Music Theory for Singers: Free Guide for Beginners
Knowing your theory will make your life a whole lot easier as a singer, and will make working with others easier as well. There's nothing harder for a band than working with a singer that knows very little theory. But don't worry, in this article, you will learn the necessary theory for any singer to know.
A singer's knowledge of music theory should include different voice classifications and vocal ranges. You should be able to read the staff, including symbols, note names, rhythm, key signatures and time signatures. Scales and chords can also help, as well as solfege and intervals for sight-reading.
I have broken down this musical knowledge into seven key sections below. These are all concepts that you would cover in classical training, but I understand that some of you may just want to know the basics. So have a read!
1. Voice Classification and Range
The most basic musical theory that a singer should know is classifying their own voice. This allows you to give people a snapshot of what you can do with your voice.
As a singer, you are categorised into one of the six vocal ranges. These define how high and low you can naturally sing.
- Bass (E2-E4)
- Baritone (A2-A4)
- Tenor (C3-C5)
- Alto (F3-F5)
- Mezzo-soprano (A3-A5)
- Soprano (C4-C6)
The letters above indicate the highest and lowest note for each vocal range. The numbers describe which particular note/pitch we are talking about, but I will explain these numbers further down.
Although these voice types each have a defined range, they are still approximate and you may find you sit somewhere in between. For more information on vocal ranges and how to find yours, click here.
Regardless of your vocal range, all singers have the same four vocal registers. These are as follow.
- Vocal fry register
- Modal voice register
- Falsetto voice register
- Whistle register
The vocal fry and whistle registers are not usually used in singing, but still describe a particular type of voice production by the vocal cords. As a singer, you will sing mostly in the modal voice register (including chest and head voice) and the falsetto register.
You can learn more about vocal registers in this article, including the difference between chest voice, head voice and falsetto in both men and women.
Once you have identified your vocal range and the range at which you can sing in different vocal registers, you will know which songs you can sing and be able to identify yourself as a bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano or soprano singer.
2. Reading the Staff
The staff has many strange symbols that mean nothing until you know what they symbolise. Once you know, you will be able to understand exactly what the music is asking of you, which is exactly what the band behind you will be following.
Below is a brief overview, but I will explain in detail as we go along.
The whole image above is known as the 'staff' (or 'stave'). A staff has five lines and four spaces for notes to sit on, as well as all the other symbols that tell you how to play or sing the music.
The Clef is the first symbol on the staff. In vocal music, you will either come across a treble clef or a bass clef. Each line and space on the staff has a name, but this is slightly different for each clef. Notes on the treble clef are higher than the notes on the base clef.
The time signature of a song is shown as a fraction and tells you how many beats there are in each bar (I will explain bars further down). This is the top number. The bottom number tells you how long these beats are.
For example, the 4/4 time signature tells us that there are four beats in the bar (top number) and that each of these beats is a crotchet in length, which is a quarter-note (1/4). Four quarter notes is denoted as 4/4. You will learn more about note values further down.
As another example, 6/8 timing is has six beats in each bar, but the length of a quaver, which is an eighth-note (1/8). Six eighth-notes gives us a 6/8 fraction.
However, this does not mean that you have to use all crotchets in 4/4 time, or all quavers in 6/8. The overall bar just needs to equal the same time value. Below are a few examples of different combinations you could have in a 4/4 bar of music.
- Four crotchets (1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 + 1/4 = 4/4)
- Eight quavers (1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 = 8/8 or 4/4)
- Two crotchets and four quavers (1/4 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8), etc...
As you can see, music involves a little bit of maths too! There is a wide range of time signatures in music, but some of the common ones you should come across are:
- 4/4 (known as 'common time')
Key signatures tell you which notes are going to be used in the song. There are seven notes in the musical alphabet, but each of those notes has a sharp (♯) and flat (♭) version of the note. This gives us 21 different note names to choose from in a song, whereas each key signature contains only seven.
The key signature will be demonstrated after the time signature and before the first note of the song. There could be one or more sharp symbols (♯), one or more flat symbols (♭), or no sharps or flats at all. The number of sharps or flats determines the key. Keep in mind that there is no key with both sharps and flats.
There are also major keys and minor keys that share the same notes. The way the song uses the notes determines this. A song written in a major key will have a happy upbeat sound to it, while a minor key will have a sad mellow sound. Below are all the major key signatures and their relative minor keys.
Something you should keep an eye out for are key changes throughout the song. This key change will make the melody higher or lower (usually higher). For a performance, you may even need to change the key of the whole song so that the notes are more within your range.
Bars and Bar Lines
Bars on the staff are sections of music that contain a particular number of beats. This number of beats is determined by the time signature. For example, in 4/4 time, each bar will have four beats, each equal to a crotchet (quarter note) in value.
Each bar is separated by a single line, known as a 'bar line'. There are different types of bar lines to watch out for, as you can see below.
Tempo describes the speed of the song, defined in beats per minute. Therefore, a tempo of 120 will have 120 beats per minute. The tempo is directly affected by the time signature, which tells us what type of beat value is used.
In 4/4 timing, this would be 120 crotchet beats (quarter-beats) per minute, whereas in 6/8 timing, this would be 120 quaver beats (eighth-beats) per minute.
Dynamics describe the volume of different sections of the song. Below is a list of the different terms used for dynamics.
- pp ('pianissimo'): Very Quiet
- p ('piano'): Quiet
- mp ('mezzopiano'): Moderately Quiet
- mf ('mezzoforte'): Moderately Loud
- f ('forte'): Loud
- ff ('fortissimo'): Very Loud
There may also be what is known as a 'crescendo' (<) or 'decrescendo' (>). Crescendo means to get gradually louder, whereas a decrescendo means to get gradually softer.
These are annotated by the '<' and '>' symbols, which may be stretched across the music. Your voice should continually get louder or softer until the end of that symbol.
There are also many symbols that help you navigate through the song. Most of these symbols help shorted the sheet music so that identical sections do not need to be written multiple times, such as several verses or the chorus (which is sung several times).
Repeat symbols are indicated by two stacked dots, as seen in the picture below. The repeated section will start with these dots to the right of a bar line and end with the dots to the left of a bar line.
Everything between these two repeat symbols is repeated at least once (if more than once, you should see a symbol for a 1st and 2nd time bar (or more), which I will explain next. If the repeat symbol is on the left side of the bar line and there is no other repeat symbol, this means you should repeat from the beginning.
1st and 2nd Time Bars
1st and 2nd time bars are used in conjunction with repeat symbols. They tell you which bar to play the first time and which bar to play instead of that bar the second time (or 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.).
In the example below, the repeat after Bar 2 tells us to return to the start of the song. However, when singing the song for the 2nd time, you should sing Bar 3 instead of Bar 2. Therefore Bar 2 is only sung the first time.
To further clarify, this example would be sung in the following order: Bar 1, Bar 2, Bar 1, Bar 3. Like the repeat signs, this simply shortens the amount of music that is written out on the page.
There are a number of other signs and acronyms in music, which are taken from the Italian language. Below are some of the most common you should know as a singer.
- Dal Segno (D.S.) 'From the sign': Repeat the music from the segno.
- Da Capo (D.C.) 'From the beginning': Repeat the music from the beginning.
- Coda: The ending of the song.
- al coda 'to the coda': Sing to the coda.
- al fine 'to the end': Sing to the end of the music (usually if there is no coda).
As an example, you may see 'D.S. al Coda'. This means you should repeat the music from the sign and then continue to the coda after that.
3. Reading Notes
Now that you understand how to read all the common elements of the staff, you will need to understand notation.
The Musical Alphabet
The musical alphabet only contains seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Each of these letters represents a note or pitch. These letters are used over and over again as you sing higher or lower. Therefore, the note after G is A and the note before A is G. The pattern continues indefinitely (but we can only sing so high/low).
This is important to keep in mind when you are learning notation. As you sing higher, you will sing through these notes in order (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C...). As you sing lower, you the letter pattern goes backwards (G, F, E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E...).
In order to differentiate each note (such as one F from another F), we use numbers. 'Middle C', which is the middle of a piano and common to most vocal ranges, is known as 'C4'. Each C above that is 'C5', 'C6', etc.
Note that this number value increases/decreases at every C. Therefore, the B before 'C4' is 'B3', and the pattern continues from there.
Being able to read notation will allow you to work out the pitch and melody of any song. As I mentioned in the previous section, each note has a unique name that determines its pitch. The name of the note is determined by where it sits on the staff (which particular line or space).
Below are the names of the notes sitting on each line and space of the staff. You will notice that the treble clef is different to the bass clef. As musicians, we use funny little phrases to help remember these note names. You can make up your own if it helps.
As an example, if there was a note on the first space of the treble staff (from the bottom), this would be an 'F'. Similarly, if there was a note on the middle line of the bass staff, this would be a 'D'.
Another important detail to note is that moving up through each line and space on the staff follows the musical alphabet. The treble staff starts with 'E', followed by F, G, A, B, C, D, E and F. The bass staff follows the same pattern, but starting on 'G'.
Ledger lines are extra lines that have been added to the staff to account for all the notes higher and lower than what is on the staff. If you think about it, there are only five lines and four spaces on each staff (giving a total of 18 whole notes), but there are 88 notes on a keyboard!
The most common ledger line is 'Middle C'. This represents the C that sits in the middle of a keyboard. Middle C sits on the first ledger line below the treble clef and on the first ledger line above the bass clef. You can therefore imagine that this ledger line connects the treble and bass clef together.
Technically, there is no limit for how many ledger lines can be used in music. However, more and more ledger lines make it harder to read music, so most songwriters tend to keep them to a minimum.
When writing vocal lines, songwriters are also limited to the vocal range of their singers. An average soprano singer can sing up to C5. This is only two ledger lines above the treble clef. A bass singer generally can sing down to a B2, which is still within the bass staff (second line).
In saying that, most vocal types span across bass and treble clef. This means you will certainly come across ledger lines in most songs.
Sharps and Flats
Although there are only seven whole notes in music, there are also pitches in between these notes. These are known as 'accidentals'. These include sharp notes (♯) and flat notes (♭), which I mentioned earlier when talking about key signatures.
They are half a tone higher or lower than the whole note. For example, an 'F♯' is half a tone higher that an 'F', whereas an 'F♭' is half a tone lower than 'F'.
These in-between notes do not have their own dedicated placement on the staff, so the ♯ and ♭ symbols are used to the left of the note that is being raised or lowered. You can see this in the image above.
You may have also noticed the natural sign (♮). This is a symbol that 'cancels' a sharp or flat. If an accidental is used, it applies to all notes for the rest of that bar that are the same.
For example, if a ♯ is used on an E, every E after that will also be an E♯, until the end of the bar. Therefore, if the music requires a normal E, a natural sign (♮) can be used to cancel the sharp.
Stacked notes are notes that are on top of each other in music, which you can see in the image above. This just means that the notes that are stacked are played/sung at the same time.
In vocal music, this usually represents harmonies. Each singer sings one of the stacked notes, and together it forms a harmonic chord.
Rhythm provides timing for the songs that you sing. You, as a singer, need to know how long to hold each note, when to sing the next note and when to rest. This brings us to note values.
Each type of note, which I have demonstrated below, has it's own unique value in relation to beats. You should remember that the time signature of the song gives you the number of beats per bar and what value each of those beats holds.
Below is a chart outlining the common notes you will see in music, including what they look like on the stave (notation), their fraction value and how many beats each note holds.
The fraction value of these notes refers to their relative value in common time (4/4 time signature). In common time, four beats is a whole bar. Therefore, a semibreve, which is held for four beats, takes up a whole bar. This is why it has the name 'whole note'.
Similarly, each beat in common time is equal to one crotchet. Therefore all other note values are relative to this note. A semi-quaver, for example, is equal to 1/4 of a crotchet.
Every note value has an equal rest value. A rest is used to create a break in the music.Therefore, when you come across a rest in music, you should note sing anything for the value of that rest (unless you are improvising, such as oo's and ah's).
Dotted Notes and Rests
A note can also be lengthened by adding a dot to the right. This makes the note a 'dotted note'. The dot indicates that the note value is increased by 50% of its value. For example, a 'dotted crotchet' is not 1 beat, but 1.5 beats. Similarly, a 'dotted minim' is equal to 3 beats.
Other Rhythmic Elements
Here are a few other rhythmic elements that you may come across in music. Knowing these can help you understand exactly how to sing the melody correctly. Of course, everything is open to artistic interpretation if you're a soloist!
Staccato notes have a small dot above or below them. This dot tells you that that particular note needs to be short and sharp. One example of this is the start of Billie Eilish's 'Bad Guy'. Each note is cut of shorter than the full beat to give a 'punchy' effect to the vocals.
Legato (Slurred Notes)
Legato is represented by a curved line connecting two or more different notes. This is the opposite of staccato. The notes that are slurred are sung continuously. As a singer, these notes should be sung in the one breath (your voice should not stop between notes).
Tied notes are also represented by a curved line connecting two or more notes, but they must be the same note. Tied notes are used to increase how long you hold a note.
This is particularly useful if you need to hold a note longer than one bar. Because you cannot exceed the maximum beats in one bar, using a tie will allow the note to be held for longer.
Scales involve playing a series of notes in ascending or descending order, chosen from a particular key signature. For example, the C Major scale is taken from the key of C Major.
Scales are incredibly useful for a singer to know because we use them so often in warmups. As a singer, you should be able to pitch different types of scales. Learning your scales will also help you to pitch intervals.
I have written a dedicated article on scales for beginners here, so take a look if you want to learn more. This includes different warmups you can use. The main scales a singer should understand are the following.
- Major scales
- Minor scales
- Chromatic scales
6. Chords and Harmonies
Chords are a series of notes played at the same time. These notes are taken from the key signature or a particular scale and work together to create a unique sound.
The most common chord used is the triad, which you can see on the piano below. This involves three notes that are taken from the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a scale. This particular chord is the C Major chord because it has been taken from the C Major scale.
Chords are useful when learning harmonies (which I will discuss further down) and also if you want to accompany yourself on piano. I have written a dedicated article on learning to play basic piano chords here (including chord charts).
As a singer, it is best to learn all major and minor chords. Each chord is named after it's root note (1st note of the scale). For example, the chord 'A Major' is made up of A (root/1st), C# (3rd) and E (5th).
There is a fixed number of semitones (half steps) between each note in a major and minor chord. If you know this, you can work out any chord on a piano. Note that the 1st and 5th notes of the triad is the same for major and minor chords. It is only the 3rd note that is one semitone lower in a minor chord.
Harmonies are taken from these chords. You may have noticed that each song is made up of a series of chords. These chords are repeated throughout the song in different patterns. Whatever chord is played, the melody line and harmony lines will each sing a different note from that chord.
Therefore, learning chords will enable you to learn harmonies as well. You will find a more detailed look into beginner harmonies in this article, but as long as you choose a note from the chord, what you are singing will fit with the music.
You can find the chords of the song in the music (each chord is written above the staff), or you can source a chord chart. Chord charts are generally easier for singer's to read because they only contain the lyrics and chords.
There are many intervals in music. Every time you sing a song, you are singing these intervals. A musical interval describes the distance between two notes, which can be associated with a certain number of semitones.
For example, a 'perfect 5th' describes the distance of seven semitones. However, it is known as a perfect 5th because it is the same distance between the root note and the 5th note of a major scale.
You can listen to all the different intervals in my article on sight-reading. It is an essential skill for a singer who is sight-reading music, but can also be useful when trying to pitch notes in a song.
One system that is quite a useful tool is Solfege. You may not know this term, but Solfege is the use of the syllables 'Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do' (which you might recognise from The Sound of Music). Each of these syllables represents a note in the scale and can make it easier to remember intervals between the notes.
All of this information is the basics of what a singer should know about music theory. As a classical singer, there is so much more to learn. If you are interested in pursuing more music theory, you can consider purchasing a series of theory books. Below are a number of reputable companies you may be interested in: