Having Trouble Singing in Key? This Might Help
Having trouble singing in key? You’re not alone! This is a very common issue for many people, including professional singers. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or intimidated by.
Keep at it and don’t give up! I believe you have what it takes to be an amazing singer! I might take some practice, but there’s definitely hope.
I wrote this with church worship team singers in mind, but it can be applied to anyone. First things first, if you’re convinced you’re tone-deaf, watch this video! In fact, if this video solves your problem and you never end up reading this article, that’s awesome!
That’s my goal, really. With each section of this article, I’m hoping you will NOT need to finish the rest of it. But in case you do make it to the very end of this article, I included some great free singing classes that go much more in-depth.
As you look through it, shop around for the best solution for you and then give it a shot! There are a lot of different ways to improve your singing, not just what’s in this article. I tried listing the simplest, easiest, and best ways to help get you back on stage as soon as possible!
Let’s do this.
Trouble Singing Tip #1: Some Quick Things to Try
Adjust the Speakers or the Stage Setup
Can you hear yourself on stage? Can you hear everyone else?
I need to hear the drums to be able to stay on beat. The singers help me stay on the right words and notes. The piano, bass, or guitar helps me stay on key. And hearing my own voice helps me correct myself when I’m having trouble singing.
If you’re lucky enough to have amazing on-stage speakers, work with your sound team to make sure you can hear everything clearly.
If you don’t have on-stage speakers or headphone monitors, try asking the worship leader to arrange everyone closer together.
Put the drums in the back (no one has trouble hearing those!), the lead singer/musician in clear eyesight, and the backup singers within earshot.
Communicate if any of the harmonies or fancy melodies are throwing you off, so that your team can help you out. It’s okay if you have trouble singing when there are too many other things going. Be honest and open so you can work it out in love with your church family.
Change the Key
Not all songs are created equally. You may just have trouble singing in certain keys. When you try to hit notes that are too high or too low, you may find yourself forced off the pitch! If this is an issue for you, there are two ways you can fix it: practice expanding your vocal range or simply change the key to one that’s more comfortable for you.
First, I’ll break down a couple of key musical terms for you in case you are unfamiliar with them:
A “chord” is a pattern of three notes that sound good together. If notes are like an alphabet, then chords would be the “words” used to make a sentence (song). Putting a series of chords together is the simplest way to play a song.
The “key” of a song is simply the source note that everything else revolves around. It makes up the “root” chord that usually starts the song and ends it. Where this chord is located on the piano, whether high or low, is the diving board from which all the other notes will jump from.
Wait, this song is FOR the congregation. Why was it originally written in a key that most people will have trouble singing?
Simply put: the song’s original artist sings in a key most people can’t. Performance singers are usually tenors and sopranos who jack up the key to unbearable heights! Beware of printing out music in it’s “original key.” Always check first to see if you, your musicians, and your audience can comfortably handle it.
This may be why, if you’re a tenor or soprano, you might find it easier to sing along with recording artists than your home church family.
On that note: also be on the lookout for songs that jump around too much (such as Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble). These are songs that should be reserved only for the most elite singers. If the song uses lots of super-low notes and super high notes, there comes a point at which it is simply unsingable.
Here’s a cheat sheet of All Chord Sets. Print it out and take it to your lead musician. It also walks through how to use Roman Numerals so you can easily transpose music as much as you need to.
Every song will be different, so always be ready to transpose the keys as you need to. In some cases, you may need to compromise, though. What if you’re a bass singer, a tenor, or a soprano? Your band may not be able to play in your optimal key, or it may be outside your congregation’s range. We’ll cover that next (For more info, check out this article from Worship Matters).
How to Find a Compromise
Know your range, what specific parts of the song you’re having trouble with, and what keys you can comfortably sing the song in. Find out what keys the musicians are comfortable playing. Keep in mind the congregation’s singing range as well. Knowing all the information is the first step in coming up with a solution.
Consider cutting out the parts you’re having trouble with (like a crazy high bridge). Keep things simple.
Have someone else sing the parts of the song that you can’t (like if the verse has notes that are too low)
Pick a different song
The most common keys to play in are G, C, D, E, or A. They are typically the easiest on the musicians as well as on the congregation. The second most common are F, Bb, Eb, Ab. The most difficult keys are usually B, Db (C#), or F#. Print out my full chord set cheat sheet here.
Play the note of the key you want to play (for example, C). Then play the note of the key that they want to play (for example, E). Find the note in the middle and try playing the song in that key (probably D or even Eb). Again, print my chord set cheat sheet if you need to.
Trouble Singing Tip #2: What to do in the meantime
The most important thing to remember is that we’re all here for God’s glory, not ours. It’s not about you sounding good on stage, but rather serving the congregation and eliminating anything that would be too distracting. Always be sure to have open communication with your leadership and church family. Keep the heart of a servant.
The #1 rule for ANY situation is DON’T PANIC! Tension and adrenaline cause your brain to shut down, your muscles to tense, your blood pressure to rise, and your nerves to tremble. It works great for it you need to scale a 10-foot wall to save a screaming child, but not so much for singing on stage at a small church gathering.
Relax! It will do wonders for your singing and for just about every other area of life as well. Trusting God is not a cheap Christian platitude or a $15.99 couch pillow. It is Eternal Truth and a fact of nature.
If you’re going off-pitch and you’re in the middle of a song, just relax. Pause. Listen to the music. Sing off the microphone until you find the right key. Then jump back in.
Also, be prepared beforehand! Take voice lessons (like the ones listed at the end of this article), practice, communicate your concerns with your leadership and teammates, make a backup plan, try improving one small step at a time.
Ask someone to be your backup singer
I’ve done this many times. When I was leading worship, I had to lead from the piano. Certain songs were harder for me to sing and play than others. I asked a confident singer if they could jump in and lead the singing if I lost myself.
Having someone to watch your back helps me step out in confidence when things are difficult. And you know what? I seldom needed them to back me up after all.
Side note: you don’t have to be the lead singer in order to be the worship leader. If your aim is just to lead worship, not especially sing, you may want to ask your leadership about that possibility. There are many worship leaders who are not the lead singer. I know someone who leads from the drum cage!
Tips for the pianist/lead musician
As a fellow musician, I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Here are some tips that may help them if they’re willing to take a look:
Hi there! I’m a worship leader/keyboard player. I’ll make this short. Here are just some suggestions you may like to try:
Please have patience. Performing for an audience is terrifying. But I think singing is probably more nerve-wracking than playing an instrument on stage. I’ve noticed that simply having the piano or guitar physically blocking me from the audience gives me a sense of security. It’s a weird psychology thing. When you’re a singer or speaker, there’s no barrier there. So they need your kind support and reassurance. Simply helping them to relax is probably the best singing advice they can get!
If the singer goes off-key, don’t change keys with him. I’ve played for someone who couldn’t stay in key and somehow I was able to change keys along with him (don’t ask me how). It’s super difficult! Unless you have a crazy good ear, it’s probably safer to stick with the original chords. If you don’t, you may just make the problem worse. Be a good anchor for the team. You should never be forced to change keys for off singing, ever.
If you agree beforehand, have the person stand close to your instrument. If he can hear you playing clearly, he may stay on key. Be sure to play simple and clear, not adding any extra fancy notes. It may just throw him off. If you’re able to, emphasize the melody notes for him to help him keep on track.
If he is right next to you, agree on a signal so you can communicate that he’s slightly off-key and he can correct before it becomes a major issue.
If he still needs more practice, then have him do all of the above but without a microphone. When he is able to get it right more consistently, it will boost his confidence when he is finally handed a microphone again. Besides, he can still help lead the people in worship by just being an example.
Help coordinate songs so that they are in similar keys. I’ve been playing on worship teams for over 15 years, and even I have trouble switching from one song in Bb to another in E! If the songs are all in a very similar key, there will be room for much less confusion and stress. If not, plan on playing a longer intro in the new key.
Trouble Singing Tip #3: Improving How and What You Sing
How You Sing
If you’re still having trouble singing on key, many people automatically think it is an ear problem. The solution would then be to practice ear training: listening to music, practicing scales, and inversions.
Some people give up right there, thinking that they’re too tone-deaf to sing. But the truth is that being truly tone-deaf is rare!
Some people just might need some more practice exercising their musical ear. We’ll cover all that in a minute, but let’s try a different approach first.
Have you ever tried throwing darts?
I absolutely love it! I hit even hit the bull’s eye–once. It cost hours of work and I have millions of dots on the board–and off–to prove it. For fun, here’s what Olympic darts look like.
You should try it! I’m serious! Go buy a dartboard and give it a shot. You may notice the same thing that I did:
It doesn’t matter how hard you stare at the middle. How close you try to aim your dart. How much willpower you put into your throw. You’ll never hit it. Ever. Why is that?
Look at the Olympic dart thrower. How does he do it? Is he better at aiming? Maybe, but that’s not the only thing. He’s also better at throwing.
You can have an excellent musical ear and have trouble singing on key HOW you sing affects WHAT you sing more than you might think!
Here are 3 simple ways to improve:
1. Chest Voice vs. Head Voice
Here’s a short Youtube video by SuperiorSinging explaining how this works and how to improve your pitch: How to Sing–Improve Your Pitch Basically, chest voice is singing vibrations in, well… your chest. It naturally makes low notes. Head voice is vibrations in your head and makes high notes. If you try to sing high notes with your chest voice, it will sound very bad. And vise versa. Switching between the two is actually very natural and easy, so why don’t we all do it? Tension. That’s literally it! When you’re tense, you end up straining yourself and then going off-pitch. So relax! Here are a few tips on Combatting Nerves. 2. Try This Simple Trick
Check out this simple tip from SuperiorSinging: How to Sing–How to Always Sing On Key. You might be surprised how much it will help!
Another simple trick you might try is making sure your tongue stays on the bottom of your mouth (when you’re not using it of course). If your tongue is flailing around uselessly, it will affect your pitch.
3. Breathe Correctly
When you run out of air in the middle of a sentence, you may find yourself unnecessarily straining your voice. It may affect your pitch some, not to mention the health of your lungs. Singgeek has an awesome lesson on How to Breath when You Sing!
The Church Collective has lots of great advice about Breathing and Breath Support for worship team vocals.
What You Sing
Improving Your Range
Your range is simply how many notes you can (comfortably) sing. If you haven’t already found your range, you can find it at Singgeek.
Here’s a short video from SuperiorSinging with Singing Exercises to Improve Range.
You’ve probably heard this tip many times already, so here it is. Practicing scales help with any instrument, including your voice, because it strengths your muscles and helps you become more familiar with the notes–how they feel and how they sound.
It’s just like the Alphabet song we learned as kids!
A “scale” is like the “alphabet” of notes used in a song. There are only 8 notes used in a scale.
Every scale has a root note to start and end it. The rest of the notes build on that root note. If the root note is C, the C scale would then be:
C D E F G A B C
If you don’t know what notes are in the scales, feel free to print out my Scale’s Cheat Sheet. Even if you spend 5 minutes a day on scales or singing exercises, it will still help your voice improve a lot.
There are two ways you can practice scales:
Just the first five notes of all the scales, as explained in this video from Dr. Dan’s Voice Essentials
All the notes of the scale, but only in the keys you’re most likely to sing in (most likely A, E, G, C, or D). Here’s a video walkthrough.
If you’re going for the second option, find what keys are most comfortable for your voice, then practice singing each note in that scale. If the key of C is most comfortable for you, then practice singing the C scale.
The notes in a scale are the basic notes used to make a song, so if you are very familiar with these notes then singing them in a song will be much easier.
Training Your Ear
Practicing your range and scales are both great ear training experiences already. If you want to do some more ear training, try this:
Listen to music. Listen to lots of music during the week, sing along with it when no one is listening, have a great time! Your brain learns music much the same way it learns any language–by hearing it and speaking it. The best way to learn a language is to live life with it.
Sing along with the harmonies. Listen intently for those background base notes or that second singer. Mimic the different parts of the song that you hear (quartet music and gospel music works great for this!). This will teach your ears how each part of music fits together like a grand puzzle. Seeing the patterns in music will help music, in general, make much more sense.
Be patient. The brain is a wonderful, powerful gift from God. It can do WAY more than we give it credit for! But these skills take time, like many good things in life. A bird does not fly on the day it’s born. I think the process of growth is very precious to God, so hold His hand and do it with Him! Don’t give up. Keep practicing.
Learn an instrument. Why not?
Trouble Singing Tip #4: Singing Lessons
If you’d like more step by step, in-depth lessons here are some great sites I found:
Singgeek The Church Collective, Vocal Training: So You Think You Can Sing? SuperiorSinging: Voice Lessons for Beginners Dr. Dan’s Voice Essentials: How to Sing in Tune for Beginners Singing Pros: Overcoming Singing Problems Take Lessons: Your 10-Step Cheat Sheet for Learning How to Sing WikiHow: How to Sing Better if You Think You Are Bad
Did this help? Have more questions? Do have more tips for anyone who has trouble singing? Leave a comment or send me an email!