I have a lot of students who claim to “not be able to carry a tune.” These are often people who have been labelled “tone deaf,” or have been asked to “just mouth the words” instead of singing. How heart breaking! Many of these people love music but feel that they simply can’t and never will be able to sing.
The happy news is that in all my time teaching I have not had one student who couldn’t learn to “carry a tune.” Maybe there are people out there who are truly “tone deaf,” but I have NEVER met one. In my experience, if a student can hear a musical note and it is within their vocal range, they can eventually learn to sing it. It takes some work to do it. But, it can be done and it’s worth it. I wish you could see some of the looks of triumph in my students’ faces. I have a pretty cool job.
WHAT’S HAPPENING WHEN WE SING RANDOM NOTES?
Here is my basic theory. If we can sustain the thought of the desired note throughout the act of singing we will sing the desired note. Fancy stuff, eh? I have no scientific backing for this theory. It’s based on observations of my students. And it serves pretty well as a working model.
Let me put it in other words. If you can continue to project the thought of a note while you try to sing it, you will sing that note.
Seems simple enough, right?
Then why do we sing random notes that we don’t intend to?
Most of us use our voices for speaking more than for singing. And singing FEELS very different from speaking. The breath and vocal chords are used very differently. The sensation of singing notes with our voices can be very strange. Unfamiliar. Very distracting. Very, very distracting. So distracting in fact that we lose track of the note that we’re trying to sing. And without that note in our head to guide us we are like a rudderless ship. We sing a random note instead.
Another big difference between speaking and singing is the range of the notes used. Range means the distance between the highest note and the lowest note. The range in speaking is much smaller than the range in singing. In other words, there are fewer notes used in speaking than in singing. This means that we will be asked to make notes in singing that we have little or no experience with making! The sensation of this will be even more distracting.
Of course there are many other things that can distract us, like focusing on the mechanics of singing. Or, perhaps we’re thinking about what a teacher told us we should “do” with our breath. And on and on…
So again, it’s just my theory, but this is what I think happens: 1. We think of the note we want to sing. 2. We try to sing it. 3. We get distracted and stop projecting the note we are trying to sing. So instead, we sing a random note within our speaking range. Darn it!
So how do we work on carrying a tune?
1. PRACTICE PROJECTING NOTES IN YOUR HEAD
This may seem crazy but you can actually practice doing this. Play a note on your uke, or on the piano if you have one. After the note stops ringing ask yourself, “Can I still hear that note in my head?” You may need to relax and try this a few times but you will soon realize that you can retain and replay pitches in your head. What magic! Don’t undervalue this simple work. I think it is the foundation to singing and music making in general. Any kind of ear training work is a real help as well.
2. PRACTICE PLAYING, THINKING, THEN SINGING NOTES WITHIN SPEAKING RANGE
You may need a teacher to help you with this. Find three or four notes that are well within your speaking range. Play one of the notes on your instrument, project it in your head, and then try to sing it. Change notes and try it again. Remember to continue to sustain the thought of the note in your head as you try to sing it. It can be helpful to have a friend who is strong at singing or a teacher do this along with you. Sometimes you won’t know if you got it right or not!
It can be helpful to not try to sing the note right away. It’s a good idea to play the note then practice projecting the note in your head a few times before you try to sing it. And don’t worry if it goes wrong! By practicing projecting notes in your head you are indirectly working on singing. I’ve seen it work many times.
Once you can reliably pluck, think then sing the notes within your speaking range, you can start to expand the range to higher or lower notes. A thrilling adventure.
3. WORK WITH A REFERENCE
I always encourage students who are challenged with carrying a tune to work with a melody reference wherever possible. For some students it can be really problematic to work with a song sheet that just has the words and the chords. These students really need to be able to “prime the pump,” by first playing the correct pitches that they want to sing.
I often end up writing the melody to the song in tablature below the words. That way the student can pick the melody first, get it in their head and then sing it. It’s often not good enough to simply strum the first chord of the song and hope that you will sing the correct notes from the start. You are too likely to sing a random note without even knowing it. You need to have a reference.
You may find that as you get better at this you will only need to hear the first few notes of the melody and you will be able to carry the rest of the tune on your own. Beautiful!
4. MAKE SURE THE SONG IS IN A GOOD “KEY” FOR YOU
When you are trying to learn to carry a tune it’s important that the notes in a song be as close as possible to your spoken range. If the song is in a key that’s really difficult for you to sing it’s not appropriate to use it for learning to carry a tune. It would be a good idea to change the key of the song. You might need to get a friend or teacher to help you with this.
There are some quick tricks that can work for changing the key of a song without changing the shapes of the chords that you’re playing. If you have a baritone ukulele it can be helpful. If you play the same shapes or tablature on your baritone ukulele as you play on your soprano ukulele it will put the song in a different key. Maybe easier to sing! Another idea is to try using a capo. These are perhaps topics for a future lesson. More later!
5. BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF
The kind of changes that we need to have happen in our brains to learn to sing and play music do not happen overnight. It takes time. Just keep at it, a little at a time. Soon you’ll be noticing all kinds of progress.
I think singing is fundamental to music making. It is so helpful to be able to express a musical idea without having to play it on an instrument. I often have my students sing an idea before they try to play it. I like to make sure that the idea is clear before they try to play it on the instrument. This is vital in learning to play by ear. If you don’t know what you’re trying to play, you better stop and clarify before you try to play it. It makes sense.
However, I have some students who absolutely refuse to sing. And that’s OK! We find other ways to work. I can’t always have it my way!
I have so enjoyed writing this article.
If any of you are interested in setting up a Skype consult to check in about certain aspects of your playing, I’d be happy to hear from you at moc.kradehtnielelukunull@ofni.
All the best in your playing,