How hard is it to learn to sing along with music?

This may sound like a stupid question, but humor me anyway. I don’t sing in front of people because I have a near-phobic fear that I suck really badly. That said, I love to sing. I sing in the car along with my mp3s and I sing at home when nobody else is here, etc.

But the catch is that I’m always singing along with another singer. I get all my cues from that singer’s voice. When I’ve listened to instrumental versions of songs I know, I recognize them, of course, but don’t always know where the singing part would come in. I mean sometimes I can tell, like for a really obvious chorus or something, but especially for the verses, and especially for songs where there isn’t an instrument playing the singing melody, I can’t automatically hear where to come in when singing.

I’d like to learn because I’d like to try to record myself singing along with an instrumental track (even if it’s just a guitar part–which I could probably get my mom to play and record and send to me) so that I can listen and improve my vocal abilities. Recording myself along with the singer’s voice doesn’t seem like it would have the same effect, with regards to hearing how I sound and making improvements.

So for all you singers out there, how does one learn the cues and so on for when to come in and such on an instrumental track? How hard is this to learn? How would I go about starting, especially if the instrumental track I have is something like a single guitar or a piano and not the fully instrumented track like in the recorded song? Is this the kind of thing where I’d need to be looking at sheet music?

Hm. Can you read music? Way back in the dim recesses of history I sang in my schools competition chorus, and prior to that I was in the general chorus, where we all learned to read music. If you read music then it is simple to see where your cue is otherwise I suppose it would be listening to music and learning to count measures to determine when your cue is.

[can you tell I don’t know how to do it without reading music? I have been reading music since 4th grade and I took up playing clarinet :(]

Sort of in the same vein as my ongoing “learn to accompany myself on the piano” thread! My experience was as someone who sang with the iPod plugged in my ears. Singing the in the church choir really helped me to develop a familiarity with singing. Doesn’t have to be in church–any choral group is great to follow the old saw of “strength in numbers.”

I wouldn’t have dived right into solo singing. Takes more nerves than I would ever dare have.

Re-reading your question…

Yes, the sheet music helps. But a recording helps too. If you can spot the chord changes that’s usually a good indicator where you should start singing. Doing a Karaoke recording with an instrumental track is, IMHO, harder than having a live accompanist with you, who can adjust and adapt to the changes in your rhythm and when you pick up certain notes. So you may be starting off with something, although less embarrassing if you have phobias, is ultimately more difficult!

I knew someone who was convinced she couldn’t sing in tune who hired a voice coach for a few private lessons, and swore that enabled her to sing along with anything.

Ahhhh, no. I can’t. But I might be able to follow along if I’m looking at sheet music and listening.

It would help a lot if you learned at least the basics of written music. Like learn about time signatures, keys, tempos, and the various notes and rests. Learning just this much wouldn’t take very long, and you’d be amazed how useful it would be.

Old musician joke:

Q: How do you know the person at your door is a singer?
A: You can open the door and welcome them, but they still don’t know when to come in.

Seriously, though, you’re not alone. There are plenty of fine singers out there who can’t do it. I remember a situation where I and some fellow musicians had to accompany a lady who had been singing solos in her church for years, and had a reputation for being a very good singer (and she did have a wonderful voice). But the thing was, she had always performed with pre-recorded backup tapes, never with live musicians. We’d play the music, but she simply could not come in at the right times. She ended up getting very frustrated, and then irate with us because we were obviously “playing it wrong”. Well, no we weren’t. We simply didn’t sound exactly the way her backup tapes sounded (different musicians + a different combination of instruments, i.e. our small combo did not include a full orchestra), and that left her utterly baffled. She was expecting specific cues that sounded a specific way, and it just wasn’t possible for us to perfectly reproduce the soundtrack she was accustomed to.

I think, though, that example might point to a good method of learning how to do it: sing/play with other people. The key point with the woman above is that she had always performed solo, with her backup tapes, and all it took to completely throw her off was the music simply sounding different. When you make music with other people, you eventually learn how to “feel” where to come in, instead of depending on specific aural cues. During the parts with no singing, like the intro or an instrumental section, count the bars in your head: 1-2-3-4 2-2-3-4 3-2-3-4 4-2-3-4, etc. You’ll start to discover patterns, and identifying those patterns can train you to anticipate where to come in so you’re ready for it. For example, music frequently moves in multiples of four bars. So get used to counting the number of bars in the intro before the singer comes in. Then when you try to sing it, count that number of bars and you’ll know that you come in on the next bar. After a while you won’t need to count any more, you’ll know it by “feel”.

BTW, it’s not just singers that have this trouble. Pianists are notorious for often having difficulty playing along with other musicians. It takes a different form, but the root is the same: the piano is predominantly played solo. A pianist is used to being able to interpret the music “at will”, changing tempos, inserting pauses, etc. as the mood strikes them, and when playing alone this works just fine. But many of them run into trouble when they try to play with a group, where all the musicians need to be synchronized.

Well that makes me feel less stupid, thanks.

The big thing this would help with is the counting thing that Mister Rik mentioned. Knowing the time signatures, measures, and notes would tell you ahead of time how often to count before you come in.

And if you are having someone play with you, they can really help. The most obvious thing they can do is play the melody to get you started. When I play with my sister, I often give her a couple notes of the melody on weird sounding chords. Another thing they can do is cover up for you if you mess up–it’s pretty easy as long as you are singing with only one accompanist.

Sis also finds those backing tracks you can get at music stores to be very helpful. They have the exact same music in different tracks, one with people singing and one without.

My final piece of advice is to try singing where people don’t care as much. You don’t go to church, if I remember correctly, so you may instead want to try a bar that has karoke, where people will often be too drunk to care if you mess up.

My suggestion would be to look at one of the home Karaoke systems (game console based like SingStar or PC based like Ultrastar). You get the backing track plus the visual cues on the screen, and a score to help you get your pitching/timing correct. The only issue is getting the songs you like.


That’s a good suggestion that I hadn’t thought of. We have an XBox 360… I would mainly be concerned about the game having songs I know on it. Any suggestions? I’ve got one: SingStar (is that available for XBox?)

Have you considered voice lessons? Even a few can help.

Lips (and subsequent releases) is one, Karaoke Revolution is another. I think both have additional songs available for purchase via XBox Live.


Yeah, I’d recommend a real live human being voice teacher or vocal coach. It’s too bad there aren’t any good music schools in the Boston area; oh, wait! :slight_smile:

The thing about spending money on a kaka-oke system is it can’t tell you what you’re doing right or what you’re doing wrong. Whereas a teacher or a coach has trained to do exactly that - get you singing with the accompanist. There are plenty of coaches in your area (eg. within 100 km of Boston.) who specialize in contemporary musical theatre - if you want, it would be the work of about an hour or less on Facebook for me to get a list of suggestions for you. Between $30. and $60. an hour vs some $300 machine…

I’d be too scared. My fear of someone hearing me sing is nearly phobic. Just thinking about it makes me sweat and my stomach start cramping up.

Yeah but even if I wasn’t too scared to sing in front of a coach, we really couldn’t afford a luxury like that. If we were going to pay for me to have lessons in anything, it would be ballroom dancing. Which we’re not, because we can’t afford it. :frowning:

I can’t help with the phobia (except to suggest that the best way to get past it is to just do it; it gets easier with experience. Easier said than done, I know), but as far as expense, one thing you can look for are students looking for teaching experience. You might even be able to get lessons for free; at my university, the vocal pedagogy students each have a couple of students that they teach free of charge for six weeks or so. As Ministre said, there are lots of schools with lots of music programs in the Boston area, so if you can get over the phobia hump, you might want to ask around with that in mind.

I’m almost 40 and haven’t broken the phobia yet. I mouth the words to “Happy Birthday” at birthday parties, even. Also, I’m 45 minutes to an hour away from Boston so it would be a rather big commitment even if I could afford it. Like I said, I don’t see going to a vocal coach as something that’s gonna happen in my lifetime. It would be like asking Guin to take snake handling lessons or something.

Sadly, I think you’re pretty right about this – it makes since, given that most pianists at tend to practice with a goal of sounding good while they’re alone and hitting the shed, so it’s easy to get into the habit of just playing how you normally practice when you’re in the shed, when that style isn’t appropriate. Or, worse, like someone alluded to in another recent thread, they’ll just muscle through an accompaniment without paying any attention, missing obvious cues, all that. I’d say it’s something everyone grows out of with experience, but even the genius of all time, Art Tatum, never quite hit his maximum heights while playing with even small combos.