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.

Share this with someone who needs this!

12 Responses

    1. Hi Charmaine!
      I have a question about a topic that has frustrated and plagued me for about 2 years since I’ve been the choir director at my church. I hold choir auditions.

      How do I help someone who consistently sings out of tune and cannot hear or match pitch both with vocal demonstration with no piano accompaniment and with piano accompaniment without vocal demonstration.

      Of the people who do not pass their auditions for this and many other reasons, there are a small percentage who cannot do it no matter what. One person has dyslexia (I am still researching this topic as there is a relation between this disability and tone deafness). I know that the test for true tone deafness is to play 2 notes side by side and ask them which one is higher and lower. If they get it right then they are not tone deaf.

      The issues these people have are beyond what is mentioned in this article.

      I do not give up on anyone. What exercises or tips would you recommend who has severe issues with this??? It really baffles me! thank you in advance. ♥

      1. Great question—I hear ya! Yes—it’s true, even people who it would SEEM are tone-deaf, most actually are not. But… some people do need a LOT of work—private, one-on-one work really… for someone who struggles majorly with pitch (like you’re saying, much more than just being sharp or flat), it requires working with them privately. I had a student quite a few years ago who I thought was tone-deaf at first, but he was SO passionate about singing, so we decided to go for it. We spent probably 2-3 months of private weekly lessons where I would play a note on the piano, he would try to match the pitch (and it was off) and I would say higher/lower, and he would continue trying to match the pitch until he got it. After 2-3 months of that, he started matching pitch EVERY time, first time—it was so rewarding for both of us!! So I would say, if there is someone that you want to invest the time to work with—definitely try that! Other than that, I don’t have exercises to recommend that they could do on their own, because they need to first gain more awareness by being given immediate feedback!

    2. Excellent. Thank you for sharing!

      I am really interested in translating some of your posts for Portuguese to bless some friends and maybe even more people in Brazil. Plese, let me know, if that is something that would be ok for you.

      All rights to Worship Vocalist, of course, with the link to the original text and website.

    3. Hey Charmaine! Thank you for a wonderfully written article. Extremely upbeat, positive and educational. We all need encouragement to stay in those fundamental exercises. You give us great reasons to keep doing what we know we need to be doing. You are helping to fill the world with better singers. THANK YOU!!

    4. Perfectly stated. Also, how we shape our vowels, how we open (or don’t) our mouths or lift our eyebrows appropriately to create space can prevent us from going pitchy as well, as the fullness of the sound can be decreased by becoming caught by a space that is too small.

    5. This was a fantastic article! It gives me hope and makes me want to get to work on those vocal exercises. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your knowledge and explaining this issue so well and in an easy to understand way! You are awesome! I have been told I sing on the “flatter side of a note” most of my life. I’ve been to vocal lessons to try to help, but no one has explained it like this!

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