How to Stay on Pitch (and Stop Singing Sharp or Flat!)

If you sing on a worship team, you most likely can carry a tune—meaning, you probably (hopefully) have decent pitch. But… you may have been told that you sing flat or sharp, or maybe you’ve been told that you’re “pitchy”—a somewhat vague word that I personally love to use (although it drives some people crazy, because it’s barely a word!). Or, maybe you’ve never been explicitly told that you’re pitchy, but you suspect it’s an issue in your singing (hint: it probably is). So… what does “pitchy” mean, and how can you fix it?

Usually when we hear the term “pitchy”… it doesn’t mean that you’re singing the notes COMPLETELY off—it’s that you’re singing just above the pitch (in other words, singing sharp) or just below the pitch (in other words, singing flat).

The pitch centre is what we want to aim for—think about it like the bullseye in a target: that middle circle is the best place to be. Completely off-pitch would be your arrow not even hitting the board. “Pitchy” is you hitting the board, but not quite in the middle. 

Bottom line—singing pitchy is problematic. Especially when you’re singing on a worship team with other singers. If your arrows (ahem, notes) are hitting the board at different spots than another singer (not to mention the instruments), it means that your voice is going to clash, and create dissonance… not the beautiful, harmonious sound you’re aiming for.

Here’s something interesting to try (or just read on and take my word for it ?). Hold a rubber band loosely between your fingers and pluck it. You won’t hear much of anything because there’s so much slack. 

But… if you stretch the rubber band so that it’s longer and more taut, and then pluck it, you’ll hear an audible sound. If you stretch it even more and then pluck it, the sound you’ll hear will be higher in pitch. 

Why? Because the more the rubber band is stretched, the faster it vibrates—and the faster it vibrates, the higher the pitch. 

It’s the same with guitar strings. The shorter and thicker the guitar string, the lower the pitch. The longer and thinner the guitar string, the higher the pitch.

So how does this relate to your voice, and more importantly, to you being able to sing on pitch?

Because… whether you’re aware of it or not, each different pitch you sing in a song is a result of stretching or shortening your vocal cords to increase or decrease the speed of vibration. (The vocal cords actually have some elastic-like fibres in them—cool, right?! Or maybe I’m just a nerd. ?

And the coordination of your vocal cords—in other words, how stretched or shortened they are in any given moment—has A LOT to do with the placement of your resonance (where the buzz/vibration of air is happening in your face)—these things go hand-in-hand… they’re intended to work in synergy. Which is good news for us… because it’s much easier to focus on adjusting our resonance (by listening for the tonal differences between head/mouth/nasal resonance) than to try to feel how thin or thick our vocal cords are in a given moment… not gonna happen. 

I know, it’s getting pretty science-y. But stick with me. If you want to sing on-pitch, these are important concepts to grasp.

When we sing in head voice, the vocal cords are zipped up most of the way (kind of like a zipper)—and they’re much more thin and stretched out than in chest voice. This coordination is perfect for high notes—which need to vibrate at faster frequencies. (Remember our rubber band.)

When we sing in chest voice, the vocal cords are unzipped… they’re much thicker and shorter than in head voice. This coordination is perfect for low notes—which need to vibrate at slower frequencies. 

(PS the “zipping up/down” is a super-unscientific way of explaining the way the vocal cords function… but it’s a good simplified visualization!)

So… herein lies the problem—when we try to sing in our lower range in head voice, what happens? The vocal cords are too thin and stretched out… they “want” to vibrate at a faster speed than the note requires, so you’ll sing sharp. Every time. (Because remember: faster vibration = higher notes.)

And when we try to sing in our higher range in chest voice, the opposite happens. The vocal cords are too thick and short… they “want” to vibrate at a slower speed than the note requires, so you’ll go flat. Every time. (Because remember: slower vibration = lower notes.)

There are other reasons singers go pitchy—if you can’t hear yourself well enough in your monitors, if the song is too high or too low for your current range, if your voice (or your brain/body) is tired, if you lack confidence, if you’re stressed out or tense, etc… so take those into consideration as well—but by far, the number one thing most singers need to work on in order to improve their pitch is their placement of resonance. 

In my experience in the contemporary worship genre, I’ve found that most guys tend to push up chest voice into their higher range, so the higher they sing, the more flat they are. 

For girls, I’ve found it’s split pretty much down the middle. Half sing flat, half sing sharp. If you’ve come from a classical background, you probably sing with too much head voice and thus you tend to go sharp, and if you never received any vocal training and didn’t spend much time singing in choirs, you probably sing with too much chest voice and thus you tend to go flat. 

(Check out this lesson I did with a Worship Vocalist subscriber if you want to see an example of how pulling down head voice into the low range makes us go sharp, and check out this lesson to see an example of how pushing up chest voice into the high range makes us go flat.)

I’ve worked with a LOT of worship vocalists over the years, and I can tell you one thing. Most singers are pitchy. Not usually everywhere in their range, but definitely somewhere. 

And it shows up big-time in contemporary worship songs. 

The majority of worship songs these days cover an octave or more of range (some a LOT more), which means, developing and learning to sing with efficient resonance is an absolute MUST if you want to sing on pitch (which, you should). Singing all in your head voice means you’ll probably have better pitch up high (think: chorus) but you’ll be pitchy in your low/mid range notes (think: verse), and singing all in chest voice means you’ll have better pitch down low (think: verse) but you’ll be pitchy in your mid/high range notes (think: chorus).

Like I said, most singers are pitchy—somewhere.

This is why it’s so important (cough, cough… necessary) to develop all three of our resonators—chest, head and pharyngeal—and to learn to use them efficiently throughout our range. Chest voice in the super-lows, head voice in the super-highs, and everything in between is a mix—a blending of chest and head voice with the pharyngeal resonator. A mix voice helps to marry the two worlds of chest and head… both by creating a blend of resonance and by facilitating a seamless shift in the muscular coordination as we move up and down (in essence, a “zipping up and down” of the vocal cords)—so that there’s not an annoying break in the middle of your range. 

All you really need to know is… 

Mix voice = pitch accuracy
Mix voice = a contemporary sound
Mix voice = a seamless tone throughout your range
Mix voice = power and freedom

Sound like something you want?! Yeah? Time to start (or keep) doing those vocal workouts! 

By doing specific exercises designed to develop a mix in your voice, your vocal cords will be trained to vibrate at the ideal speed, in the ideal coordination, and with the ideal resonant blend… for each and every note you sing. 

And that doesn’t just happen. It takes time. Diligence. The right exercises. Getting feedback to make sure you’re on the right track. 

If it helps, I can tell you one for-sure way to NOT improve your pitch (hint: it’s what most singers do, and thus why their pitch doesn’t improve).

Just singing songs all the time… and **hoping** you’ll improve—it Just. Doesn’t. Work. It doesn’t improve pitch, tone, or really much at all… because it doesn’t get to the foundations of what is actually a very complex—a BEAUTIFULLY complex—instrument… the human voice.

So embrace your vocal workouts, my friend. Because they are the pathway to better pitch (and to many other things you want—more range, power, stamina… you name it!).

And if all of those science-y details went a bit over your head (trust me—I can relate… science was never my thing!), here’s a short video where I talk about pitch and demonstrate a bunch of the things I talked about here.

Bottom line—for better pitch, here’s the cole’s notes… 

If you tend to sing sharp, chest voice is your new best friend. 

If you tend to sing flat, head voice is your new best friend.

And your bestie of all besties—pharyngeal resonance because it will help MIX those two resonators together throughout your range so that you can…

NAIL. THOSE. PITCHES.

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Responses

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    1. Even though I’ve been a chest dominant singer in the past, lately I’ve discovered a lack of compression in my lower range, causing soooo much pitchiness. It usually happens in that first verse of a song. These visuals are incredibly helpful!! The zipping/unzipping depending on which resonator we’re using makes so much sense. Thanks for this!

    2. Love knowing that pitch issues can be fixed by building our mix voice! That’s a great starting point to use when I’m trying to help someone with this issue. Thanks for making it clear Charmaine!

    3. The “zipped” analogy has really helped me understand these concepts and helps when explaining to others too. Being told your pitchy as a singer is hard to hear, but now knowing why and how to fix it has been monumental moving forward in my own training.

    4. I love how this blog shows “a triangle” of three interconnected things: pitchiness – resonances -(zipped and unzipped) vocal cords (wanting to sing high or low). And again, what a relief – we do not have to anxiously put our focus on the pitch – we just need to care of resonances!

      1. Yes! Focusing on pitch often leads nowhere, but focusing on resonance leads to better pitch (and of course, tone!!).

    5. You did a really good job at explaining all of this through writing. That seems hard to communicate non verbally. But I was totally tracking and following along. Learning about the resonators has been key for me and helped my pitch tremendously! I wish this was common knowledge. I spent years paying for vocal lessons and my old teach said warm ups were not necessary and just had me sing songs to practice. I had very little improvement over a couple of years. When I started discover your voice I had improvements right aways. Our resonators are foundational and the key to singing on pitch! So good! Thank you!

      1. Haha yes—I had a good time writing this, although it was a bit challenging to communicate through writing, you’re right! But not everyone wants to watch videos, so I knew it was important. Yes—I’ve been loving the changes you’ve been experiencing in your voice—so exciting!

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