True or False: Singing different genres of musical theatre music is a matter of style and interpretation.

My take?  True– with one HUGE caveat.  I don’t think ‘style’ means the same thing that some individuals do.  There is a major difference between A vocal style and vocal styling.  To grasp this concept, it is important to first understand the basic source-filter model of the voice:

Source = the vocal folds (aka the source of the sound).  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’.

Filter = the vocal tract (aka the throat and mouth coupled together as a tube).  This is the space above the vocal folds where we shape vowels.  The vocal tract filters the sound produced by the folds.  Changes in vocal tract shape result in ‘resonance’ changes (aka different vowel shapes produce different sound qualities).  We can deliberately control the shape of the vocal tract using the tongue, jaw, lips, and face.  The position of the soft palate also plays a role in filtering.  This is an oversimplification of the filter, but it does cover the basics.

Every vocal style/genre requires a specific source and filter configuration.  Think about the way an operatic soprano sounds vs a female musical theatre belter.  The main reason they sound so different is because most operatic sopranos primarily sing using cricothyroid-dominant production (aka ‘head voice’)- whereas most musical theatre belters sing using thyroarytenoid-dominant production (aka ‘chest voice’ or ‘chest/mix’).  These are functional/technical differences which occur at the level of the vocal folds (aka the source).  There are also differences in vocal tract shaping (aka filter adjustments), but registration cannot be changed simply by utilizing different types of ‘resonance’ or ‘placement’.  I repeat: a vocal technique like belting CANNOT be learned through resonance/vocal tract adjustments alone.  Now, an operatic soprano CAN learn to belt, and a musical theatre belter can learn to sing in head voice, but that requires cross-training the voice (something that takes time and built up muscle co-ordination).

Vocal styling, on the other hand, is an event that primarily occurs as a result of intentional vocal tract/filter adjustments.  This may include things like riffing, bending notes, vowel manipulation, resonance adjustments, ‘word painting’, diction changes, etc.  When we start talking about things like growls, cries, breathy tone, and vocal fry, the folds do play a role as well.  Vocal styling is a big part of singing in different genres of music, but it is a separate thing from registration (aka whether a sound is cricothyroid-dominant or thyroarytenoid-dominant).  Example: an operatic soprano can sing loud high notes using straight-tone, speech-like vowels, but that doesn’t mean she’s belting (aka singing in chest register).  Likewise, a musical theatre belter can sing with a consistant vibrato and tall/round vowels, but that doesn’t mean she’s singing in head register.  Those are primarily filter adjustments- not source/registration changes.

The main takeaway here: vocal styling is a major part of singing in different vocal styles, but these two terms are not synonymous.  The latter requires a combination of source and filter adjustments while the former mostly involves filter adjustments.  I realize the similar terminology is confusing, but this is an important distinction in my opinion.  The next time someone says they can sing in many different styles, I recommend asking for a demonstration.  While they’re singing, mentally ask yourself: “Is this person singing with the proper source-filter configuration appropriate for this style, or are they just throwing in little vocal stylings/’stylisms’ here and there?”

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Kevin Michael Jones


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