This is not going to be an academic discussion on music theory.
To those who never understood all the weird letters and ###’s in music papers and just dive into the mixes straight, I’m that guy.
Of course, most times they don’t turn out well. I used to be almost afraid of singing cos I felt I didn’t have the “right vocal cords” for singing.
I never saw myself in those prim and proper music classes that had correct theories, but I’ve also had some notion of “grading” singing based on popular vote.
I heard singers with perfect pitch songs that never got perfect scores. I would swoon as songs only for someone to say “there was no feeling” or “I didn’t like his/ her voice”…
Something was missing.
Why can some people get standing O’s even if their pitching and tone was slightly off, while others who sing rigorously correct, hitting all the right notes, but still not resonate with an audience?
Obviously there’s something wrong with scoring system.
First off, I’m no singing hotshot — just a regular guy, likes to sing at KTVs. I’ve sang for some charity concerts, happy to get some applause, nothing too fancy.
But there was something about the way I was learning singing that no one talks about, so I did an experiment during new singing lessons.
A First Principle System for Singing
I study lots of math, systems and code. One fundamental tenet was that for every output, there has to be a process, or formula to get from point A to point B.
In singing, my output was to sing songs well and get people to resonate with my message. But I wasn’t so sure about the ingredients.
Was it sharp listening? Naturally good vocal cords (if that even means anything) or was it just luck that some people can just sing so well without much practice.
So I decided to break things down and make singing really simple. Not the “just open your mouth and talk” way, but from it’s different components that makes it’s whole. As Albert Einstein said:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
And I chanced upon what we now call first principles from Elon Musk:
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
And it would go like this:
- Identify your goal
- Identify the system where the goal occurs, and locate the event
- Create a boundary surrounding the event
- Identify what are the elements of the event
- Observe the traits of the elements
- Observe the relationship between elements
- Understand the dynamics of the entire system
- Identify which levers increase the most results
For example, if I wanted to be a better soccer player, I would define my goal as to be able to produce more passes, through balls and goals in 1 game.
Then, I’ll break down a soccer game into it’s elements: teammates, opponents, referee, field…
And the relationships between the elements: tactics, weather, injury, chemistry, individual form…you get the idea.
By breaking down the components into this modular form, I could quickly locate my weakest areas and deal with them, whether it’s to avoid stronger players or to pass the ball to the right player.
This model helped my game so much.
This way of thinking of breaking down things into their parts, was a vital cog in reverse engineering, modelling and making complex subjects simpler to grasp.
Treating my body as a singing system
My singing goal was to improve singing to a point I could sing a song relaxed, focusing on expressing emotion rather than harping on technique.
So there’s the part you learn externally — what teacher says, online tutorials, youtube on body sensations and notes.
And there’s the output-what people hear.
However, nobody talks about the internal process.
How should we integrate information into what we already know?
How do I know when to follow the original and when not to?
I tried to feel my way around the boundary of singing, and at the beginning it was cloudy. My teacher would make me sing various notes in different pitches and patterns, week after week, with little changes.
I know some people would find it boring to repeat the same patterns, but I loved it as I loved focusing on mastering the fundamentals.
What’s the boundary of a song? A piece of music with a voice.
What’re the elements of a song? A combination of music scales, words and instruments.
However, 2 songs can have those 3 elements, yet one can still top billboards, while the other never make it out to 100 people.
There was something important about the relationships between the 3 that drastically affected the singing output.
So it was not just how good the quality of the individual components are. You can have awesome music but a poor voice, or low-quality instruments. Even the best vocalist can’t produce if he is tone deaf.
So there must be more — it was the synchronisation between the 3 that made the difference. Knowing this helped me understand the role of the singer is to master his component of the 3 — singing, and make sure his singing flows with the other 2 parts.
So down to singing, what are the elements needed for singing? Air, ears, lips, vocal cords, airways, muscles, body parts (nose, chest, diaphragm). All these are the main body components that affected the output.
Singing well meant the right parts were used at the right time, and in accordance with the other 2 components.
The interaction between these elements of singing then became obvious. Things like breathing — the relationship between the airways and vocal cords.
Things like volume of air you could contain in your diaphragm.
These were gradual first principles needed to achieve the goal, which was to sing the right note at the right time, using the right combination of the body parts.
Then came the challenging part — to master the contracting/ relaxing of different muscles and body parts at each individual time just to make sure the air flows through the cords in a way that hit the right sound of the word.
And some of these factors affected the output of the system.
Over use of certain muscles created fatigue that reduced diaphragm support.
Breathing in too little air causes a lack of “fuel” to sing certain words well.
Varying these inputs would drastically influence the output.
And this were things I gradually developed lesson after lesson. Some lessons I was solely focused on 1 particular element, or relationship.
Other times I was concerned about synthesising 2 elements and enhancing the relationship between them, like puffing out the diaphragm and rising my back muscles when hitting high notes.
After being able to break down singing into specific parts, I could engineer the particular areas I was weak in and double down on the “limiting factor” of the system, which could be the volume of breath, range of vocal cord, support level of diaphragm, catching of the pitch.
At the efficient level of all these systems created by practice and intuition, I could run the singing component of a song through my system in accordance with my system that generated an output for 3–4 mins.
First Principles Conclusion
A song is composed of 3 parts: music, scales, and a voice, without any of the 3 won’t be called a song. A singer’s job is to optimise his system (body) for singing that contains elements like body parts (ears) , muscles, and feelings for the song.
Within these elements there are sub-elements and the different relationship between the elements that affect the total quality of the output.
For example, the inflow of air affects the muscles of the diaphragm, which in turn affects how much it can expand in relation to the particular word (voice) at that instant.
Knowing these relationships helped me find bottlenecks that I could quickly identify and improve on, until the next bottleneck crops up.
This structured process has helped me learn much faster and quicker, and I’m excited to see where this can take you!