The Perfect Karaoke Song for Every Type of Singing Voice, Explained By Vocal Coaches
The best songs to choose (or avoid) at karaoke night, even if you don't think you can sing.
Take it from me, someone who has bombed at karaoke so many times it's a minor miracle I still willingly do it at all: Choosing a song that best fits your voice is crucial to whether you have a great time or want to curl up in a corner and die of embarrassment. Choosing the David Bowie and Queen collab "Under Pressure" dead sober in an empty Moe's Southwest Grill in the middle of the day? Don't do that! Dueting "Summer Nights" from Grease after one too many tequila shots and screaming over loud music all night? Don't do that either! The best way to avoid utter catastrophe during your karaoke night in or out (someday!) is to feel out which vocalists are most compatible with your singing range and picking a song firmly within that comfort zone.
But where does a casual singer with little or no voice training even start? How should you prepare? What if you think you can't even hold a tune? I fielded these questions, and others, to a panel of experienced, worldly vocal coaches, who generously shared their learned wisdom. Your karaoke instructors will be:
Cari Cole, a celebrity vocal coach and A&R expert for more than 30 years. She has worked with Grammy winners and contestants on American Idol and The Voice. She's writing the first holistic vocal wellness book.
Ilana Martin, founding the Vocal Workout Singing School in 1998, she has coached the likes Miguel, Normani, and Diddy, and helps artists develop their stage presence.
Cheryl Porter, a classically trained opera singer with a hugely popular YouTube channel who has trained singers on shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent. She's performed with singers like Bono, Luciano Pavarotti, and Mariah Carey.
Dave Stroud, a celebrity vocal coach who has held master classes around the world. He has coached singers on American Idol and The Sing-Off, and has worked with artists like One Direction, Justin Bieber, and Kelly Clarkson.
Before we dive into figuring out your range, let's start with some fundamental tips and techniques recommended by our teachers that even the pros rely on to give your best possible performance. Whether you want to avoid losing your voice the next day or simply not feel deep shame after your song is over, keep these basics back of mind.
Don't get too drunk. It's hard, right? But a good way to quickly make a fool of yourself is by being the drunk idiot with the mic. "Karaoke and alcohol are kind of synonymous," says Cole. However, "if you down a couple cocktails, you think you sound great but you just sound drunk."
Stay hydrated. The other half of staying sober enough to sing well is keeping yourself well-hydrated -- no one ever hit that high note with a dry, dry throat. There are two great ways to rehydrate, beyond chugging a cup of water right before going on (which actually isn't particularly helpful for your vocal cords): Drink water through a straw and eat melon. "The molecules in melon are fatter than water molecules, so the hydration stays in the area longer," Cole says. "NYU did a study with Elton John and Eric Clapton, actually, to keep them hydrated on tour. They discovered, one, if you drink water through a straw, you're hydrated longer and you won't have that need to pee quite as quickly. And then, if you eat melon, or you put melon in the water, the melon will keep the hydration in the vocal instrument longer."
Sore throat? Steam. "It's probably the number one thing that professional singers use that casual singers can use to immediately feel a difference in their range," Cole says. "Get a cup of tea and cup with your hands and breathe in the steam for like five minutes before you go on stage. The hydration goes right to the vocal folds. Hydration on the vocal folds is the number one thing you need. Because if you're drying your vocal cords, you're not going to be able to hit that note, even if you practice it, you know?"
Be confident, but not cocky. Have you ever hyped yourself only to look into an audience of any size and freak out? "To think that, 'Oh, I'm not going to be nervous' -- most professional singers feel nervous. It's part of the kick of adrenaline that's going through your body." Porter shared an anecdote about bombing at a karaoke competition hard when she was an up-and-coming talent, certain that she was about to win it all. "Those memories linger forever," she warns. "I was so cocky, I didn't ask to hear the key of the song. I sounded like fried crap! I was so embarrassed… Be humble -- be confident but don't be cocky like I was."
Practice. "Karaoke is meant to be fun; don't take it too seriously, " Stroud says. "But if you want to be better, there's a voice coach who can help you." If you're not interested in going as far as taking voice lessons, there are myriad quick vocal warm-up videos on YouTube, and running those on a semi-regular basis will strengthen your singing and improve your stamina. "Even if you're a hobbyist, I would work on your voice a little more," says Cole, "because you're going to progressively get better, and that's going to raise your confidence but lower your expectations for the actual performance."
Know what to stay away from. Maybe more importantly than the song you pick are the songs that you don't. Every coach warned of essentially the same "danger zone" vocalists where, if you're not confident you can hit their climactic notes, don't even bother, including anything by Freddie Mercury, Mariah Carey, and Demi Lovato.
If you can't sing, pick a party song. "If you can't sing, do a singalong -- nobody's going to be listening to you!" Porter says. "If you don't have the skills, just have fun, bring out your personality. If you have a good time, everyone else will have a good time, too. If you do make a mistake, people will forget about it -- don't get hung up on it."
Lastly, we're ditching the traditional classifications of voices, of which there are more than a mindblowing 120, Porter told me, for concepts everyone understands: Do you have a high or low voice, or does it fall somewhere in the middle? Don't worry if, when you're figuring it out, it's not obvious at first. "Pop music is 100% based on how unique your voice is," Stroud says, brushing off assigning choral archetypes to notable vocalists as being particularly useful. "You're trying to find the uniqueness of their voice and exploit it, to pull out of them as much identifiability as possible."
Now, finally, let's get into the good stuff: the songs and artists best-suited for you to sing at your next karaoke night. This isn't so much a definitive list as it is a guide to identifying your favorite singers and bands that can make you sound like a karaoke star.
How to tell: Unfortunately, vocal classifications remain very gendered, broadly speaking, so to re-emphasize, don't think of this as a karaoke bible but a handy reference sheet. If you can comfortably sing along with songs by singers like Ariana Grande, Celine Dion, or Beyoncé, congratulations: You're probably what's considered a soprano, the highest female voice, or mezzo-soprano, a rung down on the range chart. You're in the lucky few that could most likely pull off more difficult songs that others would squeak through.
Ariana Grande, "God Is A Woman"
Beyonce, "Single Ladies" or "Crazy in Love"
Etta James, "At Last"
Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'"
Lady Gaga, "Shallow"
Lizzo, "Truth Hurts"
No Doubt, "Don’t Speak"
Prince & The Revolution, "Kiss"
Sara Bareilles, "Love Song"
Tina Turner, "What's Love Got To Do With It"
Whitney Houston, "I Have Nothing"
Hot tip: Showing off with one of those chin-up moves you've certainly seen performers do in climactic notes is just making it more difficult to pull off those high notes. Instead, tilt your head down and they'll come out much more easily.
How to tell: Does your voice feel strained singing along with the above songs? No problem; that probably means you're closer to an alto, contralto, or, transitioning to the "traditionally" masculine classifications, tenor. Though you should probably stray from songs that snake too high unless you're well-practiced, you still have the most options to choose from in the karaoke binder. A voice that allows you to sing both Shania Twain and Usher is something to be treasured.
Adele, "Hello" or "Someone Like You"
Amy Winehouse, "Valerie"
Billie Eilish, "Bad Guy"
Carrie Underwood, "Before He Cheats"
The Cranberries, "Zombie"
Dua Lipa, "Don't Start Now"
Gladys Knight, "Midnight Train To Georgia"
Hole, "Celebrity Skin"
Lana Del Rey, "Summertime Sadness"
Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"
Shania Twain, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!"
Bruno Mars, "Uptown Funk"
David Bowie, "Rebel Rebel"
Ed Sheeran, "Perfect"
John Legend, "All of Me"
Justin Bieber, "Yummy"
Maroon 5, "Payphone"
Sam Smith, "Stay With Me"
Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"
The Weeknd, "Blinding Lights"
Hot tip: Beware of deceptively range-y songs. Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" might initially seem in your wheelhouse, but can you nail the big end of the bridge?
How to tell: You probably already know. These deep-voiced singers are baritones and basses, the latter of which are rare in pop and rock music. Still, there are plenty of songs to choose from; you're in prime crooner territory, after all. Try something a little older or a country tune. Most all coaches agree that you can't really go wrong with anything Elvis, and if you need to reach for the ultimate crowd pleaser, break out the Lil Nas X.
Barry White, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Baby"
Chris Isaak, "Wicked Game"
Chris Cornell, "Can’t Change Me"
The Doors, "Light My Fire"
Elvis Presley, "Can’t Help Falling in Love"
Garth Brooks, "Friends in Low Places"
George Ezra, "Budapest"
Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line" or "Hurt"
Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"
Lil Nas X, "Old Town Road"
Hot tip: Don't feel pressured to pick a song by one of the high guys (ie. Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, etc.) who creep into falsetto. Embrace your voice and show off the fact that you can sing Johnny Cash songs without jumping up an octave.
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