Helpful Tips for Singers

Ok, so you didn’t take music theory in high school or college, and you didn’t grow up learning to play an instrument.  You can sing anything, but you feel awkward and ill-prepared when you get a gig where everyone else is a “real musician”. 

Don’t give up!  Here are some tips – some music theory “shortcuts” – that can help you get by without giving yourself away.  (Eventually, you really should take a class in music theory and learn to read music notation.  It can actually be FUN!  And, especially if you ever plan to sing any classical music, this will be imperative.)

7 Must-Have Music Theory Shortcuts for Singers

The key signature is indicated by the series of sharps and flats you see at the beginning of each line of music, just after the clef sign.  You can quickly figure out the key signatures using these little tricks:
1.       Know your range – the lowest and highest notes you can comfortably sing.  You can use this online virtual piano to hear pitches on the piano and find the notes on the musical staff so you will know the letter names of the notes and what they look like in sheet music.  That way, when you are glancing through songbooks or sheet music, you can avoid songs that are too low or too high for you. 
2. Know where your “money notes” are. Every singer has a few notes that fall in a “sweet spot” in their voice – notes that feel really good to sing and sound effortless but impressive to the listener.  Find these notes on the staff and look for them in songs that you want to sing. Ideally, you want to sing songs that build up to and hold your “money notes”.
3. Learn where your “break” is and find these notes on the staff. If you have mastered the transition into and out of your break, then you don’t have to worry as much about finding songs that avoid that area. However, most singers prefer not to dwell in their break, so if a song sits in this area for much of the time, you may either want to pick another song, or transpose (change the key) to move it slightly up or down, according to where you feel stronger. (Many online sheet music providers offer transposition for their sheet music, meaning you can purchase it in “your key”. Try,, and
4. Learn your key signatures. There is nothing more telling (and annoying) to musicians than a singer who has no idea in what key they sing a particular song. Don’t be that singer! The key is indicated by the series of sharps and flats you see at the beginning of each line of music, just after the clef sign. You can quickly figure out the key signatures using these little tricks: (For this, you need to know the letter names of the lines & spaces of either the treble or bass staff AND you need to know what a half-step or semi-tone is.)
For key signatures that use sharps (#), go to the last sharp to the right and count up a half-step (semi-tone), to reveal the (Major) key. If the song is in a minor key, count down 3 half-steps from the Major key. So, for instance, if the key signature has 4 sharps – from left to right, they are F#, C#, G#, D# - the Major key would be a half-step up from D# (E Major) and the minor key would be 3 half-steps down from E (C# minor).
For flat key signatures, go to the next-to-last flat, and that will name your Major key. For instance, if the key signature has 3 flats – B-flat, E-flat, A-flat – the song is in E-flat Major OR C minor (3 half-steps below E-flat).
5.  Learn basic note & rest values and rhythmic patterns.  Practice basic rhythms online for free at or join for more in depth exercises.
The only exceptions you must remember are the key signature that has only one flat (B-flat) is  F Major (or d minor), and, of course, the key signature with NO sharps or flats is C Major (or a minor).
6.  Learn the symbols that tell you where to go in the music.  This is imperative to avoid getting lost!  Here are the main musical "road signs" you should know:

1st & 2nd endings -


Segno – the sign (       ) – placed in music to mark a spot to return to

Dal segno (D.S.) – From the sign (       )

Coda – the final section of a piece of music – marked with

D.S. al Coda – Repeat to the sign (       ) and continue to the Coda sign (        ), then play the Coda

Fine – the end

7.  Other important symbols & terms to know:  (For these and many more terms & symbols, get Hal Leonard’s  Pocket Music Dictionary which  will fit in your pocket or purse.)

Repeat signs -

fermata (       ) – a symbol that tells the performer to hold longer than usual value – at performer’s discretion – for dramatic effect

legato – smooth & connected, flowing

staccato –                        -   a dot placed below or above a note to indicate it should be short & detached

accelerando (accel.) – speeding up

ritardando (ritard., rit.) – slowing down

rallentando (rall.) – broadening of the tempo, progressively slower

rubato – flexible in tempo, for expressive effect

colla voce – “with the voice” - instructs the instruments to follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo singer

crescendo (cresc.) –                                                                                        -  growing progressively louder

diminuendo (dim.) –                                                                                        -  gradually decreasing in volume (also called “decrescendo”, “decresc.”)

forte () – Strong (i.e. to be played or sung loudly)

fortissimo (ff ) – Very loud

piano (p ) – softly, gently

pianissimo (pp ) – very softly

mezzo forte (mf ) – moderately loudly

mezzo piano (mp ) – moderately softly

sforzando (sf or sfz ) – suddenly loud, strongly accented

sharp – a symbol () that raises the pitch of the note by a half-step

flat – a symbol () that lowers the pitch of the note by a half-step

natural – A symbol () that cancels the effect of a sharp or a flat

D.S. al Fine - From the sign (       ) to the end (i.e. return to a place in the music designated by the sign (       )  and continue to the end of the piece)
Sarah Sandvig, another great NATS voice teacher, has written an excellent series of workbooks called “Music Theory For Singers”
And Gerald White offers a great sight reading class for singers every quarter.  His classes are broken down into beginner, intermediate and advanced, and take place at the SAG/AFTRA offices on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.   For those who are not in L.A. or can’t come in person, Gerald’s theory & sight-singing courses can also be taken online.