Singing high notes with accurate pitch and tone quality is a challenging skill for most vocalists. Singing well in the extremes of your natural range requires a careful approach and more energy and mechanics than singing in your comfortable middle range, but with a few simple tricks of the trade, you can approach and sustain high pitches with greater ease and confidence.
Basic mechanics: understanding how high notes work
The are two critical elements needed to create sound on a high note: 1) breath, and 2) space. In fact, all vocal pitches need breath and space regardless of where they lie in your range, but high notes require more of both. High notes vibrate at a faster frequency than low notes and are naturally louder in volume than low notes, therefore it requires more energy to create such a sound. Singers must supply more air and open the jaw extra tall (vertically) to create a full, rounded tone. For more information on the basics of breathing mechanics, see the post on breathing for singing.
Approaching high notes: planning ahead
Breathing: Deciding where to breathe is important in any musical phrase, but especially when it includes high notes. I usually recommend that singers breathe 2-3 notes before the highest pitch of the phrase, placing the highest pitch somewhere in the first third to half of the breath phrase, even if it breaks the traditional rules of breath planning (which include punctuation, phrasing, and a few other elements). There are a couple of reasons for this strategy: first, a well sung high note with excellent tone will have more audience impact than a small breath squeezed into an odd place, which most listeners will never notice. Also, in practice I have found that breathing 2-3 notes prior, when possible, is preferable to breathing directly before the note. It allows the singer to use momentum from the previous notes to launch up to the highest pitch with ease, rather than having to hit the note directly coming off a fresh breath, which may create complications with onset.
Jaw mechanics: as you approach the highest pitch of the musical phrase, let your jaw drop open as much as possible without pushing or forcing it down. The jaw should drop freely downward as though gravity is leading it, and should result in a tall oval mouth opening rather than a round, circle “O” shape. The vertical oval mouth will help your tone resonate toward the back of your throat, a necessary element to sustaining a high pitch. High notes sung in frontal space usually sound squished and shrill.
Vowel modification: in order to achieve a tall oval mouth shape, vowels almost always need to be modified from their pure production. Women singing above a C5 and men singing above a C4 will need to start shaping all vowels toward a dark “ah” or open “oh,” and the higher in pitch you go, the more modification is necessary. For example, if you are singing the word “cheese” on high pitches, you’ll need to drop the jaw tall and make it sound more like “chehz” or “chahz.” Although it sounds odd here, in practice it will dramatically improve resonance and so long as the singer carefully pronounces the consonant sounds of the word, it will be accurately understood by listeners as “cheese.” For more details on vowel formation and practical exercises, see chapter 5 of the Vocal Exericses eBook.
Sustaining high notes
If you’re singing the high pitches that are long in duration and need to be sustained for some length of time, this adds another layer of complexity beyond just approaching and correctly hitting the note. Sustaining high pitches requires breath planning and vowel modification, plus a couple of additional techniques:
Vibrato: When possible, it is recommended that singers use vibrato when sustaining high pitches. This will not only allow you to use your air supply more efficiently, since vibrato requires less air than straight tone, but it will also ensure that your laryngeal muscles are relaxed and free of tension, as muscular tension is very common in the extremes of the vocal range. Singing with vibrato is like a mini massage for your vocal cords, it keeps everything loose and flowing. Finally, vibrato often simply sounds better on sustained pitches, regardless of how high or low they fall within your range. Occasionally it may make more sense from an artistic interpretation standpoint to use straight tone, but these cases will be infrequent and are up to the singer’s discretion. For more information about how vibrato works and how to create it, see our post on vibrato or see chapter 8 of the Vocal Exercises eBook.
Crescendo: Any note, whether high or low in your range, when sustained for any length of time, runs the risk of sounding tense and stagnant the longer you hold it, caused by to running out of air supply and losing momentum. To counteract this and gain momentum instead, I recommend a crescendo (getting gradually louder) as you sustain the note. Alternatively, starting the high pitch on a straight tone and gradually transitioning it into vibrato, a technique very popular in musical theatre and pop styles, is another way to gain momentum while you sustain.
As you can see, there are many elements to singing high notes with ideal vocal tone. If you’d like additional help beyond this article, check out our vocal warm up series or contact us for individual vocal coaching over skype or in person.
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