Basics of Singing 4: The Rules of Good Singing

In Lesson 1, posture and breathing technique were addressed. They are the foundation of good singing. However, good posture and proper breathing do not a good singer make. There are rules to good singing, which if followed, will allow the singer to produce the best sound of which he or she is capable. These rules apply to any style or genre of music, and can be modified slightly depending on the song. The rules are, in no particular order: 1. The rule of punctuation; 2. The rule of the steady beat; 3. The rule of syllabic stress; 4. The rule of dynamic phrasing; and 5. The rule of text emphasis.

The rule of punctuation is simple. In the text of the song, if there is a punctuation mark, breathe or pause there. In written music, punctuation marks, such as a comma or period, are prominent throughout the music. When preparing a piece from a recording, research the sheet music to find the punctuation. Unfortunately, most websites that offer the lyrics to the song do not include the punctuation. Sheet music previews show the punctuation without buying the music. If the punctuation cannot be found, but the lyrics exist online, read the text aloud and find the natural pauses. The standard form of lyrics online is in poem form:


The water is wide

I cannot cross over

But neither have I

Wings to fly


The tendency is to breath after every line of text, which may be correct, but also may be too many breaths. Consider the Star Spangled Banner and how most people sing it:


Oh say, can you see (breath) by the dawn’s early light (breath) what so proudly we hailed (breath) at the twilight’s last gleaming? (Breath)


If I remove the breaths, the text appears as one thought:


Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?


Try speaking the first version with pauses for the breaths. You may notice you sound like a popular TV character from a sci-fi series from the 1960’s (To go where no man has gone before).  In general, singing a phrase with intended punctuation as either breaths or pauses will be enough places to breathe.

The rule of the steady beat deals with taking musical phrases and making them interesting. Whatever the steady beat is (most popular songs have 4 beats a measure, so there are 4 steady beats a measure), if there is a note longer than the steady beat, go somewhere dynamically. An example using the Star Spangled Banner would be this:


Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?


The song is in 3/4, meaning there are 3 beats in a measure, with the quarter note getting the beat. The notes longer than a steady beat are in bold. For each of the bolded parts, the note must either get louder or softer, depending on where it lies in the musical phrase. Look and listen to the musical example The Water is Wide in Vocal Assessment 1 module. The first verse demonstrates the typical musical arc:


Oh the water is wide I cannot cross o’er,

And neither have I wings to fly.

But give me a boat that can carry two,

And both shall row, my love and I.


The first bolded word of each line gets louder (crescendo), and the second bolded word gets softer (decrescendo). If the words on notes longer than a steady beat do not get louder or softer, the musical phrase is boring.

The rule of syllabic stress involves singing words with the same stresses as one would speak them. If a word is spoken with the wrong syllabic emphasis, it may not be heard as that word. If I speak the wrong em PHA sis on the wrong sy LLA ble, it sounds like a foreign language. The correct EM pha sis on the correct SY lla ble communicates the right ideas. Singing words is no different. Many singers will sing notes that are higher in pitch louder, and lower in pitch softer. Occasionally this does not fit the rule of syllabic stress, which causes confusion in understanding by the listener.

The rule of dynamic phrasing utilizes the rule of the steady beat in the greater picture of the music. Singers sometimes will simply sing phrases loud or soft, without any thought of where the phrase goes. Most phrases begin soft, get louder, and end softer. This increases the level of interest for both the singer and the listener. Essentially, always think of singing as a journey, not a destination. Singing notes, rhythms, and words without consideration of where they musical phrase is going is a series of destinations without levels of importance. An example would be to sing all notes the same way, which does not give interpretation of the meaning of the song. If there is growth and dissipation through the musical phrase, it mirrors speaking the words without music. The use of musical line, or journey, adds another level of meaning to the words above mere speaking.

The rule of text emphasis is deciding which word in the musical phrase is the most important, and then growing dynamically to the word and getting softer after the word is sung. The singer must determine which word is most important in each phrase, and sometimes that is a difficult process. Consider this phrase of words:

Any way you look at it

Speak the phrase six times, each time altering which word is most important (speak that word the loudest). You will notice the phrase changes meaning slightly depending which word is emphasized. Going back to the first line of the musical example The Water is Wide:


Oh the water is wide I cannot cross o’er


Speak this phrase, changing emphases on the words. Incidentally, words such as “the” rarely are emphasized. You might notice the phrase feels different if “I” is emphasized versus “cannot.” Using this rule musically, grow the phrase to the emphasized word, and sing softer after the emphasized word. Speaking each phrase out loud and experimenting with text emphasis will give the singer greater ideas for musical interpretation.

Practicing music utilizing these rules alone will give the singer tools to communicate any song with greater musicality and interpretation. However, practice make permanent (not perfect). If a song is practiced one way repeatedly, it takes at least four times as long to unlearn “bad habits” and sing musically. I would suggest trying these techniques both with a familiar song, but also a new song. We will use The Water is Wide as one example of a new song.

Supplemental Videos

Assignment on Videos

After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.

Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.

1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?

2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?

3. Watch the two videos in “Other Videos” named The Water is Wide and The Water is Wide Something is Wrong. What rules were followed in the first video? What rules were broken in the second video?

4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.

5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?