The “Rules” of Singing

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The “Rules” of Singing: Mythbusters Edition

By Caitlin Vincent
Updated: January 30, 2020

When I was fourteen years old, my voice teacher warned me never to drink milk before a performance. “Milk produces phlegm,” she told me sternly, “and phlegm will ruin your high notes.”

At the time, I didn’t realize that I was being introduced to one of the “rules” of singing. Still, my teacher’s warning was sufficiently intimidating: I promptly swore off all dairy products and became convinced that eating even the tiniest piece of butter would doom my high C to failure.

As I continued my vocal studies, I was introduced to many more “rules,” each one promising to help me avoid yet another pitfall of performing. Which foods to avoid, how to prevent phlegm, how to calm nerves…the “rules” have all the answers, sort of like a neurotic opera-singing version of the Code of Hammurabi.

rules-of-singing“Always memorize your music before you go to sleep,” one fellow soprano told me after hearing my concerns about learning a song cycle. Another spotted me with a cup of tea and cautioned me against caffeine, citing a horror story about a tenor who drank coffee before an audition at the Met and was never heard from again.

My collection of “rules” continued to grow—no caffeine, no lemon, no dairy, no wheat—until I started to wonder about my blind allegiance to these regulations. I had heard these “rules” repeated verbatim by dozens of other singers and had even passed along a few of them myself. Yet, no one ever seemed to know if the “rules” were actually true. Or who came up with them in the first place.

Of course, it’s not surprising that there hasn’t been an outpouring of volunteers to test these “rules.” Few singers are willing to risk phlegm or dehydration on the day of an important performance, just for the sake of playing mythbuster. But, with another audition season looming in the near future (and dairy product sales continuing to plummet among singers), it’s time to finally tackle some of these old opera wives’ tales.

So, for the sake of all those opera-singing dairy-lovers, I hit the library and tackled five of the most frequently-repeated “rules” of singing.

Singing after dairy
Can you sing after you drink milk? | Sheila Sund via Flickr

Rule #1: Don’t eat or drink dairy before you sing.

According to theory (and my high-school voice teacher), dairy products produce copious amounts of phlegm. So, a singer who avoids milk, cheese, and butter in the hours before a performance will have a better chance of nailing his or her high notes.

The verdict:

As it turns out, dairy products do not produce phlegm in the majority of people (the exception is the tiny group of people who are allergic to casein, the protein in some types of milk). Instead, the high fat content in dairy products thickens the mucous that is already present in a person’s airway, making it seem like there is more phlegm to deal with. Of course, having thicker phlegm can be just as problematic as having more phlegm. Luckily, this thickening sensation can be diminished simply by eating dairy products that have a lower fat content.

Eating bananas before singing helps
Eating bananas calms your nerves | Ian Ransley via Flickr

Rule #2: Eat a banana to control your nerves.

Beta-blockers have become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to prevent performance anxiety. Bananas are lauded as natural beta-blockers, making them a perfect solution for an opera singer who has sweaty palms but no prescription for Inderal.

The verdict:

Bananas are primarily made up of potassium, magnesium, and tryptophan. Magnesium is, indeed, a natural beta-blocker and inhibits the hormones that provoke the “fight-or-flight” response (clammy hands, increased heart rate, trembling, sweating, etc.). Though it isn’t technically a beta-blocker, tryptophan adds its own benefits to the mix by triggering the release of seratonin and reducing stress.

Singers who aren’t fond of bananas can snack on apricots and spinach, both of which contain high levels of magnesium, or turkey, red meat, and tuna to get an extra dose of tryptophan. Another anxiety-reducing option is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which works as a natural tranquilizer and is found in raw spinach, parsley, almonds, and citrus fruits.

Further, if you’re not opposed to the use of cannabinoids, low dosages of Cannabidiol (or CBD) can work wonders to take the edge off. This is not to be confused with Tetrahydracannabinol (or THC) products, of which we don’t recommend using before an important singing engagement!

Singers typically drink more water
Drink lots of water as a singer | Petras Gagilas via Flickr

Rule #3: Drink 8 glasses of water a day.

Every elementary-school child has heard the 8 x 8 adage: in order to stay properly hydrated, the average adult should drink 8 ounces of water, eight times a day. For the sake of hydrating their vocal folds, singers are often recommended to increase this requirement to 8 ounces of water, ten times a day.

The verdict:

The 8 x 8 rule first came into vogue in 1945 after the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommended that every person drink approximately 2 to 2.5 quarts of water each day. However, what your 4th grade teacher forgot to mention is that a large portion of this requirement (at least 20%) is automatically fulfilled by daily food intake, especially with a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Non-water beverages like juice, milk, and coffee also contribute to a person’s level of hydration. In 2002, the American Society of Physiology debunked the 8 x 8 rule completely and simply recommended that people drink water when they are thirsty.

The affects of caffeine on a singer
Can you drink coffee as a singer? | Brandon Shea via Flickr

Rule #4: Don’t drink caffeinated beverages

Caffeine is a major no-no for opera singers: it causes dehydration and can be damaging to vocal folds.

The verdict:

Unfortunately for the anti-Starbucks crowd, caffeinated beverages are not a cause of dehydration. For a person who drinks coffee or tea regularly, 8 ounces of coffee/tea will provide approximately the same amount of hydration as 8 ounces of water. At the same time, caffeine is still a diuretic, which means that a person will lose water more quickly than if they were drinking something else. However, according to a 1999 study published at Cambridge University Press on the effect of caffeine on vocal folds, caffeine can have a negative impact on a singer’s vocal quality, but the effects vary greatly from person to person.

And in 2013, in a similar study at the University of Southern Illinois, a group of females from 18-34 years old were tested using 100mg caffeine pills. The results? No vocal differences detected, acoustic or otherwise, between women given 100mg caffeine (“a conservative dosage”) and those given a placebo.

Our advice: try it for yourself during a safe performance period and listen closely to how your body responds. 

Memorize music before bed
Best time to memorize anything is… ? | Camerazn via Flickr

Rule #5: Memorize music before you go to bed.

The theory is that if a person studies music or memorizes lines immediately before going to bed, his or her memory will improve during sleep.

The verdict:

Sleep has been scientifically established as the key to memory improvement. During sleep, the brain cells that were active during the day release neurotransmitters and establish strong synaptic patterns; the cells that were most active release the greatest number of neurotransmitters and create the strongest connection. Memories are then consolidated and converted into long-term memories during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is the final and deepest stage of the sleep cycle.

However, there is little evidence to suggest that pre-sleep memorization is the way to go. Adrenaline plays a crucial role in memory formation, and most people have very low levels of adrenaline before going to sleep. Some scientists suggest that the early morning is actually the best time to ensure strong memory formation (and a swarm of neurotransmitters) during REM sleep.


S. Akhtar, G. Wood, JS Rubin, PE O’Flynn, and P. Ratcliffe, “Effect of caffeine on the vocal folds: a pilot study,” in J Laryngol Otol, Vol. 113, No. 4 (April 1999): pp. 341-345.

Allen J. Dozor and Christina Lee, “Do You Believe Milk Makes Mucus” in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 158, No. 6 (June 2004): pp. 601-603.

“Food and Nutrition Board, National Academy of Sciences: Recommended dietary allowances, revised 1945” in National Research Council, Reprint and Circular Series No. 122 (August 1945): pp 3-18.

Avi Karni, David Tanne, Barton S. Rubenstein, Jean J.M. Askenasy, Dov Sagi, “Dependence on REM Sleep of Overnight Improvement of a Perceptual Skill,” in Science, Vol. 265, No. 5172 (July 1994): pp. 679-682.

Heinz Valtin, “‘Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.’ Really? Is there scientific evidence for “8 x 8?” in Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol (283: R993–R1004), 2002.

Maria Claudia Franca, Kenneth Oliver Simpson, Allison Schuette, “Effects of caffeine on vocal acoustic and aerodynamic measures of adult females” Communication Disorders and Sciences, Rehabilitation Institute, Southern Illinois University (January 2013)

Matthew A. Wilson and Bruce L. McNaughton, “Reactivation of Hippocampal Ensemble Memories During Sleep,” in Science, Vol. 265, No. 5172 (July 1994): pp. 676-679.

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28 thoughts on “The “Rules” of Singing

  1. Thanks for putting all if this time in. I've heard so many rumors over the years, and it's nice that you took a "Myth Busters" approach to singing practices. If dairy thickens mucous, and I don't want that to happen, is there a specific window of time prior to a performance that I should lay off of dairy? In other words, can I consume dairy at breakfast, and by the evening the dairy will no longer have any effect on my system? Or should I stop eating dairy 48 hours prior to performance? Thanks!

    1. I’m pretty sure it will vary form person to person so you should try it yourself and see what you observe. If. You have cereal and milk perhaps for breakfast and you still feel phlegmatic in the evening maybe cut back but if you can’t tell, the audience won’t be able to.

  2. Thanks so much! As a professional singer, I’m always wondering if all my phobias about what I eat or drink the day of the performance make any difference. I swear it’s at least 95% technique; worrying about what you’ve ingested probably has more of a negative effect than the actual food or drink.

    1. Your welcome! I think a bunch of singers come to the realization that the less you worry, the easier it is to sing beautifully. We get in our own way most of the time!

  3. im 15 and my friends say they like my vioce but they have to because there my friends my sisters say im not terible but they never once said i was good im supost to be singing in a group and im scared i might be tone deff i think i sound desent but im starting to dount it when i sing everyone stares at me and i dought its because i sound good so how do i know if im tone deff plees tell me

  4. Thankyou! That brought such light to things I’ve heard in the past! I’m 16 and studying to be a musician including voice, and this definitely helped my worries! Before competitions I’m always in the back freaking out about what I can and cant have for breakfast or lunch. Thankyou for this article!

  5. Thank you SO much! Im also recuperating from an eating disorder, so youre my angel! This has taken out the rest of my anxiety about fueling up right, especially since I do thrive on low-fat and non fat dairy in the am and fish. I did have the same observation: about one coffee and serious nonfat yogurt for protein in the am (right amount of protein helps me with anxiety) does not jeopardize my singing practice at 5pm. Provided, I balance the rest of my food with the right things and green apples – they do help the most!

  6. Just a nit: bananas are not “primarily made up of potassium, magnesium, and tryptophan” — they’d be inedible if they were. They may be high in these nutrients, but they’re made up primarily of water and carbohydrates.

    1. Thank you. It’s not “just a nit” — and BTW, the “high potassium” content of bananas is in itself almost a myth, since there are plenty of other foods that are considerably higher in potassium on a per-serving (and per-weight!) basis: dark green leafy stuff like spinach, unprocessed wheat bran (tastes like shredded cardboard, of course, but it’s hight in K and Mg), and milk. Yes milk!

  7. thanks Alot Mate …i have been seeking this type of informations for a long time since i have been a singer from the age of 16 i am now 29 yrs old…i am from Vanuatu in the Pacific small island countries…i am working at erakor island resort & Spa as an artist and sunger for the Music & Entertainments department.
    my email is [email protected] thank you very much indeed.

  8. Josh freedman

    i am 24 and i write southern gospel songs which i rarely perform because i feel am not ready. Every one who hears me sing says i am a star but i get to feel unworthy though always trying to convince my self.
    It is so hard for me to look in people’s faces when i am singing .

    Is it because i am shy, reserved or just pretending?
    I do not what to limit my imagination but my thoughts of what people see me as holds me back.

    Please say something to me via [email protected] if it is okay with you and thank God i met this page before my competitions this Saturday.

  9. If you have a piano, or you can download a virtual one… Play a note. Memorize that note. Now leave the piano. Singing that note for 30 minutes. After the time is done, sing the note and compare to the piano. If it is off, then you should work on pitches.
    Another trick. Almost similar, play a song. Sing it for 30 minutes without it playing. Then compare.

  10. WoW ~ according to this article as well as others I have read, one MUST know their own body for sure. I am thankful for the info here, for it finally answers my questions that before were answered with ifs, which left me unsure on what to consume being a vocalist.
    I enjoy singing and will do what I need to do to keep the vocals pleasing to Thee Creator. Thank you for sharing what you know to be true. Blessings

  11. I tend to just go with what I know from trial and error and I agree what may bother one singer may not necessarily bother another.Any lactose definately makes me more phlegmy and affects my voice and caffeine dries my throat and the quality of my voice is noticeably not as good.

    1. Where on earth did you get that idea? Ah — because many so-called “low-fat” dairy products are adulterated with all kinds of additives (carageenans, gums and other plant-based “thickeners which are okay health-wise but culinarily unappealing; high-glycemic-index carbohydrates such as corn syrup solids and starches, which are not okay health-wise, even if you’re not diabetic; etc.). Yes, but you can avoid those additives by reading (and understanding) the label before purchasing the product. There are plenty of low-fat dairy products that are simply made from milk that was skimmed of its cream prior to homogenization. Those are at least as healthy as products made entirely from whole milk without adulteration.

  12. I discovered this article when I was googling for coffee being good for the voice… I do recordings for my company’s phone line (which is different from opera singing, I understand), and a cup of coffee — tea also, but coffee seemed to make me less raspy — always seemed to help clear my voice, and give me a bit more concentration and devil-may-care attitude to recording (i.e., calms my nerves, I guess). So I’m surprised to learn here that it doesn’t work for everyone! Very interesting. 🙂

  13. Oh, how weary I am of the old pseudo scientific “facts” concerning hydration! The information posted here regarding hydration isn’t simply flat-out wrong, it’s also dangerous.

    Yes, we all need -at a minimum – those eight glasses of water, or roughly half a gallon, daily. But that is only the minimum. If you are an athlete (and an opera singer who works in the field or is studying daily certainly qualifies) you can pretty much double that. Add into the mix the stress of being overworked and having no “voice” so to speak (opera singers are generally treated like shit and are the lowest rung on the totem pole in most companies) and chronic dehydration can send you to the hospital with ragged chords, kidney stones or even stroke and heart attack. This is why working singers careers are so often cut short. Chronic dehydration, like stress, is epidemic in our society!

    also dangerously wrong is the “fact” that coffee, tea, milk, juice or food are substitutes for water. In fact, and this should be obvious, it takes water from your body to digest your food and anything classified as “diuretic”, such as coffee and tea, is, by very definition, going to take water from your body! Juice, being full of sugar, is perhaps the worst offender of all, as it sorely stresses your liver and this takes, you guessed it, lots of water. So the ugly truth is that there will never be a substitute for your hydration other than water.

    And, not to totally bum you out, but all water is not created equal. Our tap water is not safe to consume in large quantities on a daily basis, even if filtered. It is now so contaminated with chemical and medical residues that it is massively estrogenic and mutagenic. Because water districts lack the billions of dollars necessary to rid the water of dangerous chemicals such as tri-methyl halides, birth control pill residues and many other nasty things it can’t get rid of, instead they print garbage spin articles about how great and safe the water is, which your newspaper obligingly prints without comment or question. For this reason, I recommend drinking water from a nearby protected aquifer, such as Chrystal Geyser in this region (northern California).

    As for how exactly you’re supposed to get that much water into your body, I recommend a scheduled regimen. Keep the water cool, as it is far more palatable. Fill several insulated steel bottles which are measured at 16oz or 32 ounces. I start the day with one 16oz and have another mid-morning, another at noon before lunch, another mid-afternoon, one when I return home before dinner, one mid-evening and one before bed. I generally get up in the middle of the night and have one, too. That is a full gallon! If you plan for this and happen to skip one or two, hey, you’re still doing great! The insulated bottles don’t sweat, so throw three of them into your rolling suitcase with your music, and you’re set for the day.

    1. Oops, I forgot to mention how incredibly dehydrating air travel is and the completely fallacious “fact”, and it belongs it quotes, that we only need to drink when we’re thirsty. This last is a dangerous practice as we quickly acclimate to a state of constant dehydration and so won’t notice until it is much too late that we need water. That is the best argument of all for developing a good water “habit” and sticking religiously to it. None of the hundreds of biochemical processes our bodies require every moment can occur without adequate intake, so hydration simply cannot be over stressed.

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