How to scale new heights

If you’re a singer, there’s a big chance you’ve heard and/or practised a scale or two in your time. A random word spoken/shouted/sung along with a colourful succession of notes, over and over, and over and over, and over and over, again. Just in case clarity is needed for the last sentence: scales get repeated, a lot.

But why do singing teachers love them so much especially when it seems like most singers aren’t (how do we put this) overly-excited about doing them? Well, it mostly comes down to the fact we know just how much a voice can change (for the better, with good guidance) after a hardcore vocal workout regime has been nailed.

Put it this way, to have the capacity to be as expressive as humanly possible, a pianist needs to learn where to put his fingers. And then do it really fast whilst pressing pedals with his feet. FYI, if you’re after piano lessons, don’t come to us. All joking aside, a pianist knows the fundamental skills needed to play well.

In principle, a singer’s instrument works in the same way, except that instead of controlling the keys with our fingers, we have to control our vocal tract, vocal cords and air flow all at the same time. And, instead of pressing pedals with our feet, we have to tap our foot or do a little dance… depending on your vibe. We digress.

The point is the same level of execution needs to be applied to voice training as it does in any other activity you look to master. And if we consider that the voice isn’t fixed like the keys of a piano, it stands to reason that we need to ingrain the optimal vocal tract, vocal fold and air flow combinations time and time again so that the body remembers that that’s where the good stuff lies.

Friends of singers may sometimes refer to the “stuff that singers do” as “all that do, re, mi, fa, so’ nonsense” but there really is a bit more to it than that. Let’s take a look.

Technical scales 

Scales can actually help with lots of stuff, starting with technique and vocal balance. For example, long scales (like a one and a half octave scale) are a great way to get a “run up” to the high notes. They’re also a great way to continually experience going over the passaggio (or “the break” to some) and back down again. This is a key part of getting used to the sensations of the passaggio, getting above the straining point with the top note of the scale, encouraging a movement to the “next place” or even the dreaded “falsetto”, and eventually developing the vocal flexibility to build strength into the upper range. A two octave scale would take these concepts even further and work on even more flexibility.

Short scales are great for localising the work. For example, if you’re a female with, let’s face it, probably a classical background and a very light and breathy low range, short scales are probably for you. There’s little point drilling two octave scales up to C6 when the problem is the “chest voice” configuration of the vocal folds. Going too high, too often was probably the reason for this lack of register, so choosing a five tone major scale (from the root, through each interval to the 5th, and back down again) is not going to take them too high. Once that register is working better you can use the longer scale strategy to build a connection to the rest of the range.

In terms of direction, scales that start deeper in the range and move upwards have the added benefit of being much more likely to start with a neutral, or occasionally lowered, larynx position – if that’s your goal of course, which often it is for those working on less external muscle tension. The downside to the bottom up scales is that they start deep in the muscular configuration of “chest voice”, where the vocal fold body is contracted muscle. This can be a pain for the common ones who tend to not allow their vocal folds to stretch well for higher pitches and drag “chest” up with them, like a yell.

On the contrary, top down scales have the advantage of coming from above the passaggio (if you choose the note correctly) and ideally higher than the singer can yell up to. Unlike the bottom up stuff, top down scales start with the vocal folds more stretched out. Brilliant if you’re trying to develop range and the feelings of the upper registers, but without the danger of dragging up the contracted setting of “chest”, with an eventual crack. On the flip side (#streetcred), scales that come from the top down can sometimes encourage singers who are a bit “scaredy” of the high notes to raise their larynx and tighten up in anxiousness at being up there. Believing you’re going to be okay can be the quick cure for this, but some singers find tightening up genuinely uncontrollable in the beginning and need to start lower.

On a positive note…

Let’s say that you’re actually fairly decent at walking through your range with good consistency and little or no “break”. You can then use scales to reinforce your technique, or of course challenge yourself. Scales with small intervals between each note, like a five tone major scale, can be a challenge – especially when walking through the passaggio with each scale repetition, semitone by semitone, from underneath. For clarity, the intervals between the notes in this scale are either a whole tone or a half tone. If you used to be a yelly singer then you may well accidentally be that person again on short interval scales, so it’ll test your new abilities in the break area. On the other hand, if you happened to be a softer singer and want to intensify, small intervals might help you to bring some of that fullness of chest into the passaggio and strengthen it. The 1.5 octave scale has intervals of two tones, a tone and a half, and two and half tones. These bigger gaps encourage more change in the vocal fold stretching, and encourage changing of registers, which are useful for the reasons mentioned earlier.

Beyond that, scales that repeat a single note or sustain a single note are amazing for drilling a particular part of the range. They’re also great for developing one note in readiness to sing a banger. Octave repeated scales, with a sustain and vibrato, are a great choice and help you work on the airflow, vocal fold, and vowel control needed for balancing on high pitches continuously especially if you place them right in your passaggio. But, the downside is, it’s hard. Or is that an upside? Our glass is half full.

The case for sirens

In terms of technique, scales – especially the long ones – can have a downside. Some singers get in the habit of choosing when they change register, or passaggio, as they do a scale, and usually on the same note on the way up and down. Scales consist of separate notes (we’re hoping that’s “obvs”), which is why they can sometimes play into this naughty habit. This self-selected register change creates a slightly more audible change in tone in the middle of the range, which is something we don’t want when we’re building our range and power. For cracking vocal prowess, the ideal approach is to use good vocal control to create consistency across the range almost like a one voice feeling bottom to top. Many singers are actually unknowingly able to do this but still segment their voice in their minds, and as a result this can be heard when they perform scales. But we’ve something up our sleeves…. sirens. Whether it’s a siren (or some people prefer the word “glide”) across a major third, a fifth, an octave, or across your whole range, this approach forces you into creating consistency.

Purely because there’s no note separation in the scale, and hence no point you can sneak in a little “switch” without being rumbled. Even if you’re not one of the sneaky ones, short sirens through the break are another brilliant voice builder and go even further to erasing the vocal break and achieving the “one voice” nirvana.

There are some great apps out there with lots of technical scales on them. Some free, some paid. Using this advice, you could build yourself a routine and not spend time doing the scales you don’t need to do. Winner.

Musical scales

That was a little about the technique of scales, which is why most singers begin singing them in the first place. However, using scales to turn you into a musical master is another valid reason to start using them. Most diploma or degree level vocalists on a regular UK course are training the modes of the major scale to build their melody writing, riffing and improvisation skills. We’re talking mixolydian, natural minor, phrygian… things like that. Having a good technique obviously helps with singing these scales as they have small intervals and will probably go through the passaggio. Pentatonic scales are another great start for creating the majority of riffs and runs. You could structure these musical scales *big word alert* sequentially from root to root, or 2nd to 2nd, and so on. You could then mix the intervals up, like Robin Thicke singing “maybe I’m out of my mind” in Blurred Lines. This is a great, and common, use of a mixed minor scale descending from the 5th of the key. Steal it, and do it in a variety of keys.

You could sing these scales on a single vowel like EE, or you could sing the interval numbers as you hit them to build your orientation of the key. For great riffing ability you could work to singing them quicker and quicker, but don’t rush with this. Only go as fast as you can whilst keeping clear definition between the pitches. Go too fast too soon and it’ll be a muddy mess with no discernible pitches. Anyway, you get it. The possibilities are endless, and the resources online are too.


There are some great coaches out there who like to combine their technical scales and warm ups with musical scales to kill two birds… Please tell me I don’t need to finish the analogy. Using popular and recognisable melodies as well thought out tools is a brilliant way of bridging the gap between scales and the actual act of singing. We’ve all been that singer… the one who does a million scales and very few songs. There’s good research to show that you get better by actually doing the act for what you’re training for, and scales aren’t necessarily the “act”. We’ve also been the one who only sings songs and shirks on scales, which doesn’t have as much value for less experienced singers with vocal shortcomings to work on. If you fall into either of these categories you are not working optimally. If we take this into account, spending time looking for scales that can straddle both the scale and the song is a worthwhile inclusion to the vocal workout for everyone. Try singing the intro riff to Ascension: Don’t Ever Wonder by Maxwell.

Maxwell – Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)

It’s a 15 second falsetto major scale riff, in C, that needs some decent breath, vowel and vibrato control. You could slow the tempo, and/or key change to Db and further to make it effectively a scale. You’re simultaneously building a vocal register, musical ability, and lung capacity. In other words, you’re a legend.

How much vocal exercising should I do?

How long is a piece of string? In all seriousness, there are so many variables that come into play when it comes to answering this question. What do you want to achieve with your voice? What else do you do with your days? How good are you at keeping habits?

This is why the standard of “twice a day for 20 minutes” is seen as an excellent benchmark for vocal training. The sessions are long enough to instil some changes, but short enough to achieve consistency over the long term. It’s better to have a manageable approach over the long term, rather than killing it once and not having the time to repeat once the novelty has worn off.

On that point, when approaching your vocal workout regime, it really is worth analysing how easy it is for you to do your training and to prepare to make lifestyle changes, if necessary.

Remember that, if you’re doing it right, you will be making a lot of noise during your workout. This is often the biggest workout killer, disguised as the excuse: “my housemates are always downstairs”. It may sound obvious, but that’s where they will be if that’s where they live. You, however, do have the ability to leave the house. If it means coming home at lunch when no one is around, taking a walk around some local fields, or, as a last resort, sitting in your car for 20 minutes… in the words of the late, great, Michael Jackson “make that change”.

Final note

In the past, we’ve heard many singers say that they have been trying to make their song better by “practising” the song, which seems logical. But, in most cases, this translates to singing the same song in a very similar way to the previous time. But only, this time, with the thought of “I want that high note to sound better”. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who once defined insanity as: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Now, don’t get us wrong, thoughts are very powerful and mental rehearsal is a recognised method of training. It’s just that there comes a time when addressing the source of the problem is the best course of action. And, in this instance, that means changing the way the instrument works. Set up your regular vocal training regime today, and experience just how much your voice responds when it’s been given its orders.

Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.