voices to them. If we have sung since childhood, this usually comes naturally. Musical style, however, may complicate things when we bring back some of the “out-of-tune” tones into a phrase by bending up to the fifth in a blues line or sliding down between two pitches.

Neural Pathways

Any skill we want to master requires repetition. As we repeat a task, we lay down neural pathways to strengthen the brain’s control in that area. When practicing singing in tune, we listen and make adjustments to vowel shapes, while gaining awareness of the subtle action of muscles in the larynx and mouth. Our muscles begin to respond accordingly. While practicing, you should avoid the buildup of tension in the face and neck muscles and have adequate breath support.

Example 1a shows a simple exercise for holding one note in tune while changing vowels and releasing stress. Don’t be concerned about your vocal register. Instead, focus your thoughts on the note, the vowel, and how loudly or softly you are singing.

For most women, the A below middle C is a good place to start. Men can start on an E or an F, or in a comfortable lower part of their range. Continue singing the exercise, moving up by half-steps until you reach a comfortable high part of your range, but not reaching for the top. Then go back down (see example 1b).

As you change vowels, the airflow inside your mouth shifts and alters your tone. By holding one note, you are working to keep both the pitch and volume steady throughout the phrase. As you sing, listen to the tone. Stay relaxed but engaged, and take your time. Close your eyes if you want.

You may notice that the pitch stays in tune when you have more breath but goes flat as your breath runs out. To address this, keep your breath steady past the end of the phrase, as if you planned to go longer. Prevent your breath from fading out by reserving air as you begin.

Another common pitch issue occurs when you sing while finding the note. To overcome this habit, breathe deeply into your abdomen while counting to three, like filling an inner tube around your middle. Don’t over-breathe while inhaling, as that adds tension. Let your ribs expand. Wait a beat, and hear the note in your mind. Imagine it is right in front of you, then, sing it. This is a circular motion: Breathe in, pause, sing, repeat. Picture the note on a horizontal plane, you don’t have to reach for it. Don’t think of notes as high or low, just as frequencies. Your muscles will adjust.

“Muscle Memory”

The ability to sing in tune consistently develops when muscles of the larynx and pharynx (in the back of the throat) become familiar with the “placement” of notes. This is sometimes called “muscle memory.” We learn where pitches are in the body physically and remember that feeling. (This is why it may be difficult to change keys of a popular tune that you’ve sung many times in the original key.)

Practicing intervals can help you recall the feeling of where notes sit in your voice. For example, if your melody has a spot that throws you off, it may be because it contains a tricky vocal interval, such as a fourth. When you identify the interval, and you know how a fourth sounds and feels, you just think, “It’s a fourth.” Vocal movements for each interval are pretty consistent and reliable, varying somewhat depending on the volume and vowel you are singing.

Example 2 helps to internalize interval jumps. Begin a half-step below the tonic note (middle C here), toggling off it by a half step and then singing the changing intervals above the root. Below the notes, I’ve included both the name of the interval you’re singing, as well as the solfège syllables. Experiment with this exercise in various keys. If you are singing and playing an instrument, focus your attention on singing.

Example 3 is a more challenging workout for fine-tuning your pitch. It ascends with leaps of minor thirds, then descends  diatonically mixing major and minor thirds. You’ll need to concentrate to sing it accurately.

Influences

Just as we learn language by imitation, we also learn singing by imitation. With our voice, we may unconsciously mimic the sounds of the instruments we are singing along with. We may know something is off as we sing but can’t identify why. For instance, when working with a piano, we might be modeling the percussive attack of hammers on the strings. That would be modeling the wrong instrument. The voice is a wind instrument with flexible movements of the larynx that are more akin to the slide of a trombone.

And as with language, singing styles are conditioned by your environment. Your singing is affected by the musical styles and artists you like, what you grew up listening to, and the music you played in your formative years. As well, the opinions of your music teachers, friends, and parents influence how you sing.

How the voice is used varies a lot depending on musical style. Country singers may affect a more nasal twang whereas pop singers may either be breathy or belt out a song. Jazz singers tend to be laid back, while musical theater singers often sound excited or animated. Rock singers can sound aggressive and may have a scratchy quality to the voice. R&B singers are usually smooth. How loudly or softly you sing, pronounce your words, form a phrase, and even where you breathe in the phrase will also affect the tonal quality and intonation of your singing.

We’ve touched on just a few of the many considerations vocalists need to be aware of to sing in tune consistently. I believe that with increased awareness, focus, and hard work, all can become accurate singers.