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‘Belting’ is a contemporary singing technique that produces a high-intensity, ‘big’, ‘powerful’ (e.g., loud) vocal sound. Belted singing can be found in all contemporary genres and styles of singing, including jazz, folk, pop and rock, although it is most commonly associated with musical theatre (sometimes referred to as “Broadway belt”). However, not all singers of these genres belt when performing or recording.
This manner of singing may once have served the purpose of allowing the female vocalist’s low-middle range to be heard over a brassy orchestra at a time when amplification (e.g. microphones) and other sound equipment either weren’t available or simply weren’t used. Today, because of the standard use of amplification in all contemporary genres, belting is no longer considered necessary in order for a singer to be heard. It can therefore be assumed that belt singing has survived now for centuries in the ‘non-classical’ singing world because there is a quality in the sound that the audience likes and now expects to hear.
The subject of belting has become a matter of heated controversy amongst singers, singing teachers and methodologies. Unfortunately, the belting debate has now become a war between contemporary methods of teaching and classical (e.g., bel canto) technique, with each side having harsh criticisms of the other, some founded on scientific fact and some not, and neither side being willing to budge on its position or embrace the possibility that there may be room in the singing world for two different approaches to singing. Teachers of contemporary styles push to legitimize the technique, arguing that belting is safe and that classical technique doesn’t adequately prepare singers to compete in the contemporary music industry because classical training doesn’t produce the ‘natural’ sound that is desirable in today’s styles of music, while classical instructors express concern about the safety of having a longer closed phase of the vibratory cycle and of the greater muscular body tension and constriction during belted singing. Some teachers of contemporary methods are convinced that classical technique instructors oppose belting not solely because they believe it to be dangerous, but also because they don’t like listening to and singing contemporary genres. They believe that classically oriented vocal technique instructors can’t appreciate the belt sound and do not enjoy contemporary music such as pop and rock. (This, in truth, is not the case, as most instructors of classical technique do not actually perform classical styles of music themselves and teach students who cover the full spectrum of contemporary genres and styles.)
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.
Belting is such a hot – by hot, I mean both popular and controversial – topic that I’m offering my readers some research-based information about the technique, as well as my personal perspective on the subject as a classical vocal technique instructor. I hope to debunk some myths, explaining what really happens physiologically and acoustically during belted phonation, but also offer confirmation, through published scientific findings, that much of the arguments against the safeness of the technique are justified, and are not simply a ploy by classical technique instructors to dissuade singers from studying contemporary methods of singing. My aim is to treat this topic as fairly and as objectively as possible, despite my professional objections to the 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. 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. 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.
In the following sections, I will be discussing and explaining in more depth these numerous differences between contemporary and classical singing.
Because acoustics (the study of sound, including its frequency of vibration or pitch, loudness and timbre) and aural characteristics (those of, relating to, or perceived by the ear) are closely tied, I have decided to combine the analyses of these two characteristics in order to simplify this discussion.
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. (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.
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. (It should be noted that most students who study classical technique do not actually sing in classical styles, like opera, and having a ‘natural’ sound is extremely important to them, too.)
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.
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). Although techniques such as whining like a baby may be used by some classical technique instructors to assist in blending or bridging the registers or to teach falsetto to male students, this may not be standard pedagogic practice across the board. The focus during lessons is usually on opening up the authentic resonating spaces and eliminating all signs and symptoms of tension and constriction along the vocal tract, including a raised larynx.
While contemporary methods and techniques such as belting encourage students to maintain speech vowels (vowels that are pronounced in the exact same way that they would be during speech, regardless of pitch), 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). 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.
Although vowel modification occurs throughout the range, albeit more subtly in the speech-inflection range, it is primarily in the head register, where the frequencies of the higher pitches interfere with ease of production and tonal balance - read Formant Tuning in the Female High Range - that vowel modification becomes absolutely necessary and less subtle. Those who believe that classical technique training doesn’t produce a natural sound are likely accustomed to hearing opera singers of higher vocal Fachs (voice types). Sopranos and tenors, dominate the classical singing world and most leading operatic roles are written in high-lying tessituras and sung mostly in head voice. Many people who are unfamiliar with singing technique incorrectly assume that classical training produces an unnatural distortion of vowels even in the lower vocal registers because the vowels in the head register are so modified. However, classical technique training does not exclude the development of a fully resonant and natural sounding chest register, especially in students who sing contemporary genres and do not study opera and train to perform operatic repertoire.
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.
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 distinguishability 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.
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.
In speech-inflection range, comprised mainly of the chest register for men and the chest and middle registers for women, classically trained singers also have clear articulation (the combination and co-ordination of movements by the relevant parts of the vocal apparatus for the production of a given linguistic sound), and diction and enunciation are not problems, so that their sung words can easily be understood. It is not unimportant for classical singers to be clearly understood.
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. It is the entire vocal tract that 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 usually produce unnatural configurations of the vocal tract, which tend to lead to tensions, as well as an imbalance in tone. Oftentimes, this imagery causes the singer to adjust the vocal tract in such as way as to encourage the intrusion of nasality or an overly bright, shrill or thin tone; goals which are acceptable for the brighter, more ‘twangy’ belted sound, but not for the chiaroscuro timbre of classical singing.
What instructors who teach belting may mean by ‘placement of the voice’ is that the vocal tract is configured in such a way as to encourage the presence of higher formants (overtones or harmonic partials), likely through the creation of certain constrictions along the vocal tract, as I will explain in the section below. (Information about how to shape the vocal tract to encourage balanced timbre can be found in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping and in Vowel, Vowel Formants and Vowel Modification.)
How the vocal tract is shaped during belting and classical styles leads to significant differences in the acoustic characteristics of each technique. Acoustic research reveals that classical and belt sounds create different frequencies, formants and harmonics.
The belt is highly ‘chiaro’, or bright, in tone. This brightness results from the particular configurations of the vocal tract, including an elevated larynx and a narrowed pharynx, that are used in belting technique, which I will explain in greater detail in the following section about the physical characteristics of belting. The acoustic result of this vocal tract shaping, as well as the longer closed phase of the vocal folds during phonation, is a rise in the frequencies of all formants – which, in turn, produces a characteristic brightness in the sound.
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, (who was advised by the speech therapist PhD Silvia Rebelo Pinho), 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.
Leon Thurman, a pedagogue from Minneapolis who specializes in teaching musical theatre belt technique states (www.ncvs.org, 2005): “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 concept is explained further in “The Jaw” in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping.) As Thurman explains and teaches, this wider mouth opening helps to prevent the brightness of the tone from becoming unpleasantly bright (shrill), even in the middle of a singer’s range, where, in classical technique, the articulatory definition of the mouth would more closely simulate those of speech.
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.
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.) 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. (See Formant Tuning in the Female High Range in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping.) This technique is part of vowel modification, which I explain in Vowels, Vowel Formants and Vowel Modification.
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. Keep in mind that classical singers are perfectly capable of being heard over entire orchestras without amplification, such as microphones that are typically used in all contemporary styles of singing, because the tonal balance achieved with the taller, more rounded vowels of classical singing produces optimal resonance balancing and (unforced and safe) projection of the vocal sounds. (See Singer’s Formant.)