I am a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter. Singing for me has been a long road but recently I found out something very interesting.

I have a certain song that I am very fond of but I have struggled to make a recording that I am satisfied with. Basically it always sound a bit flat at certain points. I've tried bringing it down a tone (a bit of a pain as it has a guitar part that more or less needs open strings, so I tuned down to D) but really it wasn't much better.

I've done quite a bit of work on my voice and I know that I am not always flat, and the reason for this really eluded me. This week I had a bit of an epiphany.

I bought the whole thing UP a semitone, and voila! it sounds much better I think.

I worked on this with my singing teacher and we figured out in the end that it seemed to be about the vowel sounds that come out on certain notes that sit right in the middle of my vocal break. There are certain notes that have open vowels "ah" or "oh" in a descending line. By doing a lot of practice on vowel sounds through the break I found that those notes need to be a bit more in "head" voice but the ones before them more in "chest" (even though they are higher). It's really not comfortable to do that in the middle of a line that goes down, and the result is that the lower notes tend to come out a bit flat.

This really explains a lot to me. It also explains to me why the key is of such importance to a singer.

Can a singer eventually hope to attain true "12 key" technique as most instrumentalists can (of course some keys will always be a bit easier, but a competent musician could play a simple melody perfectly well in any key), or will this kind of thing always be a concern for a singer?

  • Given that a lot of instruments have a range of more than three octaves (guitars, trumpets, clarinets all more than that), but singers might have a comfortable range of less than three octaves, and songs generally don't have much more than an octave and a half, then yes, it should be possible to 'sing in all twelve keys'.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 7:46
  • the range doesn't really have much bearing on this. The point is really about why transposing a certain phrase (and the words have a strong effect) can be a big deal for singers - something that it is often hard to explain to instrumentalists ... :-)
    – danmcb
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 8:32
  • Totally agree. Always had problems singing certain words or sounds at the limit of my range, but not looked into the problem 'scientifically'. There are some songs I can't/ won't sing the harmony for as they're just on that edge. And it's particular words on particular notes rather than the actual notes with other words, as you say. So unless the co-singers change the key, that's how it is.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 8:58
  • try singing through the vowels ( ee - eh - ah - oh - ooh ) on each semitone, especially through the break, and after a bit you start to realise what is going on. It's a kind of non-linear problem unlike other instruments.
    – danmcb
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 10:57
  • What dmb said sounds like good advice. A good singer will know how to cross all the break-points in their voice.
    – PeterJ
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 11:04

2 Answers 2


The keyword you are looking for is "vowel modification". It is most important to soprano singers since their upper range has the most serious conflicts of the fundamental pitch with the individual vowel formants and so vowels need to be colored for a clear pitch and vowel combination, as far as possible. While vowel modification is most important for soprano, other voice types may need a bit of adaption in certain ranges as well.

  • It's like you say! And that's why every singer and every choir leader in the warming ups for all voices are practicing a simple melody as i.e. sofamiredo on all vowels, starting by u, o, a, e, i and other exercises. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 20:27
  • Do you mean that the sounds are made to come out differently? Examples, please.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 13:32
  • yes, I came across this topic in my research. However I didn't really find a clear description of how to modify the vowels - perhaps that is something only discovered through practice. This is a pretty good explanation : singwise.com/cgi-bin/…
    – danmcb
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 14:48

Can a singer eventually hope to attain true "12 key" technique as most instrumentalists can (of course some keys will always be a bit easier...)

I don't think this is the question of the keys but of the pitch and the range of your voice.

You'll have to train the vowels in all pitches and ranges (what you mean by "keys" and have to find out the best resonances with your teacher.

There are lots of exercises that you can find in books, in the net and together with your voice trainer.

Yes, you can hope.


The most simple exercise I used with choirs and singing classes:

singing the whole major scale down (or from the fifth to the root) always going a halftone up on the vowels: U (oo), O (oh), A (ah) than uo,

  1. u
  2. o
  3. a
  4. uo
  5. uoa
  6. i
  7. ie
  8. iea

also adding a consonant at the beginning like m, n, v, ng, will help to find and keep the best resonances.

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