Few singers claim the title of “Diva” like Mariah Carey.
Possessing a vocal range wider than any present recording artist, and capable of amazingly technical melismas, it’s no wonder so many would-be divas look up to her.
But you may think:
Are such diva-quality vocals only possible for someone born with amazing pipes?
Is it possible to sound like Mariah Carey when you’re not, well… Mariah Carey?
Mariah Carey may have started singing lessons at the age of four, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for you.
In fact, that’s good news! It means that a lot of Mariah’s awesomeness comes from the fact that she’s spent a lot of time getting to know her voice and honing her technical craft.
And that means that if you do the same, you have a good chance of finding your own diva-like voice, just like Mariah.
Today, we’ll walk you through a few of the techniques Mariah does so well, and how you can make them part of your own sound, as well as some practical tips for how to get there.
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What Makes Mariah Carey’s Singing So Awesome?
As the record-holder of the most Number #1 debuts in Billboard Hot 100 History, there is no denying that Mariah Carey’s immense popularity.
What is her magic formula? Is it her incredible range?
The fact that she writes much of her own music?
Her incredible ability to move from a belt to a whisper in a single note?
The truth is, it’s all these things and more.
Let’s talk about 3 key things the diva does so well:
She is the Queen of Melisma
Melisma - a group of notes sung to a single syllable of text - is a fancy word for vocal runs.
It’s nearly synonymous with pop music, but it has its roots in classical music: think Handel’s Messiah. It’s no wonder the pop diva is so adept at it: she started copying her opera-singer mother at the age of two!
Carey is a master of melisma, always singing accurately and sympathetically to a song’s tempo and style.
This sensitivity to style is what makes her vocal runs so fun to listen to:
It never sounds forced, or that she’s simply trying to “show off” her amazing voice.
Rather, it sounds like her vocal runs flow naturally and effortlessly from whatever emotion she is conveying.
5 Octaves of Incredibly Accurate Notes
Almost as impressive as Mariah’s mind-blowing range is the fact that throughout a staggering five octaves of notes at her disposal, she uses them all with always perfect accuracy.
Think about it: of course, the first and most important job of a singer is to be on-pitch. That doesn’t seem like a big deal in and of itself.
But when you think about Mariah’s ability to move from the lowest depths of her range to piercing whistle register without so much as a pause, and remain on pitch every time, it truly is incredible.
Not only is she able to move between notes fluently, her movement in and out of vocal registers is unparalleled. She can move from chest to head, head to whistle, and – astoundingly – chest to whistle seemingly effortlessly.
It’s worth noting that Mariah’s accuracy is part of what makes her melismas so appealing. Never do they sound like a messy jumble of notes. They are clear and artful: enough to make any opera-singing mom proud.
The Famous Whistle Register
No description of Mariah’s singing would be complete without mentioning her whistle register.
The whistle register is the highest register of the human voice. It produces that high, flute-y, magical sound we hear in her hit Emotions, among others.
Not everyone can access their whistle register. Mariah herself claimed in a 1998 interview that her incredible range is due in part to vocal nodules: something that normally might sound a death knell to a singer’s career. But Carey claims the nodules allow her to “have the high register and the belting register and still be husky.”
Mariah goes on to state, “A lot of people couldn’t sing through the nodules the way I do. I’ve learned to sing through my vocal cords. It’s a certain part of the cord that not many people use - the very top.”
Now, of course we would never suggest trying to create vocal nodules in an effort to claim part of Mariah’s range and amazing texture. If you’re curious about learning how to explore your whistle register, read on.
How You Can Sing Like Mariah
Copy the Queen of Melisma
Simply listening to Mimi’s vocal runs may seem dizzying and overwhelming.
She is, after all, “queen” for a reason: the diva can do melismas in Jazz, Major and Minor scales, in any register and even traveling through them.
But if you take the time to break down her vocal runs, you’ll see them start to make sense.
Let’s use a simple little run as an example:
Consider the soft and tender opening to her hit Hero. In the first few lines she sings “I don’t have to be afraid of what you are…” adding a gentle melisma to the word “are”.
Listen to the song and pretend you are trying to get the hang of this melisma.
Begin by breaking down the notes into smaller chunks.
In this run, she breaks the word “are” into two sets of notes: four in the first set, two in the last.
Try numbering each note and singing through the run, saying the numbers instead of the lyric.
Begin with the first “chunk” of the run: you would sing, “1-2-3-4 (landing on that held note)
Once you’re comfortable with that, move onto the second “chunk”, which in this case is a simple one note down, one note up: “1-2”
Once comfortable with that, string the two “chunks” together:
So, for this run, you would sing “1-2-3-4 (held note), 1-2”
Singing the numbers not only helps you learn the run, it helps you to make a distinction between the notes: both mentally and vocally.
This means you can say good-bye to mushy vocal runs and get the precision that Mariah is known for.
Once you’re comfortable with the numbered version of the run, try it out with the lyrics: you should be able to confidently sing “you don’t have to be afraid of what you are…” without being afraid of the melisma!
Of course, this is a simple example. Mariah is capable of far more intricate vocal runs.
The thing about lengthy vocal runs, though, is they are just sets of shorter vocal runs, strung together. Use this numbering technique to break down vocal runs, and with practice, you should be able to master any melisma Mariah throws at you.
Perfect Pitch Accuracy by Practicing Intervals
Learning intervals may seem like a dry, dusty, music-theory chore that has little in common with the pop diva you long to be.
But the truth is, Mariah is one of the most technically brilliant singers out there, and having a great voice is only part of that puzzle. The other part is knowing a bit about music theory.
The good news?
“Learning Intervals” sounds a lot scarier than it is. In street-speak, an interval is the space between notes. Learning the space between notes gives you a sense of where the notes are in relation to each other.
What does this do for you? Tons.
First, it improves pitch accuracy by building relative pitch. Relative Pitch is your sense of how high or low a note is compared to another note.
Second, it aids you as a musician, by allowing you to sight-sing more easily, and even play an instrument when you know the tune but don’t have any music. When you’re a master at intervals, if you know the key you’re in, or even what one of the chords of a song is, you can work out any other chords just by ear!
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly if you’re inspired by Mariah, learning intervals allows you to compose and improvise more easily. Instead of trial and error, shooting too high or too low, you are easily able to jump straight to the notes in your head. Super valuable if you aim to be the next “Queen of melisma!”
Learning intervals is a great reason to start working with a voice teacher, if you aren’t already.
If you’re just getting started with vocal technique and music theory, it can make a world of difference to have someone on your team who lives and breathes this stuff. To find out more about the benefits of vocal lessons, click here.
Awaken Your Whistle Register
Mariah is a master of the whistle register.
She is even able to articulate words within this register, and sing for astounding periods of time without vocal fatigue, like in Angels Cry Interlude.
But before you can reach Mariah-level mastery in the whistle register, you must learn to access it.
Here’s how to begin experimenting with this register:
Practice using head resonance:
Singing a high note on an “O”, focus on filling up the head space with your sound.
If you place your hand on your chest, you should not feel any vibrations in your chest. All the sound is coming from your head.
Make sure to keep throat muscles relaxed. There is no way you can perform whistle tones if there is tension in your throat: it is too delicate a sound.
If you need help relaxing your tension, try our 5 Minute Warm Up.
“Zip up” your vocal cords:
By this, we don’t mean closing your vocal cords completely, of course! It just means the vibration should only happen in the anterior part of your vocal cords.
It will take some practice to move beyond squeaks to whistle tones.
Don’t be discouraged if this sounds weird at first:
Think of this new skill like lifting weights: it takes a while to move from shaky arms to confident weight lifting.
This is the same thing. It will probably be awkward at first, but with practice, you may awaken a whole new part of your voice!
Practical Tips to Sing Like Mariah
A word of caution here:
When you are working complicated skills like activating your whistle register, it is a really good idea to do so under the guidance of a vocal teacher.
You certainly don’t want to strain your voice and cause damage in your pursuit of awesomeness!
Remember that Mariah started vocal training at age four!
She has been actively working to improve her voice her entire life. This does not mean it’s too late for you. Take a page from Mariah’s book and start training for your own diva legacy today.
If you don’t live in an area where voice teachers available, or even if you do, but want the convenience of at-home lessons, online singing lessons may be just the thing for you. It’s never been easier to get started. Just click here to learn more.
Your “Diva” Title Awaits
When you think “diva”, you think Mariah.
She is one of only a handful of female vocalists so fabulous we recognize them only by their first name: Whitney, Aretha, Christina…
Could your name be next?
Play around with some of the ideas we discussed today and incorporate them into your sound:
Improve your melisma, practice intervals for greater pitch accuracy and smoother improvisation, and awaken that whistle register.
And most importantly, work just as hard as Mariah did, and follow your own voice to your own diva-like sound.
Your “diva” title awaits.