About Singing as a Tool

Many musicians shy away from singing. They think that they don’t need it, or that it serves no purpose for them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – regardless of what instrument you play, learning to sing will improve your audiation skills, and allow you to express musical ideas in a new way, write songs without needing to hash out the exact melody on your instrument, and fine-tune your sense of pitch. 

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After our recent episode with Davin Youngs I thought I’d do an episode about the benefits of singing. But then I changed my mind.

He talked about how wonderful it feels to sing in a group and how emotionally uplifting it can be and how it helps you connect with your own authentic voice. And so I was going to do a followup episode on how singing is so much fun and all the benefits it brings.

And it is fun. And it does bring an amazing range of physical and emotional benefits, whether you’re singing solo or especially in a group. And I think we will do an episode about that in future.

But here’s the thing. I think a lot of you listening do not consider yourselves singers, you’re musicians of all different kinds. And while the fun and the benefits are great and will definitely keep you singing once you get going, I just wasn’t convinced that it would be enough to get you to try it out for yourself.

I realised that actually the point I really wanted to share with you and what might encourage you to give singing a try was the very practical, very useful impact of adding singing to your toolkit as a musician – whether or not you ever decide to get up on stage or join a choir.

How singing is a tool that any musician should be able to use. And it doesn’t take long to master the basics enough for it to be this tool for you.

If you’re listening and thinking “Sure, but I can’t actually sing” then please don’t tune out. Check out our previous episode with George Bevan for clear evidence that even those who think they are “tone deaf” can learn to sing, and we’ll have a link in the shownotes to a guide we’ve written that explains how to do it.

So first let’s define what we’re talking about.

We are not talking about developing an incredible, versatile, knock-your-socks-off ability to sing.

We are not talking about you declaring yourself “a singer” and fronting a band or joining a choir.

What we’re talking about is simply getting to the stage where if you want to sing a certain note or sequence of notes, they’re going to come out clearly and on the right pitches.

That alone is enough to make singing a powerful tool for you. And to give you some idea, with the way we teach it at Musical U you’re looking at maybe a few weeks of practice to get to this level – it doesn’t take long.

Singing as a Tool

So what’s the value of getting to that level of singing ability if you’re not looking to perform as a singer?

There are a bunch of benefits – but the short and simple answer is that it is a way to bring musical ideas from your head out into the world, without the added complication of finding the right notes on an instrument.

If you don’t have singing as a tool then it can feel like there’s a big gulf between hearing something or imagining it in your mind’s ear – and then playing it on your instrument. With singing, you’re able to bridge that gap or remove the need for the instrument step entirely.

Let’s go through some specific benefits and applications of singing as a tool.

Better sense of pitch

First off, learning to sing in tune is one of the best ways to train your sense of pitch. Singing in tune requires two major components: controlling your vocal pitch – but also being able to very clearly and accurately hear and imagine the pitch you’re actually aiming for.

So as you learn to sing in tune you train your ears to hear better whether notes are sharp or flat or perfectly on-pitch. This is something that you might never have had to do before, depending on the instrument you play – and it’s such a fundamental skill you absolutely do not want to overlook it.

You can do “pure” ear training exercises to hone your pitch accuracy too, but learning to sing in tune is an easy, natural and useful way to do it.

Better Audiation

As well as this “real world” pitch training you’re also training your mind’s ear – your ability to audiate, meaning imagine music, with accurate pitch.

In a recent episode we talked about Active Listening, and how it helps you improve your audiation and more vividly remember or create music in your head. Learning to sing in tune similarly develops the accuracy with which you can pitch notes in your mind.

Easier Ear Training

Singing is also an enormous help for ear training. This is something we really emphasise at Musical U and it also came up in our past episode with Brent Vaartstra of Learn Jazz Standards – that when you use your voice as part of ear training exercises you can progress a lot faster.

There are a few specific ways it helps:

  1. As mentioned before, learning to sing also helps you sing “in your mind”, and that means when you’re trying to do ear training exercises and recognise notes, chords, and so on, you have a more powerful musical imagination to bring to the task.
  2. Singing also gives you a way to experiment out loud when trying to do ear training tasks. For example if you’re trying to recognise an interval you might sing the start of a reference song to see if it matches up. If you’re trying to recognise a chord progression you might sing along with the root notes of the chords, the bassline, to see how those pitches compare and that can reveal the chords being used.You can also do some nifty vocal acrobatics, for example if you’re trying to identify a harmonic interval, meaning two notes played at once – being able to sing those two notes back individually transforms it into an ascending or descending interval that you might find it easier to recognise. In time as you get better you’ll probably do these things in your head or skip them entirely, but while you’re learning it’s really helpful to be able to experiment out loud by singing.
  3. The third way singing can help with ear training is by really testing whether you heard what you think you heard. In a lot of cases I would say that if you can’t sing back what you heard, then you haven’t really understood it by ear. One example would be recognising a chord as major or minor. You can listen for the overall sound of the chord – but that’s prone to mistakes, especially in a musical context, and gets harder as you try more ambitious chords like seventh or extended chords. If you’re able to sing back each note of the chord that both tests that you truly heard what was going on, and gives you a clear set of notes to explore and evaluate to identify the chord type, for example identifying the solfa name of each note or the intervals between them.If you find yourself struggling with a pitch-related ear training task, the chances are that you aren’t actually hearing clearly enough yet to be able to sing back each of the notes you’re listening to. Once you practice that and use singing as a tool in this way the actual task tends to become much easier.

The next couple of benefits of using singing as a tool have to do with creativity.

Easier and Freer Experimentation

The first is that singing enables easier and freer experimentation and creation in music. Yes, you can sit with an instrument and noodle around with scales or patterns and try to create something. But that’s both more complicated and more limiting compared with doing it with your voice.

Your singing voice is the most direct path to bring musical ideas you imagine into the world. You have total freedom of pitch so you’re not trapped in memorised patterns or what happens to work well or match your level of instrument technique. And you can immediately express what you want to, and then analyse it after to translate it to an instrument or write it down.

As we talked about with Davin on the last episode, singing is the most natural and direct form of musical expression available to us – it may seem intimidating at the outset but once you break past that little barrier it’s enormously natural and liberating to be able to create music with your voice.

Easier Communication

The final benefit of singing as a tool that I wanted to touch on was communication. Being able to express musical ideas with your voice isn’t just helpful for private creation by yourself. It’s also hugely helpful if you’re collaborating with other musicians.

If you don’t feel able to express your ideas with your voice it can feel very frustrating in a band or other group to have to try to translate what you’re thinking onto your instrument before you can communicate it. If you can just quickly and easily sing the idea you have in mind, you skip all the instrument specifics and complications and can bounce ideas back and forth immediately and directly.

Add singing to your musical toolkit

So this was meant to be a quick five minute episode but it turns out there’s a lot to say! And I definitely haven’t close to covered all the benefits that come from getting a basic level of singing ability under your belt.

So if you’re feeling inspired, please go ahead and take the next step.

At Musical U we specialise in helping people go from zero to being able to sing confidently and reliably in tune, we have a dedicated Roadmap to show you the way. There’ll be a link to that in the shownotes, and we would love to help you make singing a valuable tool in your musical life.

We’ll also have a link in the shownotes to our free guide so that if you’re not ready to join Musical U yet there’s still some easy next steps to get you on your singing journey.

If you’ve felt limited in how you can express your musical ideas, or you’ve found ear training challenging, or you’ve wanted to know that if the need arises you can absolutely sing simple things and sound good, then I hope this episode has encouraged you to add singing to your musical toolkit!

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