VoiceCouncil will no longer be updated. Articles will still be available for some time.

What Singers Can Learn from Karen Carpenter

What Singers Can Learn from Karen Carpenter
She always considered herself a ‘drummer who sang’. She started as a reluctant singer who gave herself permission to call herself a singer –says Daniel K. Robinson.

Growing up there was one voice that I adored more than any other. Karen Carpenter, to my ears at least, was like listening to perfection personified.

Karen, alongside her brother Richard, formed the 1970s duo Carpenters, and until her death in 1983 she was considered to be one of the music industry’s leading ladies.

A Foreign Sound

Karen’s sound is rather foreign to the 21st century ear. Today’s audience is drawn en’ masse towards the inexplicably high vocals of Sia, Katy Perry and Beyoncé.

But Karen’s voice was different. Often described as a contralto (similar vocal range to the countertenor), her voice wowed audiences with its wonderfully low timbre; a sound all too uncommon even during the 60s and 70s (the height of Karen’s career).

Before we discuss Karen’s vocals further, have a listen to this recording of the Carpenters 1970 hit Close to You:

I love that song so much my wife and I had it performed at our wedding. Daggy…but magical!

4 Key Lessons for Singers from Karen’s Career

So what can we, as singers, learn from Karen’s career, both as a vocalist and as a performer? Here’s a few key points of interest:

vc-1Embrace Your ‘Natural’ Sound

Our fascination with singing higher seems to currently know no bounds. Consequently, a good majority of today’s population is trying to sing way outside their anatomical limits. This in turn leads to frustration, not to mention voices that are being driven to wear and tear by users who are expecting biological impossibilities. When I write ‘Embrace Your Natural Sound,’ what I’m really saying is: embrace YOU. Be the singer you were born to be. Karen Carpenter’s voice was unique…and so is yours. Stop comparing your sound to those around you, and start developing your own unique vocal signature.

vc-2Don’t Suffer in Silence

The death of Karen Carpenter came as a massive shock to the western world. Sadly, Karen had suffered with anorexia nervosa and bulimia for many years; and it was these two conditions that led to her untimely death. We are fortunate that today eating disorders and mental illness is far better understood by the medical fraternity and the general public. But better understanding doesn’t mean squat if a person is suffering in silence. And it’s all too easy for a performer to suffer in silence when they feel the pressure (stated or otherwise) to present an up-and-up persona to an adoring audience. We are human beings first and singers second; we must always get this order right. If you or anyone you know is battling mental illness I encourage you to seek out professional care.

vc-3Give Yourself Permission to be a Singer

Did you know that drummers can sing?! I’m being purposefully playful…but seriously, before Phil Collins made it a thing to sing from behind a drum kit, Karen was working the skins on national tours of the US. Actually, she always considered herself a ‘drummer who sang.’ The point here is that she was a reluctant singer. So many of us come into the singing thing via other instruments, and as a result we stop short of calling ourselves ‘singers!’ Allow me to encourage you to give yourself permission to call yourself a singer. Step out from behind that guitar (or those drums) figuratively speaking, and BE a singer.

vc-4Leave Something in the Tank for Tomorrow

Karen was known to be a ‘one take wonder.’ That is, she would step into the recording studio, sing the song through once, and that was that. The single take would be so good, there was no need for another. Urban myth tells us that if Karen ever got to a third or fourth take, the producer would send her home stating, “It isn’t happening today…let’s try again tomorrow.” Myth or not, there’s a lesson here for us. Often, whether during recording sessions or during practice, we work the voice until it’s dead on its feet! Now, it’s important to work and massage the voice, but there is always a point at which the smart vocalist says, “Enough! The voice has run its course today.” My advice is to always leave something in the tank for tomorrow. And when recording, if it’s not ‘happening’ step away and come back to it at another time (schedules and budget permitting).

On February 4, 1983 the world lost a beautiful sound, and to all accounts a beautiful human being. We can learn so much from Karen Carpenter’s personal struggles, both as a singer and as a person; but the lessons are only worth something when we act upon the instructions they are giving us.

This is the seventh part in our ‘What Singers Can Learn From’ series.
Previous: What Singers Can Learn From Elton John

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Johnny Walker Johnny Walker - Americans

Hey Johnny. Lovin’ your energy man! I can really hear your passion in the tune. Be careful of when the melody travels towards your upper register. Do your best not to ‘push the notes’ when your voice approaches your transition.


Dr Dan is a freelance artist and educator. He is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts and presents workshops to singers across Australia and abroad. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11). Over the past two decades, while maintaining his own performance career, Daniel has instructed thousands of voices. This vast experience enables Daniel to effortlessly work with voices of all skill levels: beginners to professionals. You can join Dr Dan every Tuesday & Thursday on his YouTube channel: Dr Dan’s Voice Essentials. Dr Dan is also the creator of 7 Days to a Better Voice: a FREE one-week technical detox for your voice.

  • Brian

    Good subject matter poorly written. Probably a talented vocal teacher but not a talented writer.

  • I am actually going to be recording and producing a Karen Carpenter cover tomorrow with my student Wendy. We have been coaching “We’ve Only Just Begun” for several weeks. Will soon add the video here and on our YouTube Channel. TVS training here: http://www.TheFourPIllarsofSinging.com.

  • The point of the article … lessons from Karen Carpenter. Awesome singer and one of my favourite vocalists. BE YOURSELF the best point I got from this article, something I tell my students nearly every lesson. Performing their material for years. Exposed my children to their video as babes – they love them too. Laugh out loud. Kudos Dr Dan.

  • Jimmy James Page

    Another takeaway- sing great songs. Can’t beat Bacharach/David

  • Dr Daniel K. Robinson

    Hey Brian. I’m glad you enjoyed the topic of ‘Karen Carpenter.’ I’m always keen to improve my writing, so constructive criticism is welcome. Perhaps you could outline in detail how I might have approached the article differently (from a writer’s perspective); thus making it more ‘reader friendly.’

    I really look forward to reading your comments.

  • Dr Daniel K. Robinson

    Glad you enjoyed the article @BigLordy:disqus.

  • Bob M

    Anyone can sing today in the digital age. Karen was a natural talent.

  • No, anyone can NOT sing in the digital age. Yes, Karen had a lot to talent. She also had a lot of musical training and education. Anyways, here is the Karen Carpenter video we produced, referenced below.


  • Ruth Ratliff

    It actually sounds great in the higher key – lovely voice!

  • ThanksRuth. Yes, we worked a lot on the diction and interpretation of the text.

  • What singers can learn from Karen Carpenter.

    – Diction… Karen Carpenter sang with a beautiful and elegant diction. Here diction was not just clear by the standards of speech, but clear by the higher standards of singing, which would include the ability to sing vowels inside gorgeous resonance positions. Not an easy thing to do, if you don’t have the experience to tune to these resonances (formants).

    – Dynamics… crescendo and decrescendo and its application to dynamics, among other dynamic elements, is a major signature to what made Karen Carpenter truly a GREAT singer of all time.

    – Legato and phrasing… elegant legato and phrasing. Beautiful, connected lines from one lyric to the next. From on breath to the next. From one idea to the next.

    – Musicianship… Karen Carpenter was a great musician. She not only sang wonderfully, but was an accomplished drummer and studio producer. She, with her brother, understood how to make a world class recording/production. They were innovators in the studio.

    – Songwriting… Any arguments here? Together with her brother, The Carpenters wrote hit after hit after hit. Can anyone actually count how many hits they wrote without having to look at a written list? I doubt it. And every song has such a great hook and feel to it. At the risk of sounding cliche’, The Carpenters wrote songs that truly are timeless and will always be lovely to listen to, in any age and generation. Not and easy feat to pull off for any great artist. I mean these two, REALLY knew how to write a tune. They didn’t just stumble into a good tune in a moment of inspiration only, they sat down and wrote great tunes with a deliberate intent.



  • Jonathan Karas

    she’s no karen; that’s for sure.

  • I removed my video because I’m not going to let you hurt my student’s feelings. If you have any videos of you singing, let’s hear it. Do you sing? Do you have anything to show us?

  • Jonathan Karas

    you’re right. she’s lousy but i shouldn’t have said anything. sorry.

  • Lawrence Lawrence

    Karen Had musical training ? Please tell us where because I never heard about it. She taught herself to play the drums and vocally, some are just born with talent.

  • Jeepers

    Well said! Just one point: Richard did write a dozen of their songs (usually with lyricist John Bettis). Although a genuine accomplishment unto itself, his genius did included hearing a jingle (“We’ve Only Just Begun”) or taking a simple lead sheet (“Close to You”) that he arranged/produced into masterpieces. Karen’s contribution (some bass playing, drums live and on early studio recordings, lead & backup vocals) were her great strengths– not song writing.

  • I totally agree.

  • Gail

    This is not popular. Karen had a better than average voice but I consider she was overrated. I have hear a lot of singers who sang better than she did–Linda Ronstadt, Christine McVie, Anne Murray, Petula Clark, Aretha Frank, Elaine May, etc.

  • Gail

    She studied music in college taken pre-freshman (bonehead) classes.

  • Syrinx

    Gail, everyone has a preference for different timbres, but there are few female singers I can think of that had a better “contralto” voice than Karen. It was an extremely rich and smooth as butter voice, and Richard Carpenter (as well as the Carpenters’ other writers/producers) knew how to maximize that sound. She was a bit of a one-trick pony, however, and I don’t think – in my own humble opinion, that she was as versatile as some of the singers you mentioned. But, what she did well, she did better than any of the ones you mentioned. Again, this is my personal opinion.

  • Overall, I love Karen Carpenter’s singing voice. The only part of it that I don’t care for is her overly precious phrasing at times. Even to this day, it often makes me cringe when I hear it. Other than that, though, I have always enjoyed the warmth and tone of her voice.

  • Carlos Agustin

    Oh come on..the only female voice that could come close was anne murrays.

  • Oh c’mon ! Check out a vocal forum http://Www.themodernvocalistworld.com

  • thomas schmitz

    sorry, it’s your opinion, but i and most disagree with you… of the list of names you mentioned only aretha franklin is regularly listed as one of the greatest female voices of all time like karen carpenter is on the lists compiled by music critics, historians and so on….. rondstadt? bigger belter then karen but that’s it and karen was a crooner, not a belter… murray? similar in low timbre, but had ONLY that, karen had a 4 octave range… mcvie? she’s not even the vocal star of her own group (fleetwood mac), petula clark a personal good friend of karen carpenter HERSELF in interviews has admitted she is not in karen’s league…NO ONE had as rich and pure of a voice as karen carpenter, or had remotely as incredible diction and enunciation as her for every syllable to every word to every song she ever sang and she, karen, sounded like no one else……just these 3 qualities separate her from the other ladies you mentioned (and i’m a ronstadt and petula clark fan myself)…

  • thomas schmitz

    examples such as of her “cringe worthy precious phrasing”??

  • Yes, lovely resonance. We have several Karen Carpenter videos at our singing forum. http://www.TheModernVocalistWorld.com. KC has always been one of my favorite singers. Lovely dynamics and vowels/resonance.


  • “mahn” for “man” comes to mind. I like her voice a lot, but small bits of her phrasing, I find, sound sort of prim and proper.

  • Jafafa Hots

    The had her first hit recording when she was in high school.

  • Jeepers

    I’m not hearing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTgmFDoptyQ
    She had training in a choir, which emphasizes certain vowel modifications to elucidate. Also during overdubbing, Richard had them vocalize sounds to make them clearly reproducible to avoid a muddy sound.

  • Thank you. I do find her to be a superb singer, without question.

  • Dale_G1

    Currently watching a Carpenters special during the PBS pledge drive. I’d almost forgotten how incredible her voice is. So I wanted to know what key she sang in out of curiosity and now I know it was contralto. I have often put her at or near the top of my all time favorite vocalists. Among the women there was Karen, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. Among males would be Steve Perry, David Gates, John Denver and Michael McDonald.
    Karen’s voice was so pure, smooth and soulful that just listening to her now literally brings tears to my eyes. I don’t know if that says something more about me or how angelic her voice was. My older sister like many others in the 70’s ( and hopefully still ) used “We’ve Only Just Begun” in her wedding and was devastated when Karen died. Maybe that’s why I still have tears. For such an immense talent to be taken so soon was a blow to humanity, but a boon to God’s choir. May we all get to hear her in person again someday. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b756fefbf93693e58c862906afd9d090e5d51260c37f607cab4010a7160ea793.jpg

  • Scarlet-Red-Pill

    How about Julie Andrews?

  • Ben Stephens

    That’s not phrasing, that’s diction.

  • How come they are not taking new contributions to the website and shutting it down? Get voice training from the world’s most successful vocal training course for singers here: http://bit.ly/TVSLiteCourse20