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Choosing the right song to learn with: 3 tips on choosing repertoire

eeny, meeny, minie, moe...

Choosing repertoire (a fancy term for a collection of songs) is an area that most students and parents assume to be an easy "no-brainer" part of singing.

"I can just choose something I like, right?" #notquite.
"Can I choose something from an artist I aspire to be like?" #yesandno
"I only want to sing Beyonce?" #ermmmm

So how do we choose the right song? The correct answer is: "It depends..."

Let's look at why we choose songs anyway (these are obvious):

  1. Because we enjoy songs and artists (no harm in that!)

  2. Because we emotionally connect with certain songs. We love the lyrics, the melody, the harmony or the instrumentation/production.

  3. Because songs make us feel good, sad, or move us.

From a learning perspective, songs have a dual purpose:

  1. To consolidate the building blocks of singing and music. For example, a standard 5 note major scale is a preliminary step towards hearing and replicating similar major melodic patterns within a more complex song.

  2. To practice vocal techniques and musical concepts in context.

  3. To develop confidence but also - and more importantly so - to avoid losing faith in your vocal development! Choose a song that is far too big for your current vocal capability - or worse, choose a song that is wrong for your vocal range and style, and it has the potential to unravel your confidence instead of building it up.

  4. And of course - to achieve a complete song and feel great about it.

Choose a song that is wrong for your vocal range and style, and it has the potential to unravel your confidence instead of building it up.

To help you choose the right song, consider the following 3 pointers:

1. Note span

Think wing-span, except with musical notes! A song's note span often determines a song's complexity and difficulty.

Songs with shorter note spans are usually easier to grasp for beginners (think choreography with only 2-3 repetitive steps VS. a full-blown So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance routine); Songs with a greater note span - where there is plenty of distance between notes and a higher number of notes - are trickier to achieve until a singer's skill level has developed further.

Here is an example of a song with an easy-going, shorter note span. Have a listen and you will hear that most of its beautiful and simple melody is built on the repetition of only 3-5 notes.

"Bubbly" by Colbie Caillat

The following Carpenters classic is an example of a song with a more extensive note span suited for experienced beginners and intermediate singers. You will hear in comparison that this beautiful tune contains several more notes and there is a span of distance between each note sung (overall, the song almost an octave and a half). There is plenty of movement - upward, downward, and so on.

"(They Long To Be) Close To You" by The Carpenters

Up next...a song with an epic note span. Mariah Carey & Brian McKnight's "Whenever You Call" starts easy - the first few lines span between 3-5 notes, and from there it builds to span over an octave and a half before the start of the chorus. Even before the song gains traction, it has already covered the same ground as our two previous examples. As the song progresses (skip to around 2:30-3:00mins), it begins to show the true scope of the song. Have a listen!

"Whenever You Call" - Mariah Carey & Brian McKnight

Hopefully if you've read this far, you can appreciate that choosing the third example as your first song will likely end up with some level of confusion and frustration. Navigating complex notes and musical patterns without nailing the basics first is a little like trying to cut a tree down with scissors...or a blunt butter get my drift!

It is way more effective in the long run to learn your way around simpler songs firs. This also builds confidence and avoids frustration.

You wouldn't drive on a highway without learning how to drive in a carpark first, then the backstreets, so to speak! Ok, ok, enough with the clever analogies...

2. Song speed

Like a song's note span, choosing a song paced at the appropriate speed is also helpful. Using my previous example of choreography, when learning steps for the first time, it is easier to learn easy-going, and slow paced songs first until your technique develops. Speed in this context refers to the following:

Tempo - How fast a song is. If it sounds and feel fast, then it likely has a high tempo. This is a little different to time/time signature. For simplicity, Tempo simply refers to the general speed of a song.

Rhythm - How quick a song's notes - or syllables/words - are held for. Some notes are held for a short while; others for a little longer!

A song with a slow-mid tempo speed and a reasonable rhythm (with consistent note lengths and phrasing - much like can be heard in "Bubbly" and "Close To You") will suit beginners and intermediate singers, but also singers learning additional technique.

"Whenever You Call", though it sounds slow in tempo, is in fact quite rhythmic, with every phrase requiring quick note changes. This is what makes it incredibly complex and complicated to sing - there are a lot of notes to work through in a short period of time.

3. Vocal range & song key

While note span and vocal range may seem like the same thing, they are different. A song's note span relates to the song; a song's vocal range relates to the singer.

A song's vocal range should ideally belong within the singer's capable range. At our studio, we often refer to this as the sweet zone of a singer's voice - the part of a singer's entire vocal range where the singer feels capable, confident and sound the most expressive.

Most people think that an extensive range = a lovely singing voice. Gosh, no. An extensive range is really extensive range. It's a tool and a great one to have however what counts is how it is used and for most singers, even those with an extensive range, there is a certain range in which they consistently sound at ease, in control, emotionally expressive, vocally colourful and enjoy singing in.

Songs should ideally fit within the sweet zone of a singer's current capability, and build from there. Where required, the song should be placed in a key appropriate to the singer's voice. This helps to avoid straining the voice (which isn't great for vocal health and for developing young voices), or making the voice do what it isn't yet ready for. Be patient and allow time for this - after all, we're dealing with a human muscle!

I hope this resource has been helpful to your understanding of repertoire choice and of course, if confused, chat to one of our teachers or do feel free to e-mail me!

Happy singing!

Veronica Stewart

Recommended Further Reading:


New to singing and all of this feels like mumbo jumbo? Join our studio! Concepts of singing are incredibly easy to grasp once you do them with a qualified teacher/coach - not just read about them or in watching YouTube vids! Having someone catch and support your development is incredibly helpful.

Contact our studio on (02) 8004 5102 or 0411 506 204 to have a chat and to book an initial lesson in! We would love to hear from you.

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Jul 27, 2019

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