The first time someone told me that men can’t belt, my initial thought was, “you’re kidding me, right?” I had grown up listening to many Broadway, pop, and rock male ‘belters’, so this idea seemed completely foreign to me. Over the years, I have learned a great deal more about the human voice. If someone were to ask me today whether or not I think male belting is a real thing, my response would be… it depends.
This topic really comes down to how you choose to define belting. One might assume that after a century of belting on Broadway (and much longer elsewhere), there would be some sort of unified definition for the term that we could all agree on. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. For decades, belting has been one of the most hotly debated topics in both the voice and theatre communities. However, we now have access to a significant amount of research on the subject. In academia, belting has been explored from many different angles, and I strongly recommend picking up a copy of The Vocal Athlete if you’re looking for a good summary of all this interesting research.
For now, I will present my personal definition of belting and go from there. Belting is ‘loud’, chest register-dominant singing carried above the passaggio/break with speech-like production. There are a couple things that need to be explained further:
- REGISTRATION: The vocal folds are primarily driven by two muscles: the thyroarytenoid (TA) and the cricothyroid (CT). ‘Chest register’ can be defined as TA dominant production, and ‘head register’ can be defined as CT dominant production. When singing in chest register, the folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a long closed quotient phase (aka the folds are touching for a longer period of time). When singing in head register, the folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and there is a shorter closed quotient phase. Some vocal pedagogues maintain that these two registers can be blended together in different configurations to form a ‘mixed’ voice. A chest register-dominant mix is called ‘chest/mix’, and a head register-dominant mix is called ‘head/mix’. In my opinion, healthy belting is often a form of chest/mix rather than pure chest register.
- PASSAGGIO/BREAK: Every voice has a main passaggio/break (usually around the E/F above Middle C, but it depends on the person). For women, this break tends to be toward the lower part of their range, and for men it is usually in the upper region.
- VOCAL TRACT: When I say ‘speech-like production’, I am primarily referring to the shape of the vocal tract above the folds. The vocal tract is the throat and mouth coupled together as a tube. This structure serves as a filter for the sound produced by the folds. Changes in vocal tract shape result in ‘resonance’ changes (aka different vowel shapes = different sounds). When belting, the vocal tract assumes a shape that is similar to normal speech, resulting in a ‘bright’, speech-like sound quality. This is especially true in musical theatre where singing is almost always text and speech-based. We can control the shape of the vocal tract using the tongue, jaw, and lips.
Now, I’m not expecting everyone to agree with the definition of belting above. In fact, I know they won’t (and that is OK). My definition is heavily influenced by the work of Broadway voice teacher and voice pedagogue, Jeannette LoVetri. Using this definition, I feel comfortable saying that men can and do belt. However, the sound we associate with male belting doesn’t ‘kick in’ until around the passaggio/break. At that point, men have at least three options:
- Flip over into cricothyroid-dominant production. Some call this configuration ‘falsetto’, ‘head voice’, or ‘head register’. CT dominant singing could also include ‘head/mix’.
- Extend a chest register-dominant sound up into the passaggio/break using tall, round vowels (aka vowel modification). This will cause the larynx to lower somewhat and the vocal tract to elongate. The resulting sound will most likely be ‘rich’ and ‘warm’. This configuration is sometimes referred to as the ‘male extension’, ‘covered chest’, or even ‘head voice’ (I will not be using the last term in order to avoid confusion with #1).
- Extend a chest register-dominant sound up into the passaggio/break using speech-like vowels. This may cause the larynx to raise somewhat and the vocal tract to shorten. The resulting sound will most likely be ‘bright’ and speech-like. In order to maintain this sound in upper notes, the jaw will need to lower somewhat and the mouth will need to assume a wider shape. This configuration is sometimes called ‘belting’, ‘male belt’, or ‘chest/mix’ (depending).
None of these approaches are inherently ‘wrong’, and different musical theatre roles will have different vocal requirements. Some roles may even require the singer-actor to use all three of the options above (and possibly others). Let’s listen to some examples:
1. Here is an example of cricothyroid-dominant production for men (aka falsetto/head voice). Listen closely to the actor’s voice on the word “Sherry”. Do you hear the shift from chest register (TA) to falsetto/head register (CT)?
2. Here is an example of the ‘male extension’/’covered chest’. Listen closely to the word “feeling”. The actor modifies the vowel from a speech-like [i] sound to a tall, round [I] sound (as in ‘Phillip’). The resulting tone quality is rich and warm.
3. Here is an example of male belting. Notice how the actor maintains speech-like vowels in the upper part of his range (i.e. “Santa Fe”). The resulting sound is ‘loud’, speech-like, and chest register-dominant (TA).
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below or message me via my website. As always, thank you for reading!