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Why Can't I Find My Starting Note?

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

'Why can't I find my starting note' is something I get asked a lot on Sing By Sight. So much so that I spent the last Webinar I delivered looking specifically at this subject.

Understanding why you can’t find your starting note can be so helpful for singers. It’s really helpful to know what problems can occur so you can take control of a situation and work on solutions to these problems.

Once you know what the problem is, once you understand why you’re finding something tricky, it’s more easy to work on the solution, problems (such as anxiety, self-doubt, nerves) occur when you don’t know why you’re finding something tricky and you don’t know how to fix it.

The main take-away from this Blog should be the need to train your ears to really listen to music not just hear it! Develop your listening skills (aural skills) by listening to a huge range of music and styles, focus on different elements of the songs every time you play them, analyse what you're hearing and become comfortable and relaxed with everything you take on board

This Blog is going to focus on just a few of the musical reasons why finding your starting note can be tricky, highlighting the problems, giving examples of songs along the way and giving you solutions that will help you become a strong and confident sight singer.

1. The length of the introduction

Problem - A short introduction will generally not give you enough time to lock into the key chord of a piece and then find your starting note.

The length of introduction you are given to a song can make a huge difference as to whether you can find your starting note or not. As a singer you need to be given enough time to tune into the key chord of the piece and move on to then find your starting note (which may or may not be the tonic).

If you listen to the introduction of Adele’s version of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ you will hear a lovely long piano part. The introduction starts on the key chord and you have 8 bars in total to tune into this key chord then find your starting note.

‘Firework’ by Katy Perry, however, is an example of a song that has a short introduction, giving you less chance to find the key chord then find your starting note. The introduction to this song also lacks clarity in its harmonies again making it tricky to find the key chord and your starting note.

In an audition situation you may be asked to drop in at a certain section of a song with maybe only 2 bars introduction given, again testing your ability to lock into the key chord and hear the tonic note in a short space of time. This type of situation can also be more tricky because you may be nervous and feel under pressure.

Solution - Work on training your ears to lock into the key chord of a piece quickly. Listen to your playlist and try to sing the tonic note during the introduction to songs you know. Once you are comfortable with this, move on to listening to songs you aren’t familiar with and try to hear the key chord and find the tonic note as soon as possible in the introduction.

2. The chords used in the introduction

Problem - If the chords used in an introduction are vague and unhelpful, a singer could have difficulty finding the starting note.

The chord progression used in an introduction can have an effect on whether a singer can find their starting note or not.

Again if we use the example of Adele’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’, the first chord you hear is the key chord of the song and the following chords all give you a strong sense of going ‘home’ to this key chord. Having a strong harmonic sequence in an introduction helps you establish the key chord and enables you to go on to find your starting note (whether that is the tonic of the piece or another note).

Compare that to the introduction on ‘Sweetest Pie’ by Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa. The chord progression used in this introduction is jazz based and quite sophisticated, making it more of a challenge to hear the key chord and then go on to find your starting note.

It’s important to a singer that the key chord is clear enough for you to hear it in a more complex or sophisticated harmonic introduction, allowing you to then move on to find your starting note.

Solution - Listen to as many music styles as you can so you develop your ears and become comfortable listening to as many different chord progressions as possible. The more you are used to hearing a wide range of harmonies and chords the more your ears will understand them and you will be able to pick out the key chord and the tonic.

3. The ‘riff’ problem

Problem - trying to pick out the key chord and the tonic note in a riff can be tricky as the important notes we really want to latch onto aren’t always the prominent notes we’re hearing in the riff.

This point ties in with the point about lack of clarity. An introduction that is based around a melodic riff figure, for example Ed Sheeran’s ‘Bad Habit’s’ can cause issues when you’re trying to lock into the key chord of the piece and then find the tonic.

A riff will generally be built around notes of the chords but sometimes the way the riffs are voiced (the order the notes are played in) means certain notes are more prominent in the riff than others. Our ears will generally tune into these prominent notes and unfortunately they aren’t always the tonic note or the important notes we need to hear so we loose the key chord and can’t establish our starting note.

An introduction based on a riff can be one of the trickiest situations to find the key chord and can cause singers to doubt themselves, become anxious and also loose confidence.

Solution - Be aware of when you’re listening to a riff introduction and be ready to hear each note of each chord so you can really pick out the key chord and the tonic note. Remember to listen for strong notes that feel like they are pulling you ‘home’. Check out your playlist and try to find songs that have riffs in them (even if they aren’t in the introduction). Once you’ve found songs with riffs in them, try to sing along with the riff, listening to each note and getting a feel for the shape of the chords being played.

4. Listening to unfamiliar instruments

Problem - listening to, and tuning in to the texture of unfamiliar instruments can cause issues for a singer. A technical word for these musical textures is ‘timbre’. Timbre means the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as opposed to its pitch and intensity.

An example of this situation would be a singer listening to an orchestra for their key chord and starting note when they have only ever listened to guitars before. Some singers may find this transition to listening to other instruments fairly straightforward but other singers can be caught unaware when they don’t understand what they are listening to and can’t find the key chord amongst the orchestration.

Singers, generally, are more familiar with the timbre of a piano so when they are faced with listening to saxes or violins, the unfamiliar music textures can cause them to go ‘deaf’ and not hear the ‘home’ note they should be listening for.

There are lots of songs that have been reimagined with orchestra, for example ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell has been re-recorded as an orchestral version (album - Both Sides Now - 2000). Listen to the original version of this song then listen to the more recent orchestral version and try to hear her first note before she sings it.

Solution - Try to listen to as wide a variety of music as possible, don’t limit yourself to listening to just a band or limit yourself to just working with a piano. When you're listening to other instruments try to describe to yourself how each instrument makes you feel and use your own words to describe the timbre of that instrument. Everyone hears instruments differently and picks out different qualities, hearing is very personal, so listen closely to a wide variety of instrument and be aware of what you're hearing and feeling.

Take-Away Points

It's clear the key to finding your staring note is training your ears, also called developing your aural skills. You may already have good aural skills and can pick up songs quickly or sing harmony lines with ease, but good aural skills aren't just about hearing vocal lines or harmony lines.

Good aural skills also means really listening to what's going on around a song:

  1. the introduction

  2. the arrangement

  3. the instrumentation

  4. the chord progressions

Don't just hear, learn to listen, and eventually your ears will be able to pick out the key chord of a song with ease and you will then be able to find the tonic note and then your starting note (if it isn't the tonic).

Don't forget to check out Sing By Sight, my online sight singing course written specifically for Contemporary Commercial Music singers. Learning to find your staring note is just one of the many musical elements you will look at as I help you become a strong and confident sight singer.

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