Intonation: how to hit the right notes when singing

Bernadette & Friends13 December 2023
A target with arrows symbolises hitting the notes: Intonation is one of the basic singing skills.

When Ringo Starr sang the world-famous song "With A Little Help From My Friends" in the recording studio, the other Beatles legends stood closely around him. It is said that he needed moral support while singing. His first lines in the song were:
"What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?"

Hitting the right note when singing: This skill is called "intonation". It is one of the basic singing skills. If someone sings out of tune, the audience stands up and leaves. That means: end of the performance, and for the budding singer: practise intonation first. "And I'll try not to sing out of key", as Ringo then emphasises in the Beatles song.

Or is that no longer up to date? After all, we live in the digital age, with AI-supported tools for pretty much everything. For music productions, vocals are subsequently set to the right pitch in the recording studio using pitch correction. Or by autotune: used by many stars even during live performances to electronically clean up their vocals before they come through the speakers.

Stars can do this, with the necessary software and hardware, but hardly anyone starts their career this way. If you want to become famous, don't rely on autotune, but wow your audience with unadulterated vocals. Our recommendation: Only ever see electronic tools as an aid to be used sparingly, never as a substitute for a lack of vocal skills.

Especially as it can be embarrassing when a technical glitch occurs. The internet is full of such mishaps and reality checks of stars whose live performances fall conspicuously far short of their elaborately produced music videos. Sometimes to such an extent that the question arises: can he even sing?

Hitting the first note: how to do it

Contrast programme: Imagine a singer standing on stage in front of the microphone. It's a small stage and the audience is eagerly awaiting her performance. After the intro to the song, she sings her first note, and her tone is on point. Everyone in the audience relaxes and surrenders to her singing.

How does she do that? It sounds so simple, "hitting the note" with pinpoint accuracy. What we hear, the correctly sung tone, is as simple as it is moving. But it is not based on a simple, one-dimensional ability. Even when singing her very first note, the singer utilises several interlocking skills:

  • Projection: She mentally focusses on her first note and the course of her first vocal phrase
  • Breathing technique and support: she inhales as much air as she needs for her entire phrase and activates her supporting muscles with exactly the energy that her first note at this pitch requires
  • Vocal cord activation: still immediately before she starts to sing, she builds up as much tension in her vocal and laryngeal muscles as is necessary to hit the note at this pitch
  • Monitoring and correction: As she sings the note, she listens to her own tone (auditory feedback), and if her sung tone deviates from the pitch she is aiming for, she adjusts vocal muscle tension and support so that her tone comes to rest at exactly the right pitch

As you can see, there is more to singing a note correctly than meets the eye. Nevertheless, our experienced singer doesn't have to go through the points listed like a manual before she sings her note. She simply projects her tone and starts singing.

Singing a note or a melody sequence correctly is like dancing or riding a bike: Once you have learnt it once and done it many times, you no longer have to think about how you do it. The skill is deeply ingrained in your "neuromuscular memory", as voice scientists say. You can call it up at any time.

You don't think you're ready yet? Perhaps you heard in an audio recording that your singing was off-key in some places. That's why we'll now go through some typical Difficulties that beginners and semi-professionals come across time and again. For each point we give you Tipsthat can help you to hit your notes better. And at the end, a few surprising insights await you, such as Listener perceive your intonation and what that has to do with Style questions has to do.

Difficulty 1: I can't hear when I'm singing wrong.

In order to find the right tone, we must first and foremost rely on our hearing. We have to hear the tone we are singing and match it with the tonality of our song. In other words, we compare our sung tone with the harmonic structure of the music played by the band (or that we play ourselves on the piano or guitar). Depending on where our tone is harmonically, we have to hear whether it is right for this pitch or whether it is too low or too high.


Sometimes we simply can't hear our own voice because we don't have monitor speakers in the rehearsal room or on stage. Therefore, make sure you have a monitor box for your vocals beforehand and do a sound check. That way you can be sure that you can hear your voice well during your performance.

If you practise at home, record your singing to music. If you hear your voice for the first time on an audio recording, it can be irritating because you Don't know your voice like this. Audio recordings help you to familiarise yourself with the vocal sound that your audience hears from you. And you can hear where your tone is off. This allows you to work specifically on these areas and improve your purity of tone bit by bit.

Difficulty 2: Tones in unfamiliar vocal ranges.

In everyday life, we have our "sweet spots", favourite vocal registers for everything. Our narrative voice is in our feel-good register, we scold in a higher register with a loud chest voice. We have a high, head-like register for soft, soothing sounds at the cot. Even when we are making fun of something, we have a certain vocal register for this, where we may sound sharply nasal-head-voiced.

When we sing, we step out of these habitual positions with their typical sounds. Many songs, for example, require us to sing in the unfamiliar transitional range between chest and head voice. This "passagio" range includes a few notes around the indented E/F (for men, the passagio goes even higher for women). This is where the voice of many inexperienced singers becomes unsteady, they waver between the vocal registers - and their tone smears because they reflexively raise their chest voice.


Exercises for Change of register will help you to reach higher notes from your middle voice. Also BeltingExercises can be useful to learn how to sing high notes with a full voice instead of singing in a high-pitched chest voice.

It is even more important for men to do register exercises than for women. When changing registers, men have to shift more muscle mass in their vocal apparatus than women. This is why men often have to struggle more with tone impurities in the passagio range and in higher registers.

Difficulty 3: Tones sink in the course of the melody.

Sung tones are embedded in a melody. The ups and downs of the melody tempt us to imagine the ups and downs spatially and to imitate them vocally: My low note is down there, deep and dark - then I rise up to this difficult high note, which is right at the top, bright and radiant.

With such an image, my lower notes don't just sound dark. I let the corners of my mouth droop and also sing the low notes "flat", intoned too low. And up there, with my high note, I get tight, I squeeze - and slip. So our notes sink while we sing. If we don't start too low at the beginning.


Think the up and down of your notes in the opposite direction (it's easier to do than it sounds): As you sing upwards with your melody, think downwards, from top to bottom. And upwards when you descend with your notes. Low notes are "up there", high notes are "down there". Try using your hands: stretch your hands upwards (palms up as if you were presenting a gift) and now slowly lower them downwards while singing a scale up to the octave. And raise your hands again as you descend the scale from the octave to the root note.

What's more, your low notes are not only "up there", they are also "bright" and radiant. Just like the high notes. Sing your low notes with your sunniest smile. When you ascend to high notes, keep the wide smile, just open your mouth a little more to create space for your vowels. With this counter-visualisation and smile, the so-called "broad smile", you will be better able to stay in tune when singing a melody.

Intonation: objective test versus judgement by the listener

Tone purity can be tested objectively, the test is simple: Strike the note on your instrument with which you begin your vocal phrase, or even better, the entire root chord. Then sing your phrase a capella (without accompaniment). When you have finished, sing the first note again, strike the note on your instrument and compare. The distance you hear is your deviation from the correct note.

It's a good exercise to even sing a whole verse or the chorus of your song a capella. And then check on your instrument whether you are still on your note or whether (and how far) you have fallen off while singing. You can then use an audio recording to check where you fall off in your singing and work on the tricky parts.

You can even check exactly where your notes are while you are singing. To do this, simply call up a vocal pitch monitor or tuner from the Internet and activate the microphone in your mobile phone or laptop. You will see the exact pitch of your notes in a graphic in front of you.

So much for self-control and the objective testing of tonal purity. What we have ignored so far is the audience's judgement of a singer's intonation. After all, they are the ones we are singing for in the end. And here's the thing, as confirmed by various studies: listeners, even highly musical listeners, do not judge the purity of tone of voices objectively, only by the pitch.

Their judgement of how well a singer hits the right note varies greatly depending on the overall quality of the voice they hear. It is noticeable that the singing of voices with a rich timbre, as well as voices that use vibrato, is perceived as less "out of tune". Even if the notes are more out of tune than those of other voices.

What remains: Resonance, vibrato & style issues

This is a good reason to also work on your resonance, the sonority of your Vowelsto work. And a Vibrato that you can use when needed, even if only as an effect. What's more: find your style, even in your own intonation.

Now you might be wondering: seriously, singing off-key as a stylistic choice? There are indeed singers who sing slightly off-key, such as the multi-award-winning Irish rock singer Van Morrison. This can give the vocals more power, a propulsive character. Or give a sudden outburst of emotion more attention.

Audio voice analyses, especially of stars from the pre-digital era, show various characteristic deviations from the pure tone. You can also let your emotions guide your intonation. Just always know what you are doing and where you are with your singing. And provided that you know how to hit your notes.

Then nobody will get up and leave when you consciously sing "out of tune". Instead, you will have reached the level at which the stars also play with their intonation.

You can find good exercises for a resonant, sustainable vocal sound in my online singing courses, at:

Sing A Song - Be Happy

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