Song Work: Choosing, Learning, and Working On A Song
Camille van Niekerk
This article will outline each step in your song work, from choosing a song to performance day!
Step 1: Choose a song that fits your voice (and consider changing keys if it's too high or low)
The easiest way to choose songs is to first determine your vocal range, and then choose songs from singers with a similar range. Find your range by following the steps in this article: https://www.30daysinger.com/blog/finding-your-vocal-range. You can compare your range to that of well-known singers and find songs within your range using https://singingcarrots.com/.
Once you’ve found a singer whose range and tone aresimilar to yours, make a note and consider singing more of their songs! These singers can serve as “tonal models” for you to learn from.
If you’ve chosen a song by a singer with a different voice type, you may need to change the key of the song. Changing the key will shift the range (the highest and lowest pitchesof the melody) by the number of semitones you’re moving away from the original key. First, search for a karaoke track on YouTube with your specifications (ie: “higher”, “lower”, “male key”, “alto key”, etc). You can also purchase a track in the original key or transposed (by +/-4 semitones)on https://www.karaoke-version.com/mp3-backingtrack/karaoke.html. I recommend you start there and sing along with the cover version to find a good key for your voice!
If you need to shift the track by more than 4 semitones in either direction, you can adjust the pitch (of both the original and karaoke track, depending on which you’d like to sing along with) using an online transposer: https://filmora.wondershare.com/video-editing-tips/pitch-changer-online.html. Keep in mind, however, that if you shift the pitch by a wide interval, the track may begin to distort.
It’s important to note: you need to consider range AND registration of the song. For example, you may be able to sing a C5, but can you belt it (if that’s what the song requires)? I encourage you to put the song in your most comfortable key while you work on stretching your range and building strength within each register. If the song is just slightly out of reach, feel free to stick with the original key and stretch into it!
Step 2: Learn the melody by rote
Learning by rote means you listen and repeat what you hear. If you can find sheet music online (include “pdf” in your Google search to see if you can find a free version), I recommend using that, too. Even if you don’t read music, it’s very helpful to see the “shape” of the melody, including repeated pitches, small steps, and big leaps. The only thing a beginner needsto know is: a note that’s lower on the page is a lower pitch, and a note that’s higher on the page is a higher pitch.
(Note: if music theory and sight reading interest you, check out https://www.musictheory.net/ for free lessons and exercises.)
If you cannot find sheet music online, print out the lyrics (or use a tablet if you can easily make notes). Take a few minutes to mark your breaths (spots where you can or need to breathe) and underline challenging sections. Once you’ve learned the melody, you’ll use that same lyrics sheet to make notes on style, vowel modifications, and more.
For easy, uncomplicated songs, simply listening and singing along may be sufficient! But for more challenging songs, consider following these steps:
1. Breathe through the song (exhale on a hiss or “shh” rather than singing)
2. Sing the melody on a lip trill, through a straw, or on another configuration that gently trains balanced breath support and cord closure (see https://www.voicescienceworks.org/sovt-exercises.html for more ideas).
3. Sing the melody on an easy, relaxed syllable like MUM, BUHB, DOO, etc.
Step 3: Troubleshoot
Now that you know the melody and have trained yourself to breathe in the right places and sing the correct pitches in a relaxed manner, it’s time to add the lyrics back in and troubleshoot. Ask yourself: what are the tricky spots in this song, and why are they tricky? It could be a large leap, a sustained note, a “high” note that feels scary or unstable, or lyrics that are difficult to sing and you’re not sure why.
It’s at this phase that we work on applying warmups to your specific song. Here’s a good formula to follow:
1. Determine the issue.
2. Think of a warmup syllable that helps you with that specific issue.
3. Sing the melody on that syllable and see if it’s easier. If not, try a different syllable (consonant/vowel combination).
4. Add the lyrics back in.
5. If necessary, modify vowels or consonants to make your job easier.
To build effective warmup syllables that will help you access the register and tone you’re going for, see below for consonant and vowel categories! These categories are outlined by voice teacher &author John Henny in “Teaching Contemporary Singing.”
A) Hard consonants (use to correct breathy tone by providing secondary resistance): G -B -K -T -D -P
B) Medium (use for balanced resistance + airflow): M -N
C) Soft (use to correct squeezed/pressed/”locked up”sound by encouraging air flow and decreasing vocal fold resistance): Z -F -SH -H
A) Narrow vowels (use for a lighter tone / more head voice): OO (as in cool) and EE (as in bee)
B) Medium vowels (use for a balanced / mixed voice sound): UH (as in cup) and ʊ (as in book)
C) Wide vowels (use for a heavier tone / more chest voice): EY (as in hey) and A (as in yeah)
Once you’ve trained on a helpful syllable -like HOO for light, head voice sections, or a BUHB for strong mixed voice -you can remove the “training wheels” and return to the lyrics. It’s very common for some vowel modification to take place at this step. For example, if you are trying the belt the word “be” in “Music of the Night”, you may find that the “b” is helpful, but the “e” vowel is causing you to strain or “flip” into head voice. In that case, you’d modify the “ee” vowel so it’s a little closer to a medium vowel (see above). Listen to Ramin Karimloo sing this song (“be” occurs just after 3:30 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBDxEHzidx0) and you’ll hear an example of vowel modification. He starts with a mix of “ih” and “ey”, and then lets the vowel close to a pure “ee” only at the very end of the note.
Of course, troubleshooting is a process of trial and error. But you can use the above categories to help you choose a helpful syllable AND modify your lyrics to make them easier to sing.
Step 4: Stylize
Singing well is about more than just singing the right notes. It’s about style, emotion,and making a song your own.
A good place to start is to analyze the style of both the original artist and singers who’ve covered the song you’re learning. Notice (and noteon your lyrics sheet) elements like:
-Falling off of pitches
-Abrupt register shifts (ex: “pop flip” or “falsetto flip”)
-Sliding or scooping up to pitches
Imitating different artists trainsyour ear and helps you discover new stylistic elements to have in your toolkit.
Now you’re ready to memorize (if you aren’t already) and polish your performance. Record yourself and listen back, making note of both likes and dislikes. Especially if you’re preparing for a performance or recording session, your goal is to establish the muscle memory so you can sing this song well every time, with or without an audience.
Best of luck, and if you don’t have a song to work on, read this article for some more guidance: https://www.30daysinger.com/blog/how-to-choose-a-good-song-for-your-voice-considering-range-registration-and-style.