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I’ve already established that the technique of belting imposes a modification on natural, open voice production by tensing the muscles of the throat, tongue, and jaw, by shortening the vocal tract and by elongating the closed quotient of the vocal fold vibratory cycle. There are several additional reasons why the physiology and characteristics of the belted voice stand out to me, as well as to many other voice teachers, as being unhealthy.
In researching this article, I read numerous comments in defense of belting that didn’t seem to make sense to me and didn’t line up with what science and medicine have revealed about healthy speaking and singing technique, nor with what research has revealed about the real physiology of belting technique.
First, proponents of belting say that belt voice is a ‘soft yell’, and if produced properly (e.g., well trained, well supported and correctly ‘placed’), it can be safe and healthy. Many singers, however, mistake physical exertion (e.g., head, neck and torso anchoring, jaw tightening, etc.) for musicality and expressiveness, believing that singing needs to look and feel difficult in order for it to appear and sound good. Most singers who belt attempt to ‘push’, ‘throw’ or ‘project’ their voices in order to make their voices louder and ‘bigger’ (more powerful), and this pushing out of the voice creates tension and strain. A pressed sound is common amongst misguided belters with an unbalanced thyroarytenoid/cricothyroid mix, especially because of the longer closed phase of the vocal fold vibratory cycle. Vocalists who press their sound or bang their arytenoids together to create an inefficient belt, risk nodules, chronic vocal fold swelling or vocal hemorrhage.
Belting is often thought to be similar to a child’s playground voice. However, the registration events of the immature voice (e.g., that of the prepubescent child whose body is not fully grown yet) are not the same as those of an adult. Children are mistakenly thought to belt regularly because they have an extended and well-developed chest register and a much shorter middle register than adult voices do due to underdevelopment of the laryngeal muscles. Their chest register function is indeed carried up higher than it is in the adult voice, but that function is natural for the younger, underdeveloped vocal instrument and does not require any conscious modifications of or resistance to natural registration events or shifts. The first pivotal registration point (primo passaggio) of the young singing voice is naturally higher than that of a mature singing voice, so carrying chest register function up high in the range is not unnatural or unhealthy for a child.
A yell, regardless of how ‘soft’, is still a yell. In order for an adult to yell, he or she must enter what is termed the ‘call of the voice’, which involves pulling the lower or heavier mechanism of the voice (chest voice) up into the middle and upper middle range. Whenever a male singer, for instance, carries his chest voice up into his zona di passaggio and approaches his head register without making progressive or gradual acoustic and muscular (i.e., laryngeal) adjustments, his voice will become increasingly loud, as he must use his call voice, or shout, in order to maintain unbroken, non-cracking phonation. He could probably continue this kind of phonation throughout his zona di passaggio, but with increasing difficulty and tension, and the voice will begin to sound more and more strident and tight with ascending pitch, and will feel increasingly uncomfortable and strained.
As has already been established in this article, true belt is not purely chest voice singing, but a mix. However, this mix is still more heavily thyroarytenoid dominant, meaning that the muscular function during belt is still very similar to that used in pure chest voice, with the vocalis muscle retaining a great deal of mass during belted phonation in the middle range of the voice. While this ‘mix’ may create a ‘soft yell’, as opposed to a full call voice, it is still unnatural to the vocal instrument.
Classical technique instructors understand that carrying the lower mechanism of the voice up too high will likely cause strain and injury to the vocal instrument. In order to maintain the same speech-like vocal quality of the chest voice at pitches above the first passaggio, the laryngeal muscles must work very hard, and the voice begins to develop a ‘shouty’ quality, which gives it the characteristic ‘big’ sound of belting. Yelling or shouting above the secondo passaggio (i.e. in the head register) will subject the singer’s instrument to serious abuse, which means that a belt sound is innately and necessarily limited in terms of range.
One notable example of a singer who has this forced quality to her voice is Demi Lovato. While her tonal quality is naturally pleasant, albeit a bit falsely darkened, especially in the middle register, making her voice appreciated by many listeners, her voice actually has a ‘shouty’, strident quality to it in the upper middle register, and she has difficulties singing softly without an unsteadiness in her tone, especially in her vibrato rate. As she approaches her upper passaggio, where the acoustic shift and muscular shift should take place and where she should begin incorporating more head voice tones into her sound, she maintains speech-like sounds, and the listener gets the feeling that a register break or a cracking of the voice is imminent. This forced vocal production is particularly pronounced in ‘This Is Me’, which she performs in the Disney movie Camp Rock. She sounds as though she is shouting to be heard rather than singing with natural, unforced volume achieved through balanced resonance. These are all signs of unhealthy vocal production, and there is risk that her regular use of belt voice may soon be to the detriment of her range and dynamic abilities as her recording and concert schedules become more intense.
(To all of Demi’s fans: Please understand that this professional critique is nothing personal. In fact, I happen to think that she has an enormous amount of talent and charisma, and I personally enjoy her music. I am merely analyzing her vocal technique from an informed vocal health and technical ability perspective, and make no predictions about her potential to succeed in the music industry, nor assessments of the quality of the music that she performs, nor what kind of person she is. My intention in making this analysis of Demi’s vocal technique is to help other singers grow and develop vocally.)
I have also read teachers of belting technique recommending that students who experience excess tension should be guided toward an ideal ‘flow’ phonation as in any pedagogical approach to the teaching of singing. However, true flow phonation is impossible to achieve during belted voicing because flow phonation, by definition, requires appropriate levels of airflow (low sub-glottal pressure) and healthy vocal fold closure (neither pressed nor insufficiently adducted). In belting, the vocal folds are closed for too long, making subglottic pressure levels too high. Furthermore, flow phonation traditionally produces a more balanced (chiaroscuro) tone, in which resonation is enhanced through an open vocal tract configuration, that is not characteristic of the belted voice due to the greater amount of muscular constriction and tension – a tightened and shortened vocal tract - that creates the characteristic brighter (chiaro) tone of belting. Attempts at teaching flow phonation during belting seem naïve and futile, as the technique itself opposes the traditional elements of flow phonation. (Of course, this doesn’t preclude the teacher from instructing his or her students in more free flowing singing technique in addition to belt technique, as some teachers may.)
Teachers who support belting as a legitimate artistic practice are convinced that it is safe. However, the incidence of vocal injury is higher in untrained and contemporary singers than it is amongst classically trained singers, including those singers trained in classical technique who sing contemporary genres of music such as pop and rock. The research by Sundberg, Gramming, and Lovetri confirms that belting is frequently associated with disturbances of voice function. In most cases, when singers suffer vocal fatigue, strain or injury, their incorrect vocal technique is more likely to be the root cause than their demanding performance schedules, as a singer with poor technique and unhealthy vocal habits is more likely to become ‘out of commission’. Singers like Christina Aguilera and Jordin Sparks, both of whom regularly belt when singing, have cancelled tour dates due to vocal nodules, acute vocal fold hemorrhages or similar vocal fold injuries and dysfunctions. The incidence of such stories in the popular music world seems to be on the rise, as fewer recording artists are vocally trained in good technique and as more of them belt.
Properly trained classical singers tend to have much longer careers and suffer fewer vocal problems than do their contemporary counterparts. This means that vocal health is maintained through good technique, and those who use correct, healthy technique sing for longer and seldom have the need to cancel performance engagements.
Since every vocal concept is connected to another, it makes sense that if one aspect of technique is incorrect or out of balance, it will have a domino effect on the rest of the vocal instrument. Breathing, vocal fold function, laryngeal position, pharyngeal opening, jaw, tongue and soft palate postures all affect each other. In belted voicing, every body part ends up being in the wrong position (out of alignment) for healthy singing. In belt technique, the vocal folds are too tightly occluded and the tongue is too flat and pushed back into the throat space, which means that the breath stays too high in the chest and the singer is unable to breathe low enough into the body to acquire good lower body support. The result is the support of tone by the tongue (muscular cover), a forward jaw and low soft palate. Furthermore, the root of the tongue places pressure on the raised larynx. The narrowed pharynx restricts or limits resonance because it decreases the authentic acoustical space.
Two principles underlie a balanced, natural vocal technique. First, voice is a natural function of the body, with the goal of technique being to allow free and healthy functioning at any intensity. Conscious actions in singing should not interfere with natural functions. Second, singing study should train the individual aspects of the art so as to avoid one interfering with another. Belting subverts both these principles, introducing unnatural tensions that impede free functioning. While providing an immediate source of vocal power, belting is, in a broader sense, limiting, counter-productive, and, over time, harmful. Belting restricts pitch range and rarely allows any quietness or softness. It circumvents the body’s natural resonance. The tight jaw and tongue limit articulation. There are far better ways of increasing subglottal (i.e., below the larynx) pressure and natural resonance.
The concerns and objections that classical technique instructors express about belting are justified, as research has confirmed that they have good reason not to jump on the ‘band wagon’ and begin teaching belt technique, too. It is possible to teach the mixed muscular control of belt technique without the vocal tract constrictions, thus producing a “faux belt” sound, and there may be circumstances in which doing so might be beneficial for given students and circumstances. However, most teachers who are knowledgeable about how the voice functions, how to use it safely and how to keep it healthy are not inclined to encourage their students to resist natural, healthy muscular balances. Many teachers, when weighing the short-term benefits against the long-term ramifications of singing in belt voice believe that it simply is not worth the risk.
Defenses of belt technique are often formulated on the premise that the vocal instrument can be made to do whatever the singer wants it to, even if that means defying natural physiological and acoustic laws. From reading the articles and FAQ answers on numerous instructors’ websites, I’ve learned that not every teacher of voice is on the same page when it comes to vocal registration.
Many (but not all) vocal instructors who teach contemporary styles and methods are poorly educated in the science of vocal registration, and that affects their teaching in numerous ways. Most commonly, teachers of contemporary methods are unaware of scientific research in the area of vocal registration, and teach concepts like no registers or only two registers of the human voice, or they use incorrect terminology (e.g., saying that a woman is singing in falsetto, when the term denotes a male vocal sound that is imitative of the female voice, and thus ‘false’, or calling the sounds of the middle register ‘head voice’). Some teachers of contemporary methods feel as though learning and teaching the science of registration is irrelevant to singers of contemporary genres, that it is only applicable to classical singing styles, that it is overly scientific and complicated for the type of methods that they are teaching, or that it is limiting because it suggests or imposes boundaries on registration events.
In many contemporary methods, a two-register model is taught. However, denying the existence of other vocal registers doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The teaching of a two-register model is in complete contradiction not only with the old Italian school model of registers, but also with documented research by speech pathologists and vocal pedagogues that reveals that the vocal folds are, in fact, capable of producing at least four distinct vibratory patterns. These patterns of the vocal folds are responsible for giving the human voice different registers that are distinguishable by characteristic types of tone or quality of sound, as well as pitch areas, (although the registers can be made to overlap somewhat).
The assumption is that, by advocating and using a two-register vocal model for teaching purposes, teaching and learning become less complicated, as clearer discussion of phonation can be achieved by removing gender from the equation and the same terminology and method of instruction can then be applied to both males and females.
What is an attempt at simplifying vocal instruction, however, really just ends up being incorrect and incomplete voice pedagogy that, in the end, benefits the singer in the areas of neither technical development nor vocal health. Scientific knowledge doesn’t complicate technique instruction; rather, it enhances it. Limiting the amount of knowledge of true and accurate vocal science that a student is given serves only the teacher by allowing him or her to justify and defend the use of belting and register abuse, such as carrying the thyroarytenoid dominant vocal fold source all the way up to the second passaggio. (I can’t begin to count how many students have come to me, after having taken years of lessons with other teachers, not knowing the simplest details about how their voices work and specifically lacking knowledge about vocal registration that probably would have helped them so much along the way.)
The vocal folds should always be permitted to function as they normally would, changing registers whenever it is appropriate and natural for the individual instrument. Fighting or resisting registration events is likely to lead to vocal strain and injury.
Sometimes, the existence of both the zona di passaggio in men and the middle register in women is completely denied, misunderstood or mislabeled, despite evidence provided through scientific study of the voice by speech pathologists and vocal pedagogues that supports the multiple-register model of the human voice. Because so many teachers believe that there are only two registers applicable to the average singer, many times ‘head voice’ is confused with any sound or pitches that lie above the chest register or above the singer’s first passaggio.
In contemporary methods of teaching, head voice is often inaccurately defined as merely a voice quality that is brighter in timbre and/or lighter than chest voice, even if it occurs in the middle section of the singer’s range, or as an unbelted middle range sound, rather than as a quality that is unique to a very high register, as it has been traditionally defined, and as it has been defined by speech pathologists and others who study the science of the voice. The head register shows a distinctly different vibratory pattern of the vocal folds than both the chest and middle registers. If head voice is defined merely as anything that is not chest voice, then a teacher may incorrectly believe that the student is using head voice whenever he or she is not belting, and whenever he or she is no longer in chest voice. Again, this kind of inaccuracy in teaching does the student no favours.
There are a couple reasons why teachers of some contemporary methods might see developing head voice as irrelevant and unnecessary. First, in most contemporary songs and styles of singing, head register is not typically needed - the use of head voice is very rare in contemporary genres, and is typically used for only for ‘vocalises’ and embellishments that are intended to impress the listener, not for lines of text - since most contemporary songs are written within a relatively small range of pitches (within the range for the chest and middle registers), since the characteristic tone of head voice is not necessarily deemed suitable to most contemporary styles, and since sopranos, who make the most use of the head register, do not dominate the contemporary singing world as they do the operatic world.
Second, while most singers want to increase their range, many students don’t actually intend to spend a great deal of time singing in a range of pitches that seems unsuited to their particular repertoire and that won’t necessarily give them a competitive edge. Head voice, after all, is above speech-level inflection, and since belted singing is supposed to be as speech-like as possible, and since it imposes undeniable limitations in upper range, it doesn’t make any sense to ‘waste’ an exorbitant amount of time on developing that part of one’s range. Also, some teachers may lack the necessary tools and expertise to enable their students to fully develop their head registers, since it requires physical and acoustic adjustments, such as the laryngeal tilt, that are not often taught, and are, in fact, actively avoided in some contemporary singing methods because they are believed to not produce a ‘natural’, speech-like sound.
A well-conditioned head register can’t be neglected, though. Supporters of belting claim that belters are not exempt from developing a strong head voice, as the more resonant their higher register in head voice, the better the belted notes in this range will be. They claim that some belters find that after a period of time focusing on the belt, the head voice will have improved and, likewise, after a period of time focusing on the head voice, the belt may be found to have improved. What these teachers likely mean by 'head voice' is legitimate, non-belted vocal production, not that which occurs above the second passaggio. However, head voice and belt range do not run alongside each other (e.g., they do not occupy the same range of frequencies or occur in a comparable range of pitches), as the head register is defined as that which occurs above the secondo passaggio, and belted singing does not ever extend above this pitch (or pivotal registration point). Again, head voice is not merely an unbelted sound, and increasing cricothyroid (lengthener) involvement somewhat in the middle register does not make the sound into head voice.
Most untrained singers have difficulties singing pitches above their second passaggio (which marks the beginning, or bottommost note, of the head register) without feeling strain and increasing muscular tension because they don’t know how to open, lengthen and relax the vocal tract. (I’ve witnessed this in my teaching studio probably more than any other technical problem.) Belting technique, in fact, teaches the complete opposite; a shortening of the vocal tract, a raised larynx and intentional constrictions at the laryngeal and pharyngeal levels, which means that the head register cannot physically be accessed in a belted singing posture. Students who regularly belt during singing may struggle to sing pitches above their second passaggio, even when not belting. Since belters use thyroarytenoid dominant vocal fold activity, as well as more lateral mouth positions to produce speech-like sounds, the larynx does not pivot properly in the upper middle range in order to allow head voice to occur during belting.
If the head register is not accessed, then belting is indeed limited to only two registers – the lower (chest) and the middle registers. (Again, the middle register should not be confused with the head register simply because it has a brighter tone than the chest register does or because the tone is ‘mixed’.) Even when ‘belt/mix’ technique is employed, the muscular balance is still off, and the student needs to learn to significantly reduce the amount of thyroarytenoid involvement in order to achieve balance of tone in both the middle register (or zona di passaggio in male voices) and the head register.
Because of the range limitations that belted singing places on the voice, students are often reminded that their definition of ‘high notes’ needs to be re-evaluated when belting. Belt repertoire from the 1950’s is very rarely written above B4 (‘As Long As He Needs Me’ from Oliver), while contemporary musical solos for belters often rise up to E5 or even F5. These notes coincide roughly with the upper passaggios for altos and mezzo-sopranos, the most common female voice types, meaning that belted singing never requires that a vocalist sing in head voice, and that head voice is not necessary in most contemporary styles of singing. Many singers learning to belt report frustrating inconsistencies and limitations with their ranges, both belting and in chest, middle and head voice. Reading discussion forums on the internet will reveal many such complaints.
Many singers who regularly belt also complain about an inability to sing in softer volumes and non-belted sounds with a steady tone. Although contemporary methods that are balanced in approach do encourage the use and development of (non-belted) middle voice and head voice, many belters still cannot sing at soft dynamic levels, nor in full, legitimate non-belted tones. The development of the entire vocal mechanism from the lowest thyroarytenoid dominant sound to the highest cricothyroid sound, as well as a multitude of resonance options, doesn’t always ensure that the entire musculature gains strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance. Training in belting can complicate singing technique because the musculature becomes confused as to when it is supposed to allow natural, healthy registration events to occur and when it is supposed to resist those normal tendencies and functions, as in belting. The vocal apparatus often has difficulties adjusting to a non-belted production, because the lengthener-shortener mix is different. Technical problems occur when the singer doesn’t know how to use a cricothyroid dominant source in the upper range, when the singer continues to maintain the more constricted physical postures of belted singing while attempting to sing in the higher range, etc.. Also, singers become accustomed to using a great deal of torso anchoring, breath pressure and constriction during belted singing, and they have difficulties adjusting to a more efficient style of breath management in non-belted vocal production. Additionally, inflammation (swelling) or injury of the vocal folds by the stressful technique of belting can make such piano (soft) singing a physical impossibility by interfering with healthy vocal fold function.
One variation on standard belt technique has been called "overdrive singing". In my way of thinking, overdrive singing treats the voice like a five-speed car. The driver (a.k.a. the singer) pushes the transmission (a.k.a. the larynx) to its absolute max, refusing to shift into the next gear. The engine revs and makes a lot of noise, but it doesn't function as well.
One particular website, which very recently disappeared from the Internet, detailed the technique and offered step-by-step instructions for how to sing with overdrive. A quick listen to the audio clips on this website, recorded by the 'teacher' herself, revealed that "overdrive" singing is exactly what it sounds like - pushing the voice. The singer on the audio clips was merely pushing her chest voice up a little higher so that it had to get louder, and doing what some might describe as 'adding vocal weight'. (In order to confirm what I was hearing and what was going on with the voice, I followed her instructions on how to do her technique, and I was able to do it successfully, but chest voice was definitely being used the entire time in a range of pitches that should be reserved for my middle voice function.) The woman who called herself a teacher of voice offered very specific parameters as far as the uppermost notes to be sung in overdrive. These notes were just a few pitches above the average primo passaggio location for each voice type.
So-called 'overdrive singing' sounds very forced and 'shouty'. There is a lack of control and a lack of warmth to the tone - the natural overtones are lost. It does not sound good at all. This kind of singing is limited to the range of pitches within and a little above the chest register, as warned by the author of the website herself. I would not call this acceptable technique in the least. It is obvious that some register abuse is taking place, which is neither healthy nor good technique. Pushing, forcing or pressing the voice is never good technique. One cannot sound good if one is pushing to do unnatural things with the voice. There is no possibility for blending the registers if chest voice gets pushed up so high that the singer has to become 'shouty' in order to sustain unbroken phonation.
Incidentally, that teacher had also recorded a sample song using a few different techniques, including legitimate, belted and overdrive singing. What she called "belted" voice was really not belting at all. She remained completely in chest voice, rather than switching to her middle voice in order to belt, and she added very unpleasant sounding nasality to her tone, not the slight "twang" that is taught and used by belters. (I suspect that she probably exaggerated the twang in an attempt to demonstrate how her technique of singing is superior to belting. In other words, she purposely made her samples of 'belting' sound very bad.) I have to question, on many levels, whether that teacher knows anything at all about the human voice.
If your voice starts to sound as though it is in 'overdrive', it is likely because you are carrying your chest voice function up too high. You need to switch into middle voice - more head tones than chest tones, but not necessarily head voice (although head voice is also acceptable) - at your primo passaggio. That will help not only with increasing your upper range and blending the registers, but also with maintaining a healthy voice.