How To Belt – The Definitive Answer By Ken Tamplin
There is a heated debate as to whether belting (rock-pop singing) will ruin your voice.
The answer and reality is: ABSOLUTELY! IF you don’t know what you are doing.
Much of this spirited conversation comes from the Operatic-Bel Canto and SLS communities, warning belters they WILL lose their voice if they keep belting.
This is simply NOT true.
Truth be known, we most always hate what we don’t understand.
The information below is fairly technical
I have taken some time to respond to many of the questions raised in this debate.
My proof is my own voice, and my life long study of vocal pedagogy.
Not sitting in some Ivory Tower discussing the topic. But applying a plethora of tried and true techniques and expounding on them over the years.
With that said:
The irony is, much of what I use in my technique is Bel Canto based; however, I have experimented and taken it to a whole new level pushing it’s limits far beyond what most people teaching bel canto understand.
I see condescending comments statements about belting from both of these communities (opera-appoggio-bel canto and SLS) with “scientific proof” that belting is unsafe.
It seems that both of these communities have set themselves up as “gatekeepers” of “the only way to sing”. And both camps (for the most part) are diametrically and vehemently against belting, stretching chest voice and distorted compression.
If you give a speed demon the keys to a Ferrari (who is not qualified to drive fast) and expect him not to crash, this is lunacy. He will most likely crash.
It doesn’t mean the Ferrari can’t be driven fast. It means that you need to KNOW HOW to drive the Ferrari fast and safe.
Of all of the “scientific proof” that is arrogantly stated to bully people into believing that belting is unsafe; let’s first find a “qualified driver” and THEN see behind the microscope what is actually happening within the vocal tract.
Don’t pit seasoned opera singers and look down their throat and then take a guy off the street and look down his throat as “proof” that belting is unsafe.
My slogan is: “The Proof Is In The Singing”.
I have been belting for 30 years now safely — and am every bit as strong as in my twenties. My tone is even better and I have considerably more freedom and diversity in my voice than ever (even within various degrees of light and extreme distorted compression).
OK: let’s start the discussion:.
Ken Tamplin’s Guide To Belting
Belting is a technique that produce a powerful, big, (loud) vocal sounds. Belting can be found in all contemporary genres and styles of singing, particularly in Rock, Pop, R & B, Gospel, Country and Folk genres.
As a belter myself (for more than 30 years now), it has been my lifetime experience that bel canto holds the greatest mechanism FOR BELTING, but needs a few modifications to incorporate its powerful value to a contemporary setting. In addition, though it is not called this, with the absence of hyper glottal compression, opera singers are actually “belting” when they sing “the money note” (though they would cringe at the thought of admitting to this terminology)
Contemporary teachers argue that belting is safe and that classical technique doesn’t provide singers the tone and timbre (brightness) to compete in the contemporary music industry because of its “dark covered sounds” that are not “desirable” in contemporary singing.
Classical instructors assert (and rightly so) that contemporary belting is not safe (these concerns are well founded with many contemporary singers losing their voices and developing nodules).
I would like to pause for a moment and explain some important components to both views.
It has been my experience that in the contemporary world, very few singers understand proper support and the art of relaxation and therefore strain so much when they sing, that this “stress” on the vocal folds (cords) eventually causes long term damage. There are countless examples / casualties of this. Now; there is a huge constituency of contemporary vocal instructors who maintain this kind of singing can be done with little or no stress. I believe this is VERY deceptive, detrimental and just plain not true and here’s why:
By definition, distortion or that “smoky” tone we like in many of our favorite singers is a direct result of “stressing out” the cords which, if not “managed” correctly, can and will cause long term damage. (this is especially true in the rock genre). So proper technique becomes the management of stress, not the absence of it if one is looking for this kind of sound.
Classical instructors “cringe” at this because their philosophy is the complete antithesis (opposite) of this. They have spent a lifetime of learning the art of “relaxing” into a sound and using “resonance” with the emphasis on support and strength conditioning, releasing to these big bold resonant sounds which promote long term vocal health and growth. (there is no doubt about this; it has a several hundred year track record for being correct).
Science now has the ability to examine what is actually happening with regard to muscle activity during phonation and resonation when the sound of the voice is produced. Those who promote and teach belting believe that the technique is worthy of medical and scientific study, pedagogic support and critical artistic review. However, many seem unwilling to accept the results of these studies if they do not fall in line with what they believe to be true about the technique that they teach and use.
The only way “science” can do any kind of fair analysis of “what is actually happening with regard to muscle activity” is IF they takemany samples of people who are doing things absolutely correctly and those that are not. They cannot take a random sample of someone saying the ah vowel or view cord closure and so on and use that as proof from someone off the street and call that scientific proof.
IN FACT: many ENT’s (Ears Nose Throat specialists) have sentenced people to have polyps (nodules) removed from their cords from this kind of analysis when in fact this was totally unnecessary. (I have seen this first hand over and over).
I have seen many statements like these posted below on various singing web sites and I will comment on them.
A Comparative Analysis Between Belting and Classical Technique
Different voice techniques are required to activate the muscles and produce the sounds necessary for a variety of singing styles. These styles employ very different techniques, and consequently differ acoustically, aurally and kinesthetically (e.g., the physical sensations that are experienced by the singer) in some very significant ways.
In order to create a belt voice, voice technique must be measurably different than that used in classical singing.
(my comment: this is not necessarily true.
I USE bel canto (appoggio) within my KTVA Singing technique and hold closely to its tenets).
In belting, both male and female singers use bright, speech-like sounds, a text-driven approach to repertoire, a non-continuous vibrato and a thyroarytenoid (shortener) dominant vocal source.
(This is also not true for the style of Rock Belting I teach. I employ bel canto and then, in order to bring about brighter timbral sounds, I incorporate the use of techniques such as mask while minimizing the over use of consonant sounds in order to maintain open throat technique. This helps eliminate “choking off the sound” and allows for an open sound without “pinching or squeezing.” This is all done with rock solid support and the use of vowel modifications)
In classical singing, however, tall, round vowels that enable a singer to sing a self-amplified sound are used, tone is more balanced between bright and dark qualities (known as chiaroscuro timbre), vibrato is initiated at onset and continues to offset, and the vocal source is cricothyroid(lengthener) dominant in the middle and head registers.”
(this is also not exactly correct: vibrato’s greatest asset is to be the “final release valve” on a well placed vowel sound, allowing resonance to take over releasing and relaxing to a full bodied almost “belt like” round sound (when done correctly) buttressing (holding up) the sustained note with strong diaphragmatic support while simultaneously relaxing the chest neck and throat).
Belting differs timbrally from operatic singing in many interesting respects. Belt voice is a brighter, more conversational phonation, resonation and articulation than classical singing. There is a lot more emphasis on consonants in belted singing than in classical voicing.
I do not subscribe to more emphasis on consonants. In fact just the opposite. In order to maintain good vocal health, the more one can keep the throat open and not “close down” (cord closure) the sound with these consonant and vowel transitions, by eliminating them and or barely using them maintaining again open throat, this the safest way to approach belting AND provides for big open sounds in the upper mid voice as well into the head voice / falsetto ranges eliminating harsh shrill sounds.
It stands to reason that this emphasis on consonants contributes to the longer closed phase of the vibratory cycle of the vocal folds during belting, which I will be discussing in the following section, because consonants are characterized by a constriction or closure at one or more points along the vocal tract. Even though the tone is still carried through the vowel, the vowels and consonants remain quite speech-like.
Singers such as Sam Cook, Steve Perry, Mickey Thomas, Aretha Franklin and many more that utilize a lot of range also minimize the use of constricting consonants and “lightly” touch on these consonant sounds to “free up” the throat allowing for an “open throat approach.” It is true that this is contrary to most contemporary approaches to singing but is, in my opinion, the most effective, long term healthy approach for belting.
Voice coach O’Conner states: “Because phrases are shorter and more speech-like, legato (an Italian word meaning ‘tied together’, suggesting that the transitions between notes should be smooth, without any silence between them) singing is not as essential to belting as it is to classical singing, where smoothness of line is part of the expected style, interpretation and execution of songs. In fact, for the classical vocalist, the beauty of the vocal line takes precedence over the song itself. In the classical world, it is understood that a singer should never attempt to sing a given piece in public unless his or her technical skills can meet the high demands of that song, as well as the high expectations of the listeners who will undoubtedly be critically comparing this singer’s performance of a certain role to those of numerous other singers who have performed it previously.
In the ‘non-classical’ world, however, listeners are less discerning of and more forgiving of a singer’s technical weaknesses and the imperfections in his or her execution. In fact, the contemporary audience expects to hear a ‘natural’ sound, where unevenness and certain idiosyncratic features are found to be appealing and unique rather than annoying or unpleasant. In contemporary music, the singer – his or her overall vocal sound, style, physical appearance, fashion choices, stage presence, dancing skills, etc. – takes higher order over the song.”
I disagree with this. When belting, it is far better to singing contiguous phrases rather than short “stabbing” phrases that stricture the throat. It is true, most pop singers sing in short phrases but as in my descriptions of singers I have listed above, you will note long “legato” phrases that keep the throat open and provide consistency with dynamic volume (loudness) throughout the entire register. It’s as though you develop a “tube” of air (because of rib cage expansion and strong diaphragmatic support) that allows contiguous airflow that now only needs to be regulated by the intercostal muscles and then eventually in the glottis (the vocal folds/cords) to regulate this power-air. (A quick side note. When using diaphragmatic support, there is a “spring-like” effect that takes place providing a tremendous “snap” of air that supporting from the lungs alone cannot provide. The use of “glottal compression” (holding back or compressing air at the glottis) is genius because it can regulate the over-use of air which is the main reason for going hoarse and over stressing the vocal folds. One more caveat. Open throat technique must be practiced to the point of becoming so subconscious, that one does not have to “think” about it. Otherwise glottal compression has VERY similar sensations and characteristics to “pinching and squeezing” air to get desired notes.
O’conner goes on to say: “Those who are learning to belt are taught to take note of how different belting looks and feels compared to classical singing. They are often taught to speak the words of a song first and feel the natural speech patterns and phrasing so that they can be replicated during singing, to yodel beginning low in the range in order to feel the shift from lower to higher register, to make ‘ugly’ sounds so that they experience a voicing that is entirely different from a more classical sound, and to encourage a higher larynx. To assist in experiencing and increasing ‘twang’, students may also be asked to ‘quack’ like a duck, whine like a baby or laugh like a wicked witch.
This again in my opinion is a big mistake. Learning first to maintain a “lowered larynx” position is critical to open throat technique and overall power, stamina, range, pitch and consistency between consonant and vowel transitions. Once this has been achieved and maintained, then allowing for different larynx positions are encouraged to act as “release valves” for different phrases, tone and range accessibility.
Folks, quacking like a duck is just plain silly. Crying like a baby is even more ridiculous. These parlor tricks are geared towards growing brightness in the voice (whether they even know it or not). I have developed a phrase. “IT’S THE LAW! AH!” The reason I coined this phrase is because the AH vowel is essential toward building a bright, timbral, strong, belting foundation. Work and develop sounds, phrases, phonation etc that you will ACTUALLY USE IN SINGING. Not GA GA GA, UNG UNG UNG, KA KA KA etc.. In fact many of these “exercises” will actually develop bad habits and embed / inhibit open throat freedom.
I ask students to open their mouth like a doctor looking at your tonsils to say “ah”. This simple bright example is the most effective and easy to understand an analogy to building and strengthening the voice and provides for an excellent “measuring stick” to hear pitch. (darker “covered” sounds can be much more difficult to regulate one’s own pitch). It is from this point of reference we start to build the voice.
In classical training, students are taught to achieve balance of the light or clear (chiaro) and dark (oscuro) aspects of timbre, or a balancing of tonal brilliance and depth of the resonance through achieving an ideal distribution of lower and upper harmonic partials (overtones). The focus should be opening up resonating spaces and eliminating tension and constriction along the vocal tract, including a raised larynx.
Many contemporary methods (particularly SLS) encourage students to maintain speech vowels (vowels that are pronounced in the exact same way that they would be during speech, regardless of pitch)
I personally believe this is dead wrong and a huge mistake.
We don’t sing like we speak. Vocal formants in singing (especially with any kind of compression) are CONSIDERABLY different than speaking formants. (to prove this, say the word cheese in your lower register…(or “like you speak). The move it up mid way through your voice and see how it feels. Finally, say it as high as your voice will go. You will notice a big difference in the stress of your throat when you apply this. What does this mean? IT MEANS WE DON’T SING LIKE WE SPEAK. This is a HUGE problem I have with SLS with regard to “unrestricted powerful singing.”
Classical technique encourages the use of acoustical vowels (in which the pitch of the vowel – all vowels have pitch – coincides with the harmonic values of the pitch).
This is an excellent example of a good approach. On the other hand: “Singing Like You Speak” has so many variables once you rise above a whisper. I believe this is a recipe for disaster and here is why.
The whole concept of balanced consistent singing is based on eliminating the “moving targets” that inhibit our ability to “hit the mark” night after night. The more you have to change your basketball free throw, your golf swing, your baseball pitch or throw, your soccer kick, your weight lifting, your dance move, your swimming stroke, (and the list goes on and on) the greater your chance of “missing that mark.” The less you have to do that and the more you can stay within a “boundary” you can be consistent with, the greater your ability to be spot on.
Maintaining speech sounds goes against the natural laws of acoustics and phonetics, and contributes to tension in the vocal tract, especially as pitch ascends. Therefore, throughout the range, but particularly in the upper middle and upper (i.e., the head register) sections of the range, classical singers allow for a progressive modification of their vowels, made through subtle and gradual adjustments of the vocal tract, in order to maintain warmth and balance of tone and ease of production throughout the scale. This vowel modification is also widely considered to be an important element in the protection of the voice.
We can get away with “larger strokes” of the paint brush phonetically in our LOWER REGISTERS but as we ascend a scale, that paint brush must be smaller and more precise.
When we ascend a scale we need to “close down” the sound so that it doesn’t become too “big” and “get away from us” and “splat” (or become too wide). The vowel modifications become MORE subtle in the upper registers. YES, they are there, but the actual subtlety of the vowel itself changes very little.
Let me explain:
In the upper registers, with true / correct vowel modifications, most all vowel sounds default to the same vowel. (a variation of Ah like loft) or Oh (like so). So what this article should have said is that when we ascend a scale, compared to the “wide paint brush” of vowel sounds in the lower register, the difference for a tenor (let’s say) singing F#4 on the word “love” (would sound like L – Ah – ve) but would modify in the Bb4 or C5 on the same word OO (like look) or even closing down farther to the OOH (like who). This is VERY important. The higher up you go, the more all words share the same vowel sounds and are actually more similar because they share the same vowel sounds. So they may seem extreme from the word we sing in our lower registers, they are NOT EXTREME in the upper registers. In fact, as we ascend a scale to the “money note” (maybe we need to hit this note over and over again with completely different words or phrases in a chorus because of the lyrics etc.), the CLOSER we are to keeping the same open throat vowel sound consistently, the stronger we can build the mechanism for ease and accessibility and strengthen muscle memory to not have to “fight” our way through vowel transitions. This also may be even more prolific when it comes to consonant transitions where the throat “closes down the glottis” because of the consonant. We must manage this with “consonant modifications” as well just as we have with “Vowel Modifications”. (A side note taught by SLS: IT IS UTTERLLY INSANE to use consonant sounds for healthy cord closure, such as mum, mum, mum, goog, goog, goog, or nay, nay, nay, ESPECIALLY when applying hyper glottal compression. THIS HAS TO BE ONE OF THE MOST RIDICULOUS THINGS I HAVE HEARD IN THE SLS WORLD!!!! THIS WILL CAUSE DAMAGE, STRICTURE, LACK OF FREEDOM IN THE EPIGLOTTIC FUNNEL and eventually over-stressing the VOCAL folds so much that they build up “reflux” in the throat. THIS IS THE EXACT OPPOSITE REPONSE that we want).
Here’s what we need: PLEASE: THIS HAS TAKEN ME 30 YEARS TO FIGURE OUT AND A LIFETIME OF STUDY AND I PROVE IT WITH MY OWN VOICE. I DON’T JUST WRITE PAPERS ABOUT IT, I DEMONSTRATE IT.
I want to “de-mystify” this and get you to think of this in simple components.
#1 Your “support.” IT IS THE ENGINE THAT MAKES YOUR CAR MOVE. (I am not going to explain this here. If you don’t know what I mean, get my info on the “whole” diaphragmatic support system.”
#2 The “pressure system”. By nature, we apply pressure from many places to “power our singing”. But mostly (until we understand “THE STRONGER ENGINE”) we start out by getting power from our lungs/chest-torso/intercostal muscles within the chest cavity. THIS CREATES TENSION IN THE CHEST, NECK AND THROAT, REGARDLESS OF THE SINGING STYLE AND IS LETHAL OVER TIME. But; When we learn the “SPRING EFFECT” or the “SNAP” of the diaphragmatic support mechanism, we find that this “pressure system” can provide incredible power not only to sustain notes, range and endurance, but to RELAX the chest neck and throat where damage over time WILL occur.
Again think of this in sports terms. It’s not the “big strong” soccer player who slams a goal behind the net, or the muscle man golfer who hits the longest shot and the list goes on. It’s the “SNAP” they have learned to use leverage (like the wrestler who uses weight – balance to take down a guy twice his size)
I place a tremendous emphasis on this because as a professional singer for over 30 years, singing some of the most musically demanding pieces, that without this basic fundamental and rudimentary understanding, you are doomed to chasing that “Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Rainbow” ever elusive, ever evasive rainbow to great and powerful singing.
I would like to add one more thing before I go on. I have sung many an aria. Yes arias are demanding and challenge some the greatest voices in history. HOWEVER: believe it or not, singing with hyper compression in the intercostal structure and the glottis is TWICE as demanding. (i.e. singing with distorted compression without fatigue and permanent damage, while maintaining a completely open epiglottic funnel of regulated air).
Let’s sidebar for a moment and talk about this “funnel”.
You will hear me talking about the “regulation” of air throughout my videos. (I try to keep it in simple terms so everyone can understand it).
Here is EXACTLY what you should feel.
You should have built up such strong “support” where you feel like the voice is “floating on a cushion of air” at all times, “mitigating and regulating” that air (glottal compression) for different variances of distorted or clean compression. (your support should be so strong that when you “land” a well placed note, the support mechanism should buttress (support) that note so well, and be so embedded in your muscle memory of open throat technique) so that you don’t even have to think or worry about sustaining that note. (like a fire extinguisher hose of power, supplying strength, holding up the note from the diaphragmatic support mechanism). Please remember I used the term “well placed note” meaning your vowel sound (modification if necessary) is in its optimal position to relax to the sound and allow support to take over.
People that want this “FAST” are not going to like to hear that.
Why? Because it’s like “losing weight”. To realistically get great at this, there is no pill, no B.S. vocal coach, no TV commercial, no “visualization”, no gimmicks, NOTHING but good ole fashioned hard work with correct (and very hard to come by) information to make this work and keep your voice in great shape over time.
And THIS is the reason sooooo many people are duped into “buying-in to the get-rich-quick vocally scam”. IT’S A LIE.
(btw: please don’t buy my course based on this. In fact, bump around for a while. Spend your hard-earned money on pep talks that don’t work first so that when you appreciate that what I am telling you is true, you will take it seriously enough to actually implement it into your daily routine and see that it works.)
Listeners of contemporary music are unaccustomed to hearing the acoustically modified sounds of head voice since most contemporary singers do not regularly sing, much less belt, pitches that lie above their upper (secondo) passaggio (i.e. the head register). Vowel modification is then perceived as being unnecessary and irrelevant for them, as well as inconsistent with the characteristic, speech-like belt sound.
How ever the fact is, these street singers are definitely modifying. “street singers” and will modify ANYTHING to hurl the note out from their throat. You don’t think they are modifying?
A street singer is singing “I love you baby” and the word “baby” converts to “Babay” because he has clamped down so hard on the cord that he can’t sing a “pure” “E” vowel. (you don’t call that vowel modifying?) I am in no way saying this is a correct approach. But let’s get serious. ALL vowels (and consonant sounds) are modified in some form or fashion.
The question is, are those modifications correct in sustaining long term healthy singing?
One more sidebar about “Pure Vowel Sounds”. I have heard it said that we must hold true to appoggio and maintain appoggio’s pure vowel sounds.
Guys, as I am writing this right now (FROM ITALY WHERE I AM LIVING) pure appoggio vowel in this sense are suggesting “Latin Based” (or literally Italian Based) vowel sounds.
This is nonsense. I just watched an Italian 70’s disco cover band where the girl lead singer was singing in English (though she couldn’t speak English) singing Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer and many difficult artists WITH PERFECT ENGLISH but maintaining open throat from her operatic background.
What we need is to understand open throat and apply it correctly. Not look to Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma and apply this dark covered sound to pop. It MUST be modified for a contemporary sound while not losing the power of Bel Canto.
Let’s move on:
It should be pointed out, though, that within speech-inflection range – that is the range of pitches that a person uses during ordinary (conversational) speech demands – all singers and speakers make use of vowel modification to a certain extent. Research shows that vowel modification within speech-inflection range is so subtle and undetectable that it is generally not perceived by the ear as being detracting from the distinguish ability of language. In fact, vowel modification occurs regularly during ordinary speaking tasks, which means that even when attempts are made at maintaining speech vowels during singing, as occurs in belting, vowel modification is likely still happening to some extent.
With that said: Let’s turn this up a notch. What if we are yelling at someone who is stealing our car? Do those vowel modifications and consonant sounds become more pronounced (like when most belting singer belt?) YOU BETCHA. HOWEVER: We particularly want to minimize these inflections to maintain open throat.
Most contemporary singers maintain bright speech-like sounds because they believe that they make the language (words or lyric) of the song more clearly heard and understood. Vowel modification is considered to be less desirable, useful and acceptable for them. In fact, most singers trained in contemporary methods will actively resist the natural tendencies of the vocal instrument to adjust for pitch, and will carry these speech-like sounds as high up in the scale as possible, even when strain is felt and heard.
Is it right to do this? NO!
In classically trained singers, they’re first primary concern is concentrating on open throat appoggio to relax the throat and diction comes secondary. In order to maintain healthy open throat, this should be our approach for contemporary singing as well. Only use what is absolutely necessary to get the words across. Again here’s an analogy I like to use: Think of yourself as a ventriloquist. He hardly moves his mouth or jaw but can “throw” vowels and consonants in such a way that you can understand his every word.
When we can learn this approach to singing, we will find that we can eliminate “moving targets” that inhibit our ability to be consistent with our singing (especially the air flow in the back of the throat).
Therefore, we can keep our jaw in an open throat position (lowering and raising the larynx when necessary for a desired sound or “release valve”) and ONLY focus on correct vowel and consonant modifications (combined with STRONG DIAPHRAGMATIC SUPPORT) to sustain and maintain good vocal health. (this is like a tube of air that you can control without closing down the throat)
Many Belters are taught to sing with a feeling of ‘forwardness’ in the mask, or to change the typical placement of the voiced sound in the mouth, bringing it forward into the hard palate. Many classical technique instructors also teach this feeling of forwardness or the sensation of sympathetic resonance in the bony structures of the front of the face, referred to as forward placement, but not all agree that it is good or accurate pedagogy since sound and resonance can’t actually be directed to specific points within the vocal tract.
Believe what you must about this. But I personally use open throat FIRST and then bring in “mask” as a secondary (and very key element) to open throat and here’s why:
We get our technique from the centuries of proven technique of Bel Canto but must modify vowel and consonant sounds for a contemporary setting (which bel canto doesn’t provide for). A correct use of mask is excellent for this. Sound and resonance can’t actually be directed to specific points within the vocal tract. If we have controlled the “moving targets” using bel canto and only bring in mask to brighten the timbre of sound, we get both. CONTROL AND THE USE OF MASK.
The vocal tract acts as a resonator for the sound that is initially produced in the larynx (voice box) by the vocal folds. Attempts at placing the voice “forward” usually produce unnatural configurations of the vocal tract, which tend to lead to tensions, as well as an imbalance in tone. Many singers adjust the vocal tract in such as way create a nasally, shrill tone; goals which are acceptable for the brighter, more ‘twangy’ belted sound, but not for the chiaroscuro timbre of classical singing. I personally think this over exaggeration is annoying.
One can use the vocal tract shaping of Bel Canto and include a brighter timbral sound using various vowel modifications to contemporize a sound without unnatural configurations of the vocal tract.
I personally favor a lowered larynx position to help people first understand how to hold and maintain open throat and then allow them to “play” with larynx / pharynx” positions depending on the amount of sound pressure, one’s ability to compress air and their support system. This also changes when the “mixed voice” has been developed so well that it allows for a raised larynx position in the upper register without digastric muscle strain or vocal tract closure.
O’conner again states: “In belted voicing, the first formant is sometimes raised all the way to the frequency of the second harmonic and would perceptually appear to be quite edgy on a spectrogram (an image that shows how the spectral density of a signal varies with time). Spectral analysis of belted voicing shows that the enhanced partials contribute to the fundamental frequency (that which is most associate with pitch) having relatively low-amplitude, which allows the higher formants to be emphasized and perceived by the ear quite readily. A Master’s thesis candidate, observed no significant changes in frequency and amplitude of the first formant (f1), but did see significant increases in the amplitude of f2, f3 and f4 in the belted voice
In frequencies for f2, those voices that were perceived as being louder were correlated to an increase in amplitude of f3 and f4.
The classical approach to singing the same pitches, on the other hand, is characterized by a relatively low first formant, consequential of the ‘lower than rest’ laryngeal posture that is taught in classical techniques, and would be perceived as sounding comparatively darker, or more ‘oscuro’ and warmer.
A pedagogue from Minneapolis who specializes in teaching musical theatre belt technique states “In order to avoid acoustic overloading of the vocal folds, the mouth part of the vocal tract must gradually widen as the pitches rise, becoming quite open even in the middle of the singers’ capable pitch range. In addition, subtle, intricate variations in the vocal tract adjustments can produce a variety of subtle ‘fuller-brighter’ qualities.”
During high-intensity singing, the belter uses a larger buccal (mouth) opening that produces a narrowed pharynx, since a lowered jaw actually constricts the back of the throat. The formant structures of the individual vowels then change, and the tone becomes brighter.”
This can be true and is often renamed “mask” however a static jaw with the correct position will provide consistency initially until open throat is learned and allows for variations in the jaw without throat closure. I have spent a lifetime trying different pharyngeal positions, larynx positions, vocal tract shaping and so on. Another point is this: “a pedagogue from Minneapolis who specializes in teaching musical theatre belt technique” (in my opinion) musical theatre in Minneapolis” shouldn’t be revered as THE authority. A respected opinion yes, but the final word? No. And using this as the measuring stick for far more intense forms of compression (such as 99.9% of the rock singers out there) wouldn’t allow for “pushing the envelopes of glottal compression” in the context of musical theater. In fact most musical theater coaches place an emphasis on diction, enunciation/pronunciation and consonant projection (so that people in “the back row” can understand what is being sung). Good compression focuses on vowel sounds with little regard to enunciation and the likes. Enunciation comes AFTER a well place open throat vowel. Many Bel Canto coaches would look at what I do and cringe because they don’t understand it. Simply because they refuse to understand distorted compression using bel canto and integrating many other forms of modern singing techniques such as mask, rib cage expansion, pillars and so on…
A narrowed pharynx and a more horizontal mouth position for vowels and consonants – an ‘east to west’ spreading of the mouth, as opposed to the ‘north to south’ position for tall, round classical vowels – helps to make this brighter resonance choice of belting possible. This bright resonance posture is a major factor in most variations of belting, real or faux, and for both men and women.
O’conner goes on to say “In classical singing, this same kind of gradual mouth opening is reserved for the higher part of the female singer’s range because it prevents the clashing of high frequencies (pitches) with lateral (side-to-side) vowels that would otherwise make the voice’s tone overly bright (chiaro), thin or shrill at higher pitches. (The low larynx and open pharynx of classical vocal posturing make applying this technique in the lower part of the scale unnecessary because the tone does not have the same tendency to become overly bright that it does in belted voicing where the vocal tract constrictions and raised larynx are applied to all parts of the singer’s range.)”
Again: this is assuming “everyone” constricts their vocal tract and raises their larynx in order to belt. Using bel canto (and other techniques I mentioned) I maintain an unrestricted open throat position (mostly staying in a lowered larynx position) which is what gives me range, power, clarity, pitch, control, tone (while not sounding dark and covered like a classical singer)
O’conner continues: “Opening the mouth more when the larynx is low and the pharynx wide has the effect of elongating the vocal tract, making close vowels (tense vowels) more open (less-tense), raising the first formant, and consequently allowing the tone to remain more chiaroscuro (balanced in colour) than bright.
In belt technique, higher frequencies are also produced by an increase in the closed phase of the vocal folds – high, loud belting can have frequencies as high as 10 kHz, while classical sounds do not normally exceed 4 kHz – which in turn produces a brighter tone. A singer has to weigh whether the potential for serious vocal injury from abnormally long closed phases and vocal tract constriction is worth the production of these higher frequencies and louder sounds.”
Again, this does not have to be true. If you train the voice correctly using the techniques I mentioned you can achieve both safely as I have proven with my own voice for more than 30 years) It is true that classical singers can be heard over entire orchestras without amplification, such as microphones, PA’s etc., however this can also be achieved in belting when done correctly.
Physiology of Belting Technique
There is so much going on physically during belted phonation that we need to break down descriptions, explanations and comments into several sub-categories.
Intrinsic Muscular Activity
The muscle activity in belt voice is quite different from that of classical singing.
The vocal folds are continuously changing dynamic and stretching and thickening based upon pitch, loudness, resonance and register demands. Two primary muscles are responsible for vocal fold activity: the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles. The thyroarytenoid muscles are responsible for relaxing, shortening and thickening the vocal folds by drawing the arytenoid cartilages forward toward the thyroid, thus producing sound that is commonly associated with chest voice in both men and women. The cricothyroid muscles tilt the cricoid cartilage around the pivot formed by the cricothyroid joint, causing the arytenoid cartilages to move away (backwards) from the thyroid cartilage. This action lowers, stretches, thins and stiffens the vocal fold structure, increasing both the length and the tension of the vocal folds, and producing the sounds that are commonly associated with head voice and falsetto. The adductor and abductor muscles, the interarytenoids and the cricoarytenoids, also play a role in phonation.
There are many theories and explanations of how the belting voice quality is produced. Belt is described most commonly by classical technique instructors as extending the lower (chest) register upward past the first passaggio and employing the laryngeal function of that lower register to produce pitches that are usually associated with higher registers in order to create more powerful sounding notes. Whenever the laryngeal muscles and the vocal folds are not permitted to adjust or to naturally change vibratory patterns (registers) at the lower passaggio, the singer enters the ‘call of the voice’, in which he or she must increase volume, or begin to call or shout, in order to maintain steady phonation (without the voice breaking or shifting registers). (This is mostly correct however freedom from this “locking down” of the vocal folds can be achieved by combining both the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles getting them to work together and creating a mixed voice ultimately relaxing into the upper register of the cricothyroid muscles (while maintaining the bright timbre of the cricothyroid muscles). Regulating a correct airflow and not overstressing either of these muscles structures is key, particularly through the passaggio). One of the biggest nemesis’ people face (especially male voices) is that they have not “grown” the cricothyroid muscle structure to be “on par” with their thyroarytenoid muscles and are therefore “weaker” and “flutey” or “pillowy sounding” compared to a chest register sound. The cricothyroid muscle structure can be strengthened to match to match the tones of the thyroarytenoid muscle structured and a blending in the passaggio can actually “fuse together” these two muscle groups to create “one long note” without a “register” or “passaggio” break.
Once this is achieved (and yes the adductor and abductor muscles (interarytenoids and the cricoarytenoids do play a role in phonation), then through strong diaphragmatic and intercostal chest muscle support, air can be regulated at the glottis to determine volume, power and even a desired “overdrive” or distortion safely. I must add this caveat. If you are a belter (like me) and like hyper compression (distortion) YOU MUST come back and “clean up the voice and not stay in a hyper compressed state. Failure to do this will cause the folds to lose elasticity.
O’conner continues: “Those who teach belt technique argue that belt production is not purely ‘chest’ and is not created by the use of chest voice in the higher part of the range – by register abuse, which would cause tensions and lead to injury – but by the use of ‘mixed’ voice qualities. (Not all teachers of contemporary methods are in agreement, and not all condone belting. In fact, most tutors of the popular Speech Level Singing method regard belting as damaging to long-term vocal health.)”
I am living proof that this is patently false. My challenge is to all teaching ANYTHING, if they can’t do it themselves, how could they possibly know? I am tired of Ivory Tower arguments.
Research on belted voicing disproves the hypothesis that chest voice function is always carried up much higher in belted phonation than is recommended in classical singing, (although belting by new, misguided or untrained singers is often mistakenly produced through this kind of dangerous register abuse). This current research does, in contrast, support the theory that ‘correct’ belt is not purely ‘chest voice’ singing, which is seen to have a low laryngeal position, wide pharynx, elongated mouth position and sympathetic chest vibration.
Safely extending and “stretching” the chest register will help maintain a powerful chest voice if done correctly. Bringing the falsetto register down to low and “handing off the chest voice too early will cause the chest voice to atrophy and weaken over time. (Again, I am living proof of this. Not just talk or discussion)
I like my students to start out with an open throat position with a dropped jaw, and very bright timbral sound (like the Dr. asking you to say “ah” when he looks at the back of the throat) learning to drop the tongue and the rise of the uvula, without this it makes it extremely difficult to find and maintain an open throat position. Once open throat is “embedded” into the muscle structure, and then closing down the jaw and allowing the larynx to lower and rise (with various pharyngeal positions) is all part of great singing.
Although, in both men and women, the vocal fold function of belting is predominantly thyroarytenoid (shortener, chest voice, thicker mass) dominant, a balanced belt sound also requires that the cricothyroid (lengthener, head voice) action remain active in order to keep the vocal folds from ‘over-thickening’ and the voice from becoming too heavily weighted. The cricothyroid’s participation increases as the pitch ascends; although its involvement is still less than it would be in ordinary (non-belted) middle and head voice singing.
If working the cricothyroid only, one MUST come back and work the thyroarytenoid the next day or shortly thereafter or you will actually notice a diminishing of the upper mid chest voice. This is very important especially when trying to focus growth on the cricothyroid.
The properly way to belt, is to have a balanced ‘mix’ of shortener and lengthener musculature. This shared muscle activity – that is, the balancing-act of coordinating the shorteners and lengtheners – is what is often described as ‘belt/mix’ sound. Belt/mix involves the technique of introducing more cricothyroid activity into the balance of laryngeal muscle activity as the pitch ascends, and it assists the passaggio transition so that there is no noticeable ‘break’ or unstable change in registration.
Despite this shared muscle activity, there is still an imbalanced use of the thyroarytenoid (shortener) cartilages that produce the chest voice. The vocalis muscle –a medial component of the thyroarytenoid muscle that runs parallel to the vocal ligaments and provides fine tension control in the vocal folds, possibly by stiffening the body while slackening the cover of the folds – still retains considerable mass when belting. Therefore one must focus on “shedding the weight” when bringing up chest Not finding the correct balance may stress the voice and produce a pressed tone, or there may be a dramatic change in tone quality between the registers. If only a heavily weighted, thyroarytenoid vocal fold posture is used, voice production will be imbalanced, and excessive tension and strain, particularly in higher pitches, will be present.
Many who teach belting claim there should be “no stress”. I don’t believe that. Even in bel canto it isn’t the total absence of stress, but the proper management thereof. There will always be some balance of stress whether it’s appoggio to rock. Just different degrees of it.
O’conner continues: “…supporters and teachers of belt technique recognize that there are certain tendencies, especially in new belters, which may cause strain and injury to the voice during belting. Many new belters mistakenly extend their shortener dominant sound (chest voice) without incorporating enough of the lengthener (cricothyroid) activity, thus pushing the chest voice up too far than is recommended in classical technique and than is healthy. Uninformed or misguided vocalists may confuse the forced sound of registration abuse with an acoustically considered, muscularly balanced alternative with ruinous results. Poorly trained voice teachers may not be able to differentiate between the sounds created by shared muscle activity and those created by (forced) thyroarytenoid activity alone.
Classically trained singers not studying opera also learn and use ‘mix’ as a tool. Many bel canto instructors teach a mixed sound in the area of the primo passaggio in order to eliminate register breaks caused by the sudden shifting of laryngeal functions and mismatches between the tones or strengths of the adjacent registers. However, this mixed voice is often limited to a smaller range of pitches beginning a few notes below the first passaggio and extending to a few notes above it.” (not if it is developed correctly, this is simply not true. See my videos on high range singing. I am a high Bari. Listen to how I have carefully strengthened this section of my voice) O’conner continues: “(Some teachers believe that the entire middle register in women and the zona di passaggio in men are comprised of mixed voicing, or a mix between the darker or ‘oscuro’ chest tones and the brighter or ‘chiaro’ head tones. This area of the singer’s range is often thought to be neither all chest tones nor all head tones.) The few pitches immediately below the first passaggio begin to acquire some of the brighter qualities of the middle register (women) or zona di passaggio (men), and those immediately above the passaggio retain a little of the darker, more heavily weighted qualities of the chest register. The philosophy, essentially, is that the tone should gradually progress from chest voice sounds to middle voice sounds, and then later to head voice sounds, rather than there being a sudden and dramatic shift in sound at each passaggio or register shift. This “voix mixte” (mixed voice) helps the laryngeal muscles to shift gradually, or in progressive stages, from thyroarytenoid dominant to cricothyroid dominant in function, thus preventing a noticeable break in registration.
Unlike in belt technique, however, this blended sound in classical technique is not created through increasing muscular control. Instead, it is achieved through ‘aggiustamento’ principles that involve subtle adjustments of breath control and vowel modification around the passaggio.”
This is precisely what I am saying can be done with a belt voice. Only there are much greater demands on breath control and vowel modifications (as well and a very careful balance of not “over-using” consonants).
O’conner: “Although classical vocalists can employ both the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles simultaneously, especially around the primo passaggio and in the middle range of the voice, the classical singer favours the lengtheners, (whereas the shorteners are favoured by contemporary vocalists). The different lengthener/shortener balance or mix is how two types of voicing that sound, feel and look vastly different from each other are created.
There is some debate over whether or not men actually belt. Registration in the male voice differs from that of the female voice mainly in that men sing with a shortener (thyroarytenoid) dominant arrangement unless singing in head voice or in falsetto, where the thyroarytenoid cartilage becomes more or less inactive and disengaged. In order to belt, men are not required to change vocal registers, as they can remain in the chest register. (Female singers, on the other hand, usually must have a register shift into their middle register in order to belt.) Narrowing of the pharynx and brightening the classical sound, thus creating the ‘forward’ tone and increase in twang, when belting and emphasizing the informal, speech-like phrases popularly used in contemporary singing is all that is needed for a male singer to belt. Shortener dominant sound being the primary vocal function for men results in male classical singing being comparatively closer to male belt singing than female classical singing is to female belt singing.
Other Muscular Activity
Although it is debatable as to whether or not the use of a mixed, though still more thyroarytenoid (shortener) dominant, vocal fold source is by itself dangerous for the vocal instrument, research on the voice during belting conducted with fiberoptics definitely provides evidence that numerous other unhealthy technical habits are employed during belting.” (again, fiberoptic research needs to analyze a belting voice who is belting correctly. Not pass judgment on someone using bad technique)
O’conner: “The belting voice as an extremely muscular and physical way of singing. When observing the vocal tract and torso of singers, while belting, several indicators of muscular tension and/or strain, as well as many other confirmations that the technique of belting is indeed unhealthy.” (this is true when you don’t know what you are doing)
Oconner: “Belters use what Estill terms ‘torso anchoring’, which involves maximum muscular engagement of the torso. Estill also observed head and neck ‘anchoring’, which means that belters attempt to stabilize the larynx by relying upon the muscles in the head and neck.” (This is the complete antithesis of what I teach. See my videos on “support) Oconner: “ Most vocal instructors agree that muscular tension of any sort during singing is a sign of bad technique and can negatively affect the singing voice over time. In this case, breath management may be also impacted because a singer is unable to breathe lower into the body. Estill found that belters also use a maximum muscular effort of the extrinsic laryngeal muscles and minimum effort at the level of the true vocal folds.
Teachers of belt technique openly acknowledge that singing in a belt voice, especially for the first while until the singer adjusts to the new, unnatural sensations, creates a feeling of increased tension that is not typically present in classical singing. One such teacher writes on his website “When a classical singer first tries to experience a belt sound – they are usually shocked by the increase in tension throughout the body. The dominant T.A [thyroarytenoid], longer closed cycle and increase in lung-air pressure amplifies this bodily tension. The throat will feel tighter but will not actually hurt and the singer will take a while to adjust to the new sensations. It is wise for a teacher to increase a new belter’s twang and decrease the aesthetic until the student is comfortably accessing the T.A and is not tempted to implement their classical technique on a belt laryngeal posture.”
Vocalists who are experimenting with belt for the first time are encouraged to avoid practicing for extended periods of time because belting requires a new muscular activity that will cause them to tire easily. They are told that the muscles of their bodies need to be conditioned and that stamina needs to be built slowly, as in any new physical activity.
In belt technique training, increased stamina and muscular control are developed through overloading the muscles. The philosophy behind this overloading is that, because muscles cannot be trained without demanding more from them than they are used to giving, greater overload increases their functional capacity over time. By stimulating the muscles more intensely and over a longer period than normal, the desired response will be elicited. The body will gradually adapt to the given workload. The application of overload in a training program is supposed to be gradual, discontinuous, and progressive (e.g., hard training days should be followed by easy days with sufficient rest each day for adequate recovery). In other words, because belting is so hard on the vocal instrument, students are encouraged to balance ‘voice use’ time with ‘voice restoration’ time.
Although the overload theory behind muscle building makes some sense when it comes to weight lifting or body building, for which increased muscle bulk is the goal, my concern is what happens when it is applied to the delicate singing instrument.” (this is non sense. ANY voice or “sensitive” body / vocal type can grow. The rate and approach may be different but anyone can grow their muscles. I have MANY people in places like the Asian cultures that have very meek, soft spoken speaking voices but have increased their singing voices into powerful instruments) O’conner: “Increasing the strength or bulk of the laryngeal muscles in this manner is not a necessary, or healthy, part of vocal training. Oftentimes, the body’s response to this additional overload and to improper strength building techniques is to attempt to protect itself. In the case of the vocal folds, nodules – calluses on the vocal folds brought on by overuse and improper use of the voice – may form. The singer may experience pain and his or her voice may become hoarse, or even dysphonic (i.e., no voice or complete loss of voice) until the swelling on the vocal folds has disappeared. Singing with a high degree of tension in the body can be permanently damaging over time.
Furthermore, while singing well does require a certain degree of muscular support from the upper and mid torso for breathing and from the larynx for phonation and the upper vocal tract for articulation, ‘stiffness’ of the vocal tract caused by intentional constrictions and tensions is not considered to be healthy and sustainable over time.” (this previous sentence is absolutely correct) O’conner: “Teachers need to help their students undo these kinds of habits so that the musculature of the voice can move and function freely and without tension, not encourage their students to consciously increase bodily tension.
The major concern that most classical technique instructors and other teachers who do not teach belting technique have about belting is that it is harmful to the vocal instrument.” (again, I am living proof this is not true. When belting correctly, I can sing endless hours and do. I will re-state this: It is not uncommon for me to belt for 6-8 hours in the studio, or sing 90 minutes sets of some of the most difficult belting rock out there, singing 5-6 nights per week. This doesn’t include radio shows in the morning on the same day of shows, CD signing in store acoustic sets also on the same day of shows, AND 1-2 hour soundchecks before shows. I have done this now professionally since I was 19 and will be 49 this year and my voice is as strong as ever. HOWEVER: had I not studied the voice all my life and applied the techniques I previously mentioned, I would probably have completely lost my voice and be another casualty of rock singers.
O’conner: “The fact that singers who belt need to frequently rest their voices and limit the amount of singing that they do when belting sets off red flags for those instructors who don’t teach belting technique. Many contemporary singing methods that promise rapid results demand such drastic modifications to natural technique that the body can’t adjust quickly enough. While physical stamina does need to be built for all singers, whether they are studying modern methods or classical technique, a singer should not have to rest the voice for extended periods of time due to physical exertion, tension or pain. All of these are signs that the singer’s technique is not healthy, and while the singer may eventually adjust to the tension, the body’s ability to adapt to and even lose its awareness of this tension should not be taken as a sign that damage isn’t being done, nor that this tension is normal and healthy.
In fact, belters may not even be aware of the negative effects of their singing technique until it is too late and serious damage has already been done. A study presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation’s Annual Meeting & OTO Expo in Washington, DC, found that untrained and non-professional singers – the subjects in this study ran the spectrum of musical tastes, including country, rock, pop and gospel – are significantly less likely to identify (or take note of) signs that their vocal practices might be leading to serious vocal problems. These indicators may include very subtle changes in the voice that they either may not notice or may write off as mere fatigue and assume that some rest will resolve the problem. When these same singers return to their singing tasks after a time of rest and recovery, they use the same techniques and continue to encounter the same issues, and then assume that these problems and discomforts are a normal part of singing. (I have actually had adult students come into my studio and be surprised to learn that singing doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable or be difficult and stress inducing because all of their lives they have sung with tensions brought on by incorrect techniques and training.)
When a singer uses good technique, (classical or otherwise), there is never any need to have days of rest for the voice, unless, of course, the singer is physically ill, as the singer’s voice does not become fatigued, strained or injured. Stamina and muscular control are developed very gradually and the singer is never allowed to become hoarse or to experience discomfort or pain because of the incorrect use of the body.” (this is what I have been saying all along and in fact this is what I have said about “working out” the voice as well. Often I sing as much as 8 hours a day when recording. Sometimes I get “sore” like any muscle that has been “worked” but never hoarse. Sore in this sense is ok. Hoarse is NOT. HOWEVER: another side note. It is actually better to “lightly train” through a cold than to not sing at all. Recover is considerably less than “waiting it out” and will keep the voice strong. The only exception I have seen to this is in the case of a chest cold that involves hoarseness. Only when the student attempts to work the voice improperly do excessive tension and other signs of unhealthy vocal development begin to appear).
If you follow the step by step program I have laid out in my “How To Sing – Better Than Anyone Else” course, you will find yourself establishing a long term, healthy and diverse singing voice. And it will give you the tools to be self regulating and self correcting.