We’ve heard amazing singers reach stratospheric high notes to our absolute amazement and bewilderment.
How do they sing so high?
Is that even humanly possible?
Does it damage your voice to sing like that?
These are some thoughts that often run through our minds. And amongst these singers there are those who push their voices, climbing up the musical scale with much effort to reach those high notes, and those who simply soar sky-high with their voices, tracing out an effortless melody akin to an eagle gracefully riding the currents on outstretched wings.
While these high notes are undeniably achieved through a combination of countless practice hours, blood, sweat, tears, and divine gifting, I’m here to share a little nugget of information that could be the key to unlocking these high notes for yourself.
It’s simply this: High notes do not exist.
Altitude in Music
Take a closer look at the visual imagery I’ve used so far in describing singers hitting high notes.
Singers REACH high notes
High notes are STRATOSPHERIC
Singers CLIMB UP the musical scale
Singers SOAR SKY-HIGH like an eagle
What do these words have in common? They are descriptors of altitude! We often relate musical pitches that are high in FREQUENCY to the concept of them being high in ALTITUDE.
These are two completely different things!
A ‘high’ note is simply defined as a pitch that is relatively large in frequency, meaning that the medium which produces it vibrates at a fast rate. In singing, it is our vocal folds, two tiny muscle tissues inside our larynx, that vibrate as air flows in-between them.
And that’s simply it - the only factor that affects the pitch of a note is the rate of vibration of the vocal folds. There are other factors which affect the quality of the sound, such as use of resonating spaces, embouchure shapes, position of the larynx, but these do not directly affect the pitch.
So I’m dispelling the illusion that these notes are way up high in the sky and we can never reach them. Perhaps if we do away with this imagery, we are better poised to sing these high notes ourselves.
But why do these notes feel high?
Well, there are some good rationale to our natural co-relation of frequency to altitude. Focusing on the voice, the most natural instrument that we’re all born with, we do feel different physiological sensations as we sing pitches that are higher in frequency.
Here are some examples, but please note that these do not necessarily exemplify correct vocal technique.
Feeling the need to push out air to force the vocal folds to vibrate faster. This air rises from our lungs upward and out through our mouth, giving a ‘rising’ sensation.
Notes high in frequency resonate more in our head cavities as opposed to low notes causing vibrations in our chest. Hence the commonly used terms ‘chest voice’ and ‘head voice’.
Also remember that ‘high' notes are also found in other instruments, and our pre-existing associations from our vocal instrument are reinforced as we map pitch onto lateral movements on the piano keyboard, guitar fretboard, or any other instrument.
Okay, but how does this help me to sing high notes?
It’s all about how you visualise your notes. In fact, the very act of ‘visualising’ your notes implies that pitches can be mapped out in a spacial manner. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are not careful it could lead to some destructive habits.
So try some of these tips and see what works for you:
Avoid trying to ‘reach’ high notes, it often makes you crane your neck upwards which creates tension in your larynx. Remember, it's about adjusting your vocal folds to allow them to vibrate them faster. There’s no need to look up!
Instead of visualising your target note on an altitude scale, visualise your vocal folds adjusting to vibrate at the desired frequency (approximately of course, you don’t need to know the exact number).
Avoid thinking that you need to strain and exert more force akin to climbing a mountain. Remember that it’s about adjusting your muscles to allow them to vibrate at a faster frequency, not whipping them into obedience.
And that’s it! I hope that this little insight been eye-opening for you, and helps you in understanding your voice, instrument, and music better. There’s so much more to music-making than just muscle-memory and mechanical movements, and I’m happy to have you onboard to share in my musical musings.
By Neil Chan