Singing is easy. When we zoom out and look at the skill of singing, there’s not much to it! Air, vibration, pitch and rhythm. But adding a personal element to this equation certainly complicates things! Have you ever wondered why singing a particular song – or even just a particular line of a particular song – is so hard? Maybe you’re just getting caught up in your own head. In this post, we’ll unpack some ideas around the psychology of singing and the psychology of performance.
Firstly, pitch is an illusion. Or at least we should think of it that way while singing! Pitch is nothing more than the frequency of the soundwaves you’ve produced. Because we refer to pitch as high or low, many of us have an instinctual visual in mind of “where” that note lives. Because of this, if we over-think a particular pitch, or the relationship from one pitch to the next, our body responds- and not in ways that we generally find helpful. For instance, use your imagination to think of the first interval in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. If you can hear that melody in your head without singing it outloud, good for you! This means you have developed the skill of “audiation”, or hearing with “your mind’s ear”. Let’s try that again, and this time, we’ll use “our mind’s eye”, the skill of visualization, too. As you hear that first interval, what shape did you picture? For most people, an ascending jump like this one (an octave) causes them to visualize a giant leap uphill — yikes! Picturing a musical interval in this way is almost certainly going to cause your body to respond in kind. When we think “up”, we commonly start to reach for that “high” note somewhere above our heads… but why? Nothing in your body needs to go up to produce a higher sound (see How Your Voice Works)! If you feel a reach or stretch upward (probably in your neck, chin, root of tongue, sometimes even going onto your tiptoes) while singing this big interval out loud, these are simply actions that your body added to “help”. These movements are not necessary, and not helpful. They are simply a product of your psychology! Instead, use your psychology to help yourself stay grounded. Try singing the same interval, but visualizing it differently. What if the path from one note to the next was straight ahead, or even downhill instead of up? Experiment with the power of your mind’s eye to help influence the way your body responds to the same task.
We can apply the same type of reformatting with rhythmic or very wordy lines of music, too! Create an imagined visual for yourself (if you’re inclined toward drawing, consider actually sketching the shapes you want to feel as you sing– especially if they don”t match the actual melodic contour of the song). For complicated or rhythmic passages, remember to sing “in cursive” instead of word. by. word. (or note. by. note.) For wordy passages, visualize the energy of the line instead of the melody — which words are actually important? where does the energy swell? Allow the in-between words to fade into the background and lean into the important text with more energy/volume (note of caution: the *highest* note is not necessarily the most important!!) to create an easy feeling ebb-and-flow.
As with all art, it’s easy to get caught up in the details. Visualization is a great way to pan back and reimagine your approach! We hope this exploratory tool helps you find more ease and expressiveness in your singing. Want more ideas like this? Get in touch with a teacher to chat about your singing goals and how we can help.