Gaining musical confidence as a singer by learning to listen to music more effectively

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Right off the bat, this article does not cover the mechanisms you can put to use in order to gain confidence in front of a crowd or on stage, but rather feeling musically confident and developing your own singing voice. Naturally, this could lead to more confidence performing in front of people as well.

Let’s start with some good news – a fairly large number of experts hold the opinion that everyone who can speak can learn to use a singing voice barring a physical vocal disability. The quality depends on many factors but everyone can learn to sing well enough to sing at least basic songs. A majority of those factors are psychological but we’re all actually far more musically inclined than we think or would like to give ourselves credit for. Physically, only around 2% of the population have a pitch perception deficit which impairs their ability to detect the fine differences between musical notes, but the remaining 98% of us are all pretty similar in our ability to perceive music and judge whether it’s in, or out of tune and even if you’re totally convinced that you’re part of the 2%, just keep on reading. I can almost guarantee that you don’t fall within that group.

A large part of developing and fine tuning your singing voice can be achieved by listening to music more attentively. You can have a Labrador’s hearing but if you can’t make sense of what you’re hearing, it becomes inconsequential. You can liken it to walking around in a foreign country and not understanding a word that the locals utter, because you can hear 100% what they’re saying but you never learned how to speak the language. Most of us treat music in a similar way. When we listen to a song, we focus on three parts and more than likely in this order:

  • the lyrics
  • the melody
  • al that other stuff that makes up the song

What we should in fact be doing, is listening to all the parts that make up a song and be aware of their functions and placement within the structure of the song like this basic music pyramid illustrates:

    • Lyrics – the words or the message with which the singer presents us with. It is the part that audiences and listeners are most interested in. The reason why most of us focus on this first, is because most of us aren’t musicians and it is the easiest contact point.
    • Melody – this is the part of the song that you can sing the lyrics to and normally presented by the melody instrument such as piano, guitar other melodic instrument or the vocalist voice.
    • Harmony – this is the sound of two or more notes simultaneously but can also include some instances of notes sounded one after the other. In its most basic form, it is the pleasing arrangement of parts.
    • Rhythm is music’s pattern in time and is the one indispensable element of all music. Rhythm can exist without melody but melody cannot exist without rhythm, be it random, regular, alternate, flowing or progressive.
    • Beat – this is the pulse of the song and the basic rhythmic unit of a measure or bar. It shouldn’t be confused with rhythm. The number and relative positions of accented and unaccented beats furnish the basis of proper metric articulation, with the strongest accent usually falling on the first beat after the bar line.

Remember, that is how most people should try and listen to music – separating the layers by attentively listening it to how a song is constructed, will definitely open a new word for you. By the third time the chorus comes around, you’ll at least be singing the lyrics along because you’ve been listening to the words and the rest of the song becomes anticipated. You might even be able to identify a harmony or two which is a good start. Why not give it a try with a few of your favourite songs?

However, a very helpful trick to listen to music properly, is to flip the order of the pyramid around because that is how almost all musicians approach listening to music and understanding it. It feels more solid and grounded.  If you spend a small, yet consistent portion of your music-listening time to actively focusing on the rhythm section, you should become more aware of what’s actually going. It will take some time but you will start to notice patterns in the music and eventually expand your ability to hear, interpret and anticipate more knowledgeably as a singer. It will improve your ability to present music, but at the same time you will also find that music becomes much more enjoyable. A singer who listens this way for instance knows when that guitar solo ends, when the bass carries a section of a song and you will be able to make up background vocals on the fly. It should give you more confidence about your melodic choices. Generally musicians who listen this way (rhythm section players and most instrumentalists) probably don’t know they’re listening this way by default and they take it for granted.
With all this new found knowledge, bare in mind that we typically speak in a lower and limited range. Our singing voice is higher than our speaking voices so it’s a matter of learning to relax the vocal mechanism and use supported breath to produce the sound, rather than trying to make you voice ‘do something’ and vocal lessons are advisable, especially for breathing techniques. There are tons of YouTube vocal lessons but in-person is always better as you are able to clearly communicate your specific needs and goals to the vocal coach. You might be a beginner who needs to learn how to use your singing voice or you might just be interested in learning how to make your voice sound better. Part of the process is also a major psychological one – learning how to become comfortable with your own unique voice.

The ultimate tip to improve your singing, is to learn to how play an instrument, preferably in person from a teacher, although YouTube is a traffic start. It will help you with basic pitching as you can play the note on the instrument and practice to match your voice to the sound produced by the instrument and not stray off pitch. Even if the instrument is high or low pitched compared to your vocal range, you can still practice to sing an octave  higher or lower  to match it. Piano is probably at the top of the instruments list for a solid foundation and understanding of music, closely follow by guitar,  but learning any instrument will get you started.

Here are some YouTube channels to get you started at home: