The first step on the journey of “can anyone learn to sing” is to understand some foundational principles of singing, like how does singing work? What follows is going to sound like a lot! But bear with me; I’ll show you how to conquer it all at the end.
One of the greatest voice scientists in the world, Dr. Ingo Titze, can claim that his entire career as a voice scientist was inspired by his own personal quest to learn to sing opera better. He wanted to know how singing works in the physical body in order to sing better himself! And in the process he has discovered more than he could have ever hoped. You can hear the story directly from Dr. Titze in Every Sing podcast episode #16. But learning how singing works is just the first step on the path.
The next step is, what physical skills do you need to develop? Once you know what physical traits and skills are needed for singing you can learn those skills and invest your efforts into building those physical traits.
But of course, that is only half the battle when it comes to learning to sing. The other half is the mental half. What mental skills and disciplines do you need to develop? What do you need to do for your brain that will help you sing more to your satisfaction?
And finally, what is your goal for singing? There are many, many different reasons why people want to sing. We will look at a few of those to get an idea of how to prioritize the time and energy you spend.
The answer to the question “can anyone learn to sing?” is a bit more complicated than you might have imagined. But by taking a good look at the parts, they should add up to an absolute answer of yes, anyone can.
It is helpful to think of the actual mechanics of the human voice when looking at physically building a voice. Have you ever thought about what is inside your Adam’s Apple that allows you to sing? It is a good idea for a singer to know, and not hard to find out. A quick internet search with the phrase “anatomy for singing” will lead you to dozens of articles about the physiology of singing. If you click on the video tab of your search engine you’ll see lots of animated and real human examples of what exactly is going on. You can take a deep dive and not surface for hours on this topic. It is fascinating stuff. But for the sake of the here and now, let’s keep it simple with this description: inside the throat, down below the back of your tongue, are two flaps called vocal folds. They are each made up of a muscle and a ligament surrounded by a few different layers of skin cells. The skin layer is loose on the muscles, like the skin on the back of your hand.
The vocal folds close like a gate over your windpipe, also known as your esophagus (or oesophagus). The core job of the vocal folds is to act as a gateway. They are there to keep food and liquid out of the lungs, and to help build air pressure from below if we squeeze them shut.
But lucky for us and most animals, we can also make sound with them. We blow air past them and they flap in the breeze to create sound waves. Now “flap in the breeze” sounds pretty imprecise, but the cool thing is that humans, more than any other animal, have learned how to control that flapping to a super high degree! We make the tiniest adjustments to the muscles or the air flow and we get a different pitch, loudness, or sound colour.
How do you make your voice perform better physically? Here is the big hint for this question. You train it. You train it. You train it.
Vocal training means listening to the pitch you are trying to reproduce, and learning how to reproduce it exactly like you want. Some of the different challenges and solutions a person might need to train for are:
By far the best way to build your physical skills for your voice is to sing more and be picky about doing it well. A basketball player could practice all day, but if they are double-dribbling or travelling all the time they will not get better. Make the effort every day to sound your best and you will start to build up your physical skills. You can start with my free vocal training exercises, and you might want to check out this blog post on Vocal Boot Camp.
A whole lot of singing is brain stuff. And one of the biggest brain things is listening. Great singers listen relentlessly. When a person is just starting to sing, the person should listen to themselves while singing. A beginning singer needs to check in with their voice constantly, not through headphones but just listening to how they sound in the room.
After a while though, once the singer trusts they are pretty darn good most of the time, they need to focus away from listening to themselves and focus instead on the ensemble, their audience, and their story.
Another mental skill to develop is pitch awareness. It will be difficult at first, but hearing a pitch in your mind and then creating the pitch with your voice is a great way to grow that part of the brain. It can also be useful to use one of the many apps that listen to you sing a pitch and tell you how close you were to the target pitch, like Voxercise for iPhone and Android.
Where you go from here depends on what your goal for singing is. If your goal is to sing Happy Birthday in a group with confidence, mastering the things I’ve talked about here will get you a long way toward that target.
If you feel like you’ve accomplished the Happy Birthday goal and want to see what more you can do DIY, check out my book Singing 101: Vocal Basics and Fundamental Singing Skills for All Styles and Abilities. It is highly regarded and has been a fantastic tool for thousands of people.
But if your goal is loftier, then your best bet is to immerse yourself in a singing environment for an hour or more each week. That basketball player who double-dribbles would do well to go to a pick-up game or join an amateur team to learn from others. You can do the same with singing; an amateur choir, song circle, open mic night, or karaoke group might be just what you need to get to the next level.
And finally the big one, the one that would take you through every step of this journey from beginning to end, would be individual voice lessons. Good voice teachers know how to help you with every part of this formula. With modern technology making live, one-on-one online lessons a truly great way to learn voice, there are no longer any excuses. Look for qualified teachers through the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
Can anyone learn to sing? Absolutely. Take it one step at a time, build the skills, and see how great the reward can be.