Have you ever wondered what qualities your favorite singers have that make them exceptional at what they do? In this blog, our guest writer, Matt Ramsey, will give you an inside look into what traits all great singers share and how you can improve your own skills. Please enjoy!
My name is Matt Ramsey: I’m the head voice teacher at ramseyvoice.com and I’ve worked with singers of ALL levels.
Let’s be honest: There are tons of great singers out there. Adele, John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Sara Bareilles…the list is endless! And no matter whether you like Pop, Soul, RnB, Rock or Classical, there’s no shortage of amazing talents out there. But unfortunately, all these fantastic performers can also make it really intimidating for singers who are just starting out!
As a voice teacher, I see students all the time who are convinced they’ll never be as good as some of these artists. And that’s a shame! Because after teaching 800+ students, I can tell you this: Anyone can learn to sing. It just takes practice and the right singing techniques.
Unfortunately, many beginning singers think that singing is something that you’re born with or you’re not. And while there’s no question that some vocal traits are genetic (like the size of your vocal cords or the shape of your throat), many singers miss one simple fact: All the best singers have some specific things in common! And I’m not talking about their million-dollar producers or amazing stage productions. I’m talking about some real, actual singing traits that all great singers share that make them sound so great.
Now here’s the good news: ANYONE can acquire these vocal abilities through practice.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not! When you realize that virtually ALL great singers have some specific vocal traits in common, all you have to do is know what they are and then work on them. It’s as simple as that!
Today, I’m going to show you the 5 vocal traits that all great singers share. Then I’ll give you some very simple vocal exercises to help you master each one of them. And if you practice these exercises daily, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you learn how to sing.
Ready to get started? Let’s do it!
Singing Trait #1: Great Vocalists Sing With Chest Voice
Let me ask you something: What’s the first thing that you notice about a great singer? Odds are, it’s not the lyrics or the inflection they use when they sing.
Most likely the first thing you notice about a singer is their tone.
What is tone? Tone is the individual sound of a singer’s voice when they sing. Vocal tone is the reason you can hear a difference between Sam Smith and Bruno Mars when they sing. Sure they can hit the same notes, but the notes sound different. Unfortunately, many beginning singers think that in order to sound good, all they have to do is imitate their favorite singer. But here’s the truth: You probably already have a beautiful vocal tone in your voice. You just need to find it. So how do you improve your tone? It all starts with chest voice!
What’s chest voice? Chest voice is a term invented by old school Italian teachers and singers to describe notes in the low range of the voice. They called it “chest voice” because singers noticed that their chest cavity would vibrate they sang in the lower vocal range.
You can try this right now:
Place your hand on your chest and say your name out loud at a strong volume.
Do you feel that vibration? That’s chest voice! Now this is where it gets interesting: The vibration you feel against your hand is directly related to the vibrations that come from your vocal cords. The stronger the vibrations, the richer and fuller the vocal tone. So, more chest voice equals better tone! This is why all of the greatest singers use this “chest voice” sound in their singing.
For an example of this, listen to Lady Gaga sing the first verse of “Shallow.” Do you hear how rich and velvety her voice sounds? That’s the sound of her chest voice. Or for another example, listen to Bill Withers sing “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Do you hear how smooth and full his voice sounds? That’s his chest voice! So if you’re not singing with the right tone or power, start by singing with more chest voice.
Here’s How to Sing With Chest Voice
Let’s start with some very simple vocal exercises you can use to find your chest voice when you sing. It’s called the 5-Tone “Gug”. Basically, you’re going to sing the word “Gug” (as in “Gutter” with a “g” sound at the end) on a simple 5-tone scale. The reason this exercise works is because the “uh” vowel promotes a lot of chest voice while the “G” sound ensures that your vocal cords are vibrating fully.
Here’s how you do it:
- Place your hand on your chest and say the word “Gug” (as in “Gutter”) out loud at a strong volume. You should feel a strong vibration against your hand.
- Next, find a note at the bottom of your voice (you can try C3 for guys and G3 for girls) and sing the word “Gug” on that note with the same strength as you were speaking it.
- Finally, sing the “Gug” on a 5-Tone scale where you replace each note of the scale with the word “Gug”.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a piano handy; I’ve made this video you can practice along with: https://youtu.be/PHvIEdEDs7E
As you perform this exercise, you should feel a lot of vibrations against your hand when you sing each note of the scale. And don’t worry if this exercise sounds ugly when you do it. The whole point is to get you to sing with a fuller tone. You’ll be amazed at how this simple exercise can help you sing stronger with a more beautiful vocal tone!
Singing Trait #2: Great Singers Can Sing With Head Voice
Can I tell you something crazy? Learning to sing in head voice may be the most important thing you can learn as a beginning singer. And it’s for good reason! Singing in head voice will help you expand your vocal range, hit high notes and sing in tune. So what’s head voice and how will it help you improve your voice?
Let me explain: Head voice is an old school term used by Italian singers and teachers to describe notes in the top part of the vocal range. These singers called it “head voice” because they noticed vibrations in their head and neck when they sang high notes.
You can try this right now:
Place your hand on the back of your neck and sing a really high note on the word “Wee” like you’re a kid going down a slide.
Do you feel that vibration against your hand? That’s head voice! So why is head voice important?
In order to sing higher notes, the vocal cords need to stretch and thin out. These thin cords vibrate faster than when the cords are thick and since they’re vibrating faster, you hear a higher note. Pretty cool, huh? The problem is that many beginning singers will only sing notes that are in their chest voice where the cords are thicker. This is why virtually every great singer has the ability to sing with head voice.
For an example of head voice, take a listen to Sam Smith sing the chorus of “Stay with Me.” Listen specifically for the word “Stay.” Do you hear how beautiful and light that note is? What you’re hearing are the thin vocal cords you find in head voice. Or for another example, listen to Sara Bareilles singing “I Choose You.” Bareilles is singing in head voice on the words “choose” and “you.”
So if you feel like you’re getting stuck in the bottom of your voice and you want to expand your range, it’s time to learn to sing in head voice.
Now here’s the good news: Singing in head voice is really easy. You just have to be willing to sound funny for a little bit. So without further ado, here’s my favorite exercise to sing with head voice.
Here’s How to Sing With Head Voice
In this next exercise, I’ll show you how to sing in head voice. It’s called the “Wee” vocal siren and it’s a really great way of finding your head voice fast! Basically, you’re going to do a vocal siren where you sing from the top to the bottom of your voice on a “Wee” sound. The reason this exercise works is because the “ee” vowel promotes a lot of head voice while the “W” consonant makes the cords vibrate very loosely.
Here’s how you do it:
- Take a breath and sing the word “Wee” (like “week”) on a high pitch like you’re really excited.
- As you sing the “Wee” gradually start lowering the pitch until you come all the way down to the bottom of your voice.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure how to do this exercise. Here’s a fun video where I walk you through how to do it: https://youtu.be/cYqQ6ymdI38
Try to keep your voice loose as you sing the note. And if you sing the note in falsetto, that’s totally fine too. To clarify, it’s completely okay if you feel a vocal break when you’re singing from high to low in this exercise. We’re just trying to get you to experience the feeling of singing more in your head voice. You’ll be amazed at how this simple exercise can help you expand your range and hit higher notes!
Singing Trait #3: Great Vocalists Sing With Mixed Voice
Let’s be honest: What’s the point of hitting high notes if your voice breaks every time you sing them?
And while learning to sing in head voice is incredibly important, it’s just the first step. The truth is that head voice is a bit weak and breathy when it’s on it’s own. This sound is also known as falsetto. So now that you’re singing with chest voice AND head voice, it’s time to blend those voices together to create a stronger sound.
This blend of chest and head voice is called singing with mixed voice. Mixed voice is how great vocalists can hit high notes and sound evenly strong without breaking.
For an example, listen to the Righteous Brothers sing the word “mine” in “Unchained Melody.” Do you hear how seamlessly the singer goes up to the high note on “Mine”? That’s because he’s singing with mixed voice. Or for a more modern example, take a listen to Sara Bareilles sing the chorus of “Brave.” Can you hear how strong her voice is the moment she starts singing “Say what you want to say”? That’s because Bareilles is singing in her mixed voice.
So how do you find this mixed voice? Here’s what you need to know: Mixed voice means singing across your range with the right balance of chest voice and head voice so that every note sounds even and strong. And that means every note in your vocal range needs to have the right blend of chest voice and head voice; especially the notes in the middle.
Here’s an example: If the notes in the middle of the voice are too chesty, usually they’ll be flat or strained. Think of rock singers who look like they’re yelling their heads off when they hit high notes.
Or, for the opposite example, if the notes in the middle are too heady, then they will sound very light and breathy. Think of the choral singer that sounds very hollow and airy when they sing high. This is very common! Many singers will sing with too much chest voice or head voice on the different notes in their voice.
So if you learn to blend the chest and head on each of these notes in your voice, you’ll be amazed at how much more vocal control you have. So if you feel that your middle notes are too strained or too breathy and light, here’s my favorite exercise for singing with mixed voice.
Here’s How to Sing in Mixed Voice
This exercise is called the octave and a half “Gee” and basically you’re going to sing the word “Gee” (as in “Geese”) on an octave and a half scale. The reason this exercise works so well is because the “ee” vowel promotes head voice while the “G” sound gets the vocal cords to vibrate more fully. Put them together and you have a great blend of chest and head voice!
Here’s how you do it:
- Say the word “Gee” (as in “Geese”) out loud at a comfortable volume.
- Next, find a note at the bottom of your voice (try C3 for guys and G3 for girls) and sing the word “Gee” at a strong volume on the note.
- Finally, sing an octave and a half scale where you replace each note of the melody with the word “Gee.”
Don’t worry if you don’t have a piano. You can follow along in this video where I walk you through the “Gee” exercise.
Now, when you’re doing this exercise, it’s very important that you find a balanced and even sound on each one of the notes in your voice. So as you do the exercise, if you hear yourself getting too strained or breathy, just reset and try it again. When you do it correctly, you’ll be amazed at how even your whole range becomes.
Singing Trait #4: Great Singers Can Belt
Can I be honest? There’s nothing better than the sound of an amazing singer belting. From Adele to Beyoncé and Freddie Mercury to Ed Sheeran, virtually ALL great singers can belt.
So what is belting and why is it important for you to learn? Belting is a term that refers to singing notes in the head voice range with the power and tone of your chest voice.
There are lots of great examples of belting in modern music. Listen to Bruno Mars singing the chorus of “Grenade.” Do you hear how powerful and rich the word “Grenade” is in the chorus? That’s belting! Or for another example, listen to P!nk sing the chorus of “Try.” Do you hear how powerful the words “where there is desire” are? The notes are so full, you feel the emotion of the lyrics that she’s singing.
So how do you learn to belt? Well before we jump in to the exercise, I have to warn you: Most singers belt wrong when they’re first starting out! Why is that? 99% of beginning singers think that belting just means yelling their voice on high notes.
But the problem with this approach is that if you sing high notes with too much chest voice, you’ll probably just strain your voice. So what is the right way to belt your voice? The secret to belting correctly is to find the right balance of chest voice and head voice on your high notes.
And that only happens when you’ve mastered singing with your mixed voice. In other words, once you can make each of the notes in your voice sound even, THEN you can start adding more power. To put it another way, if you’re learning to do a weight-lifting exercise, it’s better to do it without any weight and get the form perfect first. So if any of the previous exercises gave you trouble, make sure to master those first and then come back. Now, without further ado, here’s my favorite exercise to learn to belt.
Here’s How to Belt Your Singing Voice
Let’s start with a very simple exercise you can use to belt safely. It’s called the octave repeat bratty “Nae”. Basically, you’re going to sing a “Nae” sound (as in “Nasty”) in a very ugly and nasal way. Why? Because this “bratty” sound is great at thinning out the cords to get you into your head voice while still keeping them vibrating fully. That way you get a lot of power, even on your highest notes. Ready to start?
Here’s how you do it:
- Say the word “Nae” (as in “Nasty”) out loud in an “ugly” and “bratty” way. If you need help finding the right sound, imagine the wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz” (the “I’m going to get you my pretty” sound)
- Next, sing the bratty “Nae” on a comfortable starting pitch (try F#3 for guys and C#4 for girls).
- Finally, the bratty “Nae” on an octave repeat scale where you replace each note of the scale with a bratty “Nae” sound.
Again, don’t worry if you don’t know the scale offhand. Here’s a video where I walk you through exactly how to do the exercise: https://youtu.be/YXuNXWx86v4
While you’re doing this exercise, focus on keeping the sound very bratty and nasal. And even though this is a very “ugly” exercise, it can be great at helping you belt your high notes safely. So take your time and you’ll be amazed at how powerful your high notes get when you use this simple exercise.
Singing Trait #5: Great Singers Have Vibrato
Let’s be honest: Is there anything more beautiful than great vibrato?’
The fact is that vibrato not only makes any singer sound world class, but it also makes you feel like you’re an amazing singer! So what is vibrato and how can you find it in your voice?
Vibrato is the “wavering” or “shimmering” that you hear when a singer holds a note. And a well trained vibrato can make a note sound richer and add more excitement to an otherwise boring phrase. This is why virtually every great singer has vibrato when they sing.
For an example of great vibrato, listen to “All of Me” by John Legend. Nearly every note that he holds has vibrato on it, especially in the chorus. Do you hear how he wavers his voice a little bit on every note? That’s vibrato! Or for another example, listen to Beyoncé sing the chorus of “If I Were a Boy.” Do you hear how she adds wavering when she holds the word “Boy” in the chorus? That’s because Beyoncé is using vibrato. So if you’re looking to add more musical “spice” to your notes, start by singing with vibrato.
Before we jump into the exercise, I have to warn you: At first, vibrato can be very difficult to find. And the crazy thing is that sometimes the easiest way to find vibrato in the beginning is to make it happen “outside” your voice. I’m not talking about purposefully shaking your voice or waggling your jaw to create the sound. Instead, I’ll show you a very simple exercise where you pulse your stomach to imitate the natural wavering of vibrato. You ready?
Here’s How You Can Sing With Vibrato
In our final exercise, I’m going to show you how to “teach” your voice to find true vibrato. And as I mentioned, at first, we’ll “fake” the vibrato. And then, once your voice knows what vibrato feels like, you can learn to do it more naturally.
The exercise is called the diaphragm pulse and basically, you’re going to locate a spot on your stomach and pulse your hand in and out of that area to make your voice wobble. Then once you find the feeling of the “wavering” of your notes, you’ll be able to do it naturally. Sound good?
Here’s how you do it:
- Make a fist with one hand and then cover the fist with your other hand
- Keeping your hands in this position, place them about an inch above your belly button on your solar plexus.
- Next, sing and hold an “ee” vowel (like “eat”) on a comfortable note in your voice.
- Finally, while you’re holding the “ee” vowel, push your hands on your abs in and out rapidly like you’re giving yourself CPR on your stomach.
You should hear the note waver and wobble. That’s the feeling of vibrato! Again, don’t worry if you’re not sure exactly how to do this exercise. Here’s a great video that walks you through exactly how to do it: https://youtu.be/RFzsXVMcJoA
Trust me… I know how silly this exercise is, but I promise you that it works. Then once you find the vibrato with this exercise, you can start to try to get the feeling to happen in your voice without pushing into your stomach. And pretty soon you’ll have a totally natural vibrato that you use everywhere!
By now, you know the five most common traits that all great singers share. And whether you’re trying to master chest voice, head voice, mixed voice, belting or vibrato, the important thing is you know exactly what you need to work on to become an amazing singer. You’ve also learned the best vocal exercises to get you there.
But always remember:
Becoming a great singer takes work. A lot of it.
So if you’re struggling with any of these exercises, keep practicing every day and you’ll be surprised how quickly you become a great singer. And for my part, I can’t wait for the day to see you go out and wow the audience with your beautiful voice!
Matt Ramsey is the head voice teacher and founder of Ramsey Voice Studio, the highest rated vocal studio in Texas. Having taught over 800 students, Matt feels that the right vocal technique can help anyone become a better singer. Master your voice with Matt’s online singing lessons and YouTube channel.