Hearing iconic singers hit powerful high notes is what inspired many of us to sing. However, most singers, aside from a lucky few, actually don’t have the natural vocal range to sing along to their favorite songs. Limited range is a common feature of most untrained voices.
To many singers’ dismay, lacking high notes stifles their creativity because it forces them to write and perform songs in keys that may not reflect the sound they want as an artist.
Thankfully, the vocal range you’re born with isn’t the range you’re stuck with. Vocal exercises and proper technique can completely transform your voice and shatter the range ceiling that’s currently holding you back.
This article will teach you six concepts and exercises from our online courses that will help you increase vocal range. But before we go over those, let’s make sure you understand range in the way that a professional singer should.
What is Vocal Range?
Vocal range, also called pitch range, is the set of notes a voice can produce from lowest to highest. Low notes are produced by the slackening and thickening of the vocal cords, and can usually be extended by a few semitones. High notes are produced by the stretching and thinning of the vocal cords, and can often be extended by many octaves.
Extending Low and High Range
Low range is hard to extend because in large part it is determined by the length and thickness of your vocal cords. However, high range is much easier to extend because it is determined by vocal cord flexibility and vocal technique, both of which can often be dramatically improved.
The Vocal Registers
If you’ve ever experienced an awkward voice crack when trying to sing a high note, then you know about vocal registers. The vocal cords can vibrate in a variety of different ways, called vocal registers. These registers correspond to different pitch ranges.
All the notes below your vocal break, also called the vocal bridge, are produced with chest voice. At your vocal bridge and higher, you have two basic choices: to produce head voice or mixed voice.
Chest Voice, Mixed Voice, Belt, Full Voice
Music industry professionals often don’t make a distinction between chest voice, mixed voice, full voice, and belting. Practically speaking, these terms are used synonymously to refer to a powerful vocal tone. Anatomically, the vocal cords produce these stronger sounds by vibrating with more vocal weight and thickness.
Head Voice and Falsetto
At Singing Success, we teach that head voice is a light and clear sound above your vocal bridge, the passagio. By contrast, falsetto is a light and breathy sound above your bridge.
Again, some musicians use these terms synonymously. Practically speaking, head voice and falsetto are used to refer to a light, high, and thin sounding voice. Anatomically, the vocal cords produce this light sound by stretching and vibrating with more thinness.
Being Register-Specific About Vocal Ranges
Imagine the following scenario: you accept a job to perform one song at a couple’s wedding. The required vocal range for the song is C2 – D4 and you can sing all the way up to C5, so you think to yourself, “this will be easy.”
Weeks go by and you haven’t practiced the song, but now that the performance is in two days you start to prepare. Suddenly, you are shocked to find out that D4 is the big note at the end of the song and must be sung with a powerful chest voice… but you can only sing that note in a soft head voice!
So you cancel the gig and now their wedding is ruined all because you didn’t check what vocal register was required for the high note at the end of the song.
Here’s the two key takeaways from the story:
Make sure you know the unique range of your chest voice, head voice, and mixed voice.
Make sure you know the register-specific requirements of every song you sing.
Benefits of Knowing Your Vocal Range
It enables you to communicate to accompanists the keys that you sing in. At the very least, it gives them the information they need to figure out the best keys for you.
It lets you know what keys you should use for songwriting.
It gives you a snapshot of your current abilities, which enables you to track progress over time.
It protects your voice from potential damage that comes from singing too low or too high in your range.
How do I know what my vocal range is?
There are many ways to figure out your current vocal range. The simplest way is to sing your lowest and highest notes into a tuner, like this one, and let the tuner tell you what those notes are. If you play an instrument, then sing your lowest and highest notes and match them on your instrument to figure out what your range is.
Understanding Range using the Piano Numbering System
When singing into a tuner, you will typically get a note expressed with its octave range, like C2. Let’s think of a standard 88-key piano to help you understand what C2 means. The first C on the left side of the piano is C1. The next C to the right of C1 is C2.
The distance between two notes of the same name is called an octave. So, if your lowest note is C2 and your highest is C4, then you have a 2 octave vocal range.
Further Qualifying Vocal Range: Usable and Unusable
As discussed earlier, being register-specific when talking about your vocal range is important, but this next detail is the most important. There are notes in your pitch range that you can sing comfortably and notes that you have to strain to produce.
The notes that you can sing comfortably are your usable notes, these are the ones that actually count. Although it can sound impressive to say you have a wide vocal range, I’d strongly advise against including notes you have to strain for as a part of your overall range. A singer’s comfortable vocal range is sometimes called their tessitura. Your tessitura is what really matters.
Tessitura, Vocal Technique, and Vocal Health
Choosing to sing outside of your tessitura could negatively impact your vocal technique. Straining your voice compromises your dynamic range, pitch range, control over timbre, etc. If your goal is to extend your vocal range, you must avoid straining at all costs.
Straining doesn’t only compromise singing technique, it also impacts vocal health. If you habitually strain when singing, you are at a higher risk of developing a voice disorder, such as vocal cord hemorrhages and nodules. Left unchecked, these voice disorders often worsen to the point of requiring surgery and subsequent vocal therapy to fix.
Proper Technique and Vocal Range Extension
The only way to extend your vocal range correctly is to practice singing strategically with the right exercises and concepts. This article addresses six of the common mistakes that limit vocal range. If you currently make any of these mistakes in your singing, don’t be discouraged. These errors can be fixed by with the right vocal exercises.
Coordination vs. Strength
Though some of these vocal exercises will strengthen your vocal muscles, hitting high notes is more about coordination than strength. Employing proper singing techniques is what enables your voice box to discover new ways of ascending to high notes with ease.
Ease must be prioritized when working on your high notes in order to keep your voice in optimal vocal health. Extending vocal range through strain might add a few notes to your range, but in the long run it’ll actually make it harder to hit high notes.
6 Steps to Increase Your Vocal Range:
1. Fix Your Chest Voice
Chest voice is the neglected, ugly duckling of the vocal registers. “We can ALREADY sing these notes, so why work on them?” Well, this may surprise you, but most singers have high note problems because they have low note problems.
Reference: Mastering Mix, Chest Voice: The Foundation of the Mix
2. Shift Your Resonance
If your resonance doesn’t shift as you go to high notes, then your voice will hit a range ceiling. Try identifying the three main resonance placements with this exercise: do a shouty “hey!” (mouth resonance), a nasally “hey” (nasal resonance), and a yawn-like “hey” (low larynx resonance).
As you go from lower notes to higher notes, resonance should shift from your mouth towards a more nasal and low larynx placement. Getting this right will help the voice glide higher and higher!
Reference: Mastering Mix, The Bridge System: Exercise 3
3. Work on Agility
Rigidity stifles vocal range. Doing exercises with agility can relax rigidity. If singing at fast speeds makes your voice more tense, then you’re probably just starting in the wrong range.
So, make sure that you do vocal agility exercises in a comfortable range first, then start climbing into more challenging ranges incrementally.
Reference: Singing Success 360, Style 1 and Style 2
4. Thin Out Your Vocal Cords
Excess vocal weight limits vocal range. As you ascend higher in pitch, your vocal cords should be getting thinner. The vocal bridges, also called passaggi, are key places where voice thinning must occur.
Utilizing a loose, rumbly vocal fry in exercises is one of the best tools for training your voice to thin out as you ascend. Make sure to check the reference for this one!
Reference: Range Builder, Exercise 3
5. Tame Your Open Vowels
Open vowels, like “ah” as in father, are notorious for limiting range because they show favor to the mouth as a resonator. In other words, open vowels can stop the shift of resonance.
This point is a variation of #2, but it gets its own number because it is a monster all its own. If you don’t control your open vowels properly, your resonance won’t shift and the vocal cords will get too heavy to go any higher in pitch. Vowel modification towards rounded vowel sounds can help fix this issue.
Reference: Mastering Mix, Vowels Only Exercises: Losing the Crutches, Exercises 6 and 7
6. Use Wide Range Scales
Often, the voice can get to higher notes if it ascends from very low notes. So ditch the old school “do, re, mi, fa, so” 5-tone scales, and start using 1½ octave, 2 octave, or even 3 octave scales.
Some of you might be thinking, “I don’t have three or even two octaves of range. So how can I sing these scales?” Very simply; Start these scales below your range and use vocal fry where you can’t sing the low notes. When I use wide range scales in lessons, I often have singers start one octave below their lowest chest voice note and instruct them to use vocal fry for the first part of the scale.
This helps singers get a running start to higher notes from a low and relaxed place. Think of it like ascending with vocal-momentum.
Reference: Range Builder
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Benny Meza is a Master Associate at Brett Manning Studios in Nashville, TN. He’s taught over 8,000 vocal lessons and has worked with clients from Warner Music, RCA, Universal Music Group, and many others.