Your voice is your first and most natural instrument, until you learn that only some people are supposed to sing.
Most young children sing, and they learn through songs. As we get older, though, we get sorted into categories: those who can sing and those who can’t. You might remember a particular experience when this exact thing happened, perhaps in grade school. If you were sent to the “can’t” side of the room, there a good chance you never sang again.
Singing used to be a part of our culture, something families and larger groups did together informally. In some settings, you might still: in church perhaps, or at a sporting event. But for the most part, only “singers” sing, except perhaps in the shower or the car when no one’s listening.
But the ability to sing is an important musical skill that has little to do with whether you sing in public or not. You don’t need to be a strong vocalist to learn to use your voice as a musical tool to develop your ear and overall musicality.
1. Training your ear.
What we call “ear training” is basically pattern recognition. We hear a series of sounds and can identify a familiar pattern. For a musician, this has two aspects: identifying what we’re hearing, and figuring out how to play it. This requires holding the sound in your “musical ear” long enough to be able to compare another sound to it. In other words, we hear a note, try to duplicate it, and evaluate our accuracy. The more detailed your pitch recognition is, the easier it will be to duplicate the note.
Anyone who has ever tried to pick out a song by ear has gone through this process. There’s generally a certain amount of trial and error as we search for the notes. The process of searching tends to make things more difficult, since every wrong note further clouds your memory of what the right one was. But if you can duplicate the pitch with your voice, you’ll find it’s much easier to hold the note in your ear. Singing a line helps you internalize it, and fixes the notes more securely in your musical mind.
2. Learning songs
Every song has some kind of organized structure. Some are very simple and some more complex, but generally the song is organized into sections that are articulated by differences in melody, chord sequence, dynamics, rhythmic feel, and lyric. In most contemporary popular songs, this breaks down to some variation on verse-chorus with additional sections like a pre-chorus or a bridge. Generally each verse has different lyrics with the same music, while the chorus repeats the lyric each time.
In many modern songs, both parts have the same chord sequence. If you don’t sing, it can be tricky to keep track of where you are!
Experienced musicians can feel their way through a form, keeping track by following the sense of symmetry and balance of the phrases and the dynamic shifts between sections. This can sometimes be completely intuitive. But when you’re learning, following the lyric is extremely helpful. And it’s much more effective for memorization to sing the lyrics, or even just talk them, than to just read. You can certainly follow song and memorize form and structure without actually singing, but it’s a very effective aid.
Singing also helps your performance. When you’re more conscious of the lyrics, the energy of your playing will better support the tone of the words. Again, musical intuition is often in the driver’s seat here, and a singer is reacting to the feel of the music just as much as the players are to the lyric. But everyone should be on the same page energetically. If you’ve never sung the song, even to yourself, you may not absorb the complete emotional flow of the song. Even more fundamentally, if you’re practicing alone and no one is singing, you don’t even have a compelling reason to play the entire form! This is a trap many people fall into, especially strummer hobbyists.
3. It just feels good.
Singing is one of the most natural things humans do, and singing in a group is deeply connecting. This is why we sing in a worship service, or at football games, or any gathering where the bond between people is an important part of the experience. Think about it: sound is vibration, so when people since together they are all literally on the same wavelength. And singing alone can be just as satisfying, in that it brings the physical experience of the music directly to the center of your body via one of its most fundamental functions: the breath.
If you don’t sing at all, it might partly be that you might feel a level of inhibition about it (especially if you’ve been told to believe that you can’t, or shouldn’t). Or maybe you don’t: we’ve all heard that one person that can sing off-key with gusto! But everyone can use their voice to some degree. In the beginning, the trick is to not worry about what your voice sounds like, but to simply start to explore what it’s comfortable doing.
Don’t even worry about what you sound like, or even about your pitch (at first).
That can come later. Your short-term goal is to connect to your voice and explore the experience of singing. You can learn a lot by gently vocalizing: humming, sustaining vowel sounds, or even just allowing whatever sounds want to come out. One of the best vocal coaches I ever had would encourage me to make ugly, unmusical sounds as part of our warmups. He wanted me to experiment with what my vocal instrument could do, and really it helped me develop my expressive range. The idea was not to ask the voice to do anything in particular, but to find out more about what it could do at that moment.
Once you find a comfortable range, pay attention to the rise and fall, with no other goal than to be able to establish comfortable upper and lower limits. You can get more specific as you proceed. Keep in mind that you’re not training to be a “singer”, you’re simply exploring your voice from the inside. The vocal mechanism itself will allow you a certain amount of natural range in pitch: for some people very little, others a lot more. In the beginning, all you need to do is get a sense of what that range feels and sounds like. This can be developed and extended over time. As you get comfortable, you can start to work with a voice coach if you decide that it’s an area you’d really like to delve into.
I’ve come to observe over years of working with students that pitch problems or even apparent tone-deafness – the ability to find a note at all – is often the result of a disconnect between the ear and this vocal range.. It’s easy to think of “range” as being the actual high and low limits of the sound you can make, but there’s more to it. Some people find they can hear the note, and get their voice to the approximate register, but what comes out never matches. In other words, if you can’t sing a note in tune, it just might be outside your natural “sweet spot”. The untrained voice can’t reproduce what the ear is asking for, and this is where coaching comes in.
The bottom line is that non-singers are generally capable of more than they realize, and that the ability to sing is an enjoyable and practical skill that will help make you a better musician. Find the way your voice is happiest, and then raise it.