How To Serenade Your Girlfriend
January 10, 2011 10:49 AM   Subscribe

How do you teach someone to sing in tune... or closer to it at least?

My boyfriend just loves to sing all the time, and it's so off-key you'd think he's doing it to be funny. But no, he's just never learned how to sing in tune, never had any music training at all. I'm thoroughly entertained by it, but he would like to learn to sing in tune.

I've got a bit of music and voice training under my belt, a good ear for music and can keep myself in tune. But I'm kind of stumped how to teach someone something I do without thinking about it. I think a little push in the right direction will do wonders for him.

Formal lessons aren't an option until the fall. Any suggestions on how he can improve himself in the meanwhile? How to pay attention to the sound he's making and get himself on key (or in the ballpark anyway)? Thanks!
posted by lizbunny to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Has he ever heard a recording of himself singing? It's hard to know how you sound from within your own head, maybe if he knew how off key he was he would try to be more on-key.
posted by ghharr at 10:53 AM on January 10, 2011

There was something on the BBC about this today.
posted by essexjan at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2011

I got better at singing in tune by using software that shows you how your pitch compares to the note you're supposed to be singing. This was a long time ago, so it was actually at a science museum. Now that the future is here, there are multiple programs like this -- I did a quick search and found two pieces of software called Canta and Singing Coach, and something like Rock Band or Karaoke Revolution might work well too and be more fun.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

I was going to recommend Canta! It really does help, both for improving pitch resolution and for teaching harmonizing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:56 AM on January 10, 2011

Rock Band. The vocal component of that game includes a visual way of tracking your pitch.
posted by mhoye at 10:57 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

My opera-singer friend (and choir director) instructs us to hear the notes we're about to sing in our head, rather than listening to what your vocal chords are doing. I think this is kind of the opposite of what some people do, which is to plug their ears while singing so they can hear better. It's about having your brain instruct your vocal chords rather than responding to them.

This may sound kind of abstract, but maybe it will help. This same teacher says that very, very few people are actually tone-deaf: that almost everyone can be taught to sing on-key. So... good luck. Also, way to go on your great attitude; I think that might drive me nuts! :)
posted by torticat at 10:58 AM on January 10, 2011

If you've got a music-pitch making thing... a piano would be great, or a guitar, but a computer app that makes a beep is fine, too... just see if he can match a single note. beeep. Laaa. (like Canta seems to be?)

and from there, try two-note intervals, either play and have him repeat back, or a simple melody pattern (scale, kid song, etc) to step through together, stay on each note until he's found the pitch.

I'd first say, go for a diagnosis - Can he tell what he wants but not make the sound, or can he not hear when he's wrong? Or maybe he does fine with single notes, but gets distracted by the song and forgets to care whether he's on pitch? Or maybe there's the way the song goes in his head that doesn't happen to match what the radio's actually doing? If he's interested in finding out, I bet that would be a fascinating problem to play with.
posted by aimedwander at 11:03 AM on January 10, 2011

If you're going to do this, I would keep it light and fun. Rock Band is a great idea. Just singing more, in general, will also help - singing hymns every Sunday in church was huge for my musical education even though it involved almost no formal study or voice lessons. Do karaeoke! Or mess around with a simple musical instrument like a recorder or harmonica (or I guess something less cheap if you already have access).

Another idea - is he trying to sing difficult things? A lot of the pop music you hear now is not really singable by someone who doesn't have a lot of training or natural talent. There's a good reason that, back before recorded music, most songs printed on sheet music for mass consumption were way more singable than today's recorded product meant only to be listened to. If he's trying to be Michael Jackson and failing, maybe he should try to be Leonard Cohen or Ramblin' Jack Elliot instead?

All of that said, some people are just tone deaf. There's nothing wrong with that.
posted by Sara C. at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2011

Once upon a time, I was in the same boat. I was not only off-key, but off-rhythm and had terrible vocal tone as well. Furthermore, my ear for melody was so bad that I couldn't even tell how badly I was singing. (I didn't think I was great, but I didn't know that I was terrible.)

The good news is, it is totally possible for a naturally untalented person to learn to sing in tune. The bad news is, it can be a lot of work and take a lot of time and dedication. He (and you) will need plenty of patience.

If you have a keyboard around the house, it can be very helpful to show him how to play a simple major scale and sing along (Do-Re-Mi ...), trying to match his pitches to the instrument. Find a scale that's in his natural range. If he does well on this, you can build on it by teaching him simple arpeggios within the scale or basic solfege techniques.

Recording himself singing (with a good quality digital recorder) and listening to himself immediately afterwards is another good exercise. If he's singing without instrumental accompaniment, he might want to start out with simple folk tunes, since those are more likely to have easier melodies to hear than a lot of pop material.

If he has a PS3 or XBox, he can pick up one of the Rock Band games and a USB microphone. These games provide visual feedback for the singer so he can see where he is above or below the note.

If he has any interest in learning an instrument, that process will help to develop the same areas of the brain that handle singing.

I would refrain from offering him too much correction yourself unless you have
a) the patience to make all your feedback encouraging rather than judgmental
b) the pedagogical judgment to pick out just the particular notes that he needs the most help with at a given time
c) the skill to tell him accurately which direction a given note is off (sharp or flat) and by how much.

Good luck to your boyfriend - it's a lot of work, but from my standpoint it's totally worth it.
posted by tdismukes at 11:31 AM on January 10, 2011

Is he tone deaf? My father is almost completely tone deaf (I actually tested him with a piano. If I play two notes an octave apart he can't tell which one is higher). His singing is actually pretty good, considering (by which I mean it's completely awful, but not as completely awful as you might expect).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:21 PM on January 10, 2011

nth'ing Rock Band, specifically, Rock Band 3 which has multi-part vocals so you can sing together and The Beatles: Rock Band because it has multi-part vocals (with lots of harmonies), is older and cheaper, and the songs tend to be in a pretty comfortable range for most men.

This isn't all that applicable here but the advice I always give someone playing Rock Band for the first time and trying the vocals is this: it isn't about singing well, its about singing with enthusiasm. You can't get better at it if you're not having fun and you'll have more fun trying to sing enthusiastically than you will trying to be perfect. With practice, you'll be able to do both at once.
posted by VTX at 1:22 PM on January 10, 2011

Well, probably like you, some of us were trained in the basics and some weren't. Teach him how to breathe. Get him to lay on his back on the floor and breathe, and teach him how to produce sound all over again. Lots of people can't sing in key or near key because they don't actually know how to make sound, or grew up making sounds incorrectly—for instance, some people try as hard as possible not to send air through the vocal folds. (Because, consciously or not, they were influenced by how they thought pop singers were making sound.) Warning: this is potentially way less fun than experiments with Rock Band or other fine ideas above!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:37 PM on January 10, 2011

As a friend of mine says, I have the soul, but not the voice, of a singer. I love singing, but I'm off-key. I never 'studied' singing, but I was in chorus for years, so I have a basics on the breathing and such. I do better when I can sing along with someone in the room, and not just on the radio.

But the worst part is, I can actually hear when I'm off, but that doesn't mean I can fix it. I figure voice lessons (perhaps via YouTube? who knows) are the only fix that would work for me.

In the meantime, I torture my family.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:42 PM on January 10, 2011

RB or such could be helpful, but probably only combined with someone like you who knows what to do. I'm like your boyfriend, and while Rock band is great at showing me how off-pitch I am, it does nothing to tell me how to fix it. I keep going under/over and never am able to follow the line.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:45 PM on January 10, 2011

I'd say start with basic music lessons. Like piano. I think it could give your friend a good base.
I have a friend who can't sing in tune, owns and plays rock band regularly and cannot get the vocals. I think he might be truly tone deaf. He asked me "what does it me when the line is higher? That you try harder?"

I have another friend who knows he's not singing in tune but can't do much to fix it. He also plays rock band and is a total mic hog on karaoke nights. Interestingly the only way he can sing in tune is by singing in falsetto.
posted by simplethings at 3:42 PM on January 10, 2011

My sister use to sing off key as a teen and it use to drive me crazy during car rides. Years later when she was treated for allergies, it really helped. I'd try taking a decongestant and see if it makes any difference.
posted by stray thoughts at 8:31 PM on January 10, 2011

I've found it helps to get people in this position to sing any note they're comfortable with, match their pitch, and start from there - so instead of playing or singing a note and saying 'can you match this?', you start with their note and get them to work from there. After a little while, matching pitch becomes more of a habit. I've done it this way with a few people, and as long as you do the work regularly, it tends to happen. It also means he's working comfortably within his range (pick a song outside his range - too low or high for his voice - and he'll never get it in tune...)

A little aside; at the age of 8 I was completely unable to match pitch. I now regularly train and conduct singers. Aside from the very small minority with a congenital problem, matching pitch is a physical habit, and can be acquired.
posted by monkey closet at 1:05 AM on January 11, 2011

I had a friend who sang off key sometimes and on-key sometimes, and finally I asked him why. he said, "Oh, well, it sounds stupid if I try to sing too high, so if the note is too high, I just sing it lower." My brain exploded and I said "NO YOU MUST MUST MUST SING THE EXACT SAME PITCH AS THE LEAD SINGER, IF YOU CHANGE IT IT SOUNDS BAD" and he said "Oh, it matters? OK." And then he sang in tune. How on earth could it have been that simple? But it was.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:20 AM on January 11, 2011

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