Picking songs that fit your voice is one of the most important skills you can have as a singer. But if you’re just starting out, how can you tell if a song is actually good for your voice?
Can I tell you something that boggles my mind? The vast majority of beginning singers choose songs that are totally wrong for their voice!
This can happen for lots of reasons:
- The song is out of their vocal range.
- The song doesn’t fit their voice type (e.g. they’re a bass and they choose a tenor song).
- The song is wrong for the style of music they sing.
- They pick a song they think people want to hear, rather than one they’re passionate about.
As the founder and head voice teacher of Ramsey Voice Studio, I work with vocalists of all genres and experience, and a huge part of my job as a voice teacher is to help my students pick the right songs for their voice.
Often, beginners just find the best singers out there and try to imitate what they’re doing, but that usually means choosing songs that are way too difficult for their voice, and that’s a sure-fire way to ruin your confidence! After all, you want to feel comfortable when you’re first learning how to sing, and choosing songs that fit your voice is a great start.
The truth is, many people starting out have no idea how to find songs for their voice, so today I wanted to share my five-step process for picking the right song for your voice.
As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned pro: if you follow these simple steps, you’ll learn to choose songs that work with your voice. So let’s get started!
1. Choose a song that matches your gender
One of the most common mistakes I see beginning singers make is choosing a song by a singer of the opposite gender.
I totally get it! Inspiration can come from anywhere and many singers are inspired by lots of different artists. But when you’re choosing songs for your voice, I recommend picking songs by an artist of the same gender.
This advice has nothing to do with gender norms or sexism. If you’re trans or intersex, choose the gender that feels most comfortable to you.
But as a general rule, if you’re choosing songs by an artist of a different gender, you’re automatically trying to sing along with a totally different vocal range. This is especially true if you’re trying to sing in the same key, and basically one of two things will happen:
- You’ll sing everything an octave lower or higher than the original melody or…
- You’ll have to strain to sing the notes that are outside your range.
Neither is ideal.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
You can always expand your vocal range or change the key of the song to fit your voice, but most beginners don’t know how to find the right key to fit their voice. And expanding your vocal range can take time. So at first, it’s good to pick songs that you know others of the same gender can sing.
2. Choose a song in your style
Let’s be honest: It’s really difficult to do a cover song in a totally new way. That’s why only a handful make the cut. Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, and “Hurt” by Johnny Cash are among the gems that really worked for the cover artists. But when you’re first starting out, it can be difficult to redo a great song in a totally different style.
So when you’re looking for songs that fit your voice, start by choosing songs that already fit your vocal style. Again, inspiration can come from anywhere. And all great singers listen to lots of different music, but if you’re a musical theatre singer, start by looking at songs that are already in that style.
Just this simple change will help you feel way more confident about the songs you pick. I promise you there are already a ton of songs in your style that will complement your voice!
3. Find your vocal range
There’s no getting around it: Vocal range is one of the most important factors in choosing songs for your voice.
If you found the last couple steps (matching gender and vocal style) to be really obvious, choosing songs that fit your range is a bit more technical.
What is vocal range? Vocal range is the measurement of the lowest note you can sing to the highest note you can sing.
C3–C5 is an example of a vocal range where a C in the third octave is the lowest note and a C in the fifth octave is the highest note.
Why is vocal range important? Well if you don’t know your vocal range, you may have no idea whether a song is possible to sing or not.
We’ve all been there: You start singing a song and everything feels fine and easy. Then, all of a sudden, the melody goes up an octave and you start straining like crazy.
Don’t make this mistake! Finding your range is really simple. Actually, I just released a totally free vocal “range finder” app on my website. Once you know your vocal range, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to pick songs for your voice!
[Go and try the app right now and find your vocal range. As a bonus, if you send me your range and gender, I’ll personally reply with a few songs that fit your voice. Just use the mail feature in the app to send your range to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
4. Find your tessitura
One thing that new vocalists don’t always understand is that no one wants to hear high notes if they’re super strainy! So while vocal range is the measure of your lowest to your highest note, it’s pretty likely that not all of those notes sound good.
Wouldn’t you love to know which notes in your voice will always sound good, no matter what the situation is? That’s where vocal tessitura comes in. Vocal tessitura is the comfortable range of notes in your voice that sound good.
FYI: Tessitura can also refer to the average notes or range of a piece of music, but for now, let’s stick with the definition of a “comfortable range in your voice.”
I like to think of tessitura as the place where the voice sounds and feels “happy.” You’ve probably experienced a situation where 95% of a song is easy and within your range, but then there’s a little section that’s just outside what’s comfortable. Those sections are outside your tessitura!
Now here’s the good news: You can expand your vocal range and tessitura. While it takes some practice and skill to hit high notes more easily, you can learn to do it over time.
But if you’re just starting out I would recommend finding your tessitura and using that as a guide for choosing songs.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to find your tessitura.
In live singing lessons, it’s pretty easy for me to tell with a student since I’m right there with my fingers on the piano keys. I can listen and tell which notes are in your comfort zone and which ones aren’t.
But if you’re just starting out, a good rule of thumb is to subtract a perfect 5th from the highest note in your vocal range to estimate your tessitura.
For example, if you test your vocal range and you find that your highest note is a G5, then it’s possible that a C5 would be on the high end of your tessitura.
To find learn more about your tessitura, you can also ask yourself some of these questions:
What are the highest and lowest notes you can sing comfortably? I’m talking about “tension-free” notes here. If you sing a note and you see veins popping out of the side of your neck, it’s not in your tessitura.
How long can you hold those notes without any strain? Sure, you may be able to sing a crazy high note for just a second, but what happens if you hold that note? If you can sing a note without strain for three seconds or more, it’s probably in your tessitura.
Can you sing those notes in a song (rather than just a one-off note)? Songs are the wild cards of the singing world. If you can sing a note in a vocal warm-up, but not in a song, then it’s probably not in your tessitura.
As you can see, all of these questions are trying to determine the range of comfortable notes in your voice because odds are, if your voice feels comfortable when you sing, it will also sound great. You’ll be amazed at how knowing your vocal tessitura can help you choose great songs for your singing!
5. Find the range of the song
Songs are way harder to sing than single notes or vocal exercises. When you’re doing singing warm ups or vocal exercises, the idea is to help your voice do something you couldn’t do before, but songs are the true test of a singer.
Why? Well, in songs, everything is constantly changing. The melody, the volume, the vowels and consonants are always in flux (not to mention the stamina and endurance that it takes to make it through a three-minute song)!
All these factors make songs way more difficult than just any single note or exercise.
Finding the right songs
So now that you know your vocal range and tessitura, it’s time to find the vocal range of the songs you want to sing. Then you can compare the vocal range of the song (the lowest and highest notes) with your tessitura (your comfortable singing range). If the range of the song is in your tessitura, then you’re good to go!
So how do you find the vocal range of a song?
Well, you could do it the hard way and plunk out the notes on the keyboard as you listen to the song. This can be great for ear training! An easier approach is to find the sheet music and scan it to look for the highest and lowest notes.
But to make things even easier, many sheet music sites will have the vocal range written right next to the song. Here’s an example of an Adele song from musicnotes.
You can see clearly that the vocal range of the song falls between E3 and E5. Now all you have to do to make sure the song is a good fit is compare the range of the song with your tessitura.
Let’s say that I have a range of Bb2 to G5 (pretty typical for a tenor), but my tessitura is C3 to C5. I probably wouldn’t want to pick a song like “Hurt” by Johnny Cash.
Why? Because many of the low notes are well below my comfortable low range, especially when we get to “the only thing that’s real”
So many of those low notes are uncomfortable for me and they just won’t sound good!
For another example, let’s say that you’re a female and have a range of G3 to G5 (pretty typical for a Mezzo Soprano), but your tessitura is A3 to C5. You might not want to pick “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey since the song has several notes that go above the C5 and stay there.
Make it a habit to look at the vocal range of a song and compare it to your own and you’ll be amazed at how much better you can pick songs for your voice!
Matt Ramsey founded Ramsey Voice Studio in Austin, TX in 2012. Matt is an Institute for Vocal Advancement-certified voice teacher, a songwriter, and a blogger. Matt has helped develop singers in nearly every genre of music, from rock to pop, jazz to musical theater, and offers lots of great videos on his Ramsey Voice Studio YouTube channel.
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