Singing Technique: A History

Throughout the centuries, various different techniques have developed to help boost the volume and character of the human singing voice. But the technique that best fits your voice depends on the kind of sound you prefer. In the first edition of this blog series about vocal techniques, we dip into the history of singing.

Photo by Jelmer de Haas

Volume

How long have humans been singing and how did people sing in the past? We simply don’t know. The first sound recordings date back to the end of the 19th century, after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph (the precursor to the gramophone) in 1878. There are countless singing traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation which give us a good picture of the earlier singing traditions that predate the emergence of recording. For example, Gregorian choirs and the chanted rituals of Tibetan monks still survive today. What we also know is how singing techniques in Europe have developed over the last three or four centuries, and we also have a clear understanding of how vocal traditions evolved in America. The history of vocal techniques in general tends to have a focus on the search for more volume. In other words: how to sing as loudly as possible. Halfway through the 20th century all of this changed the moment we could amplify vocals, and opened up a world of new options for singing. But before we get there, let’s take a look at what came before.

Bel Canto

An important classical music tradition is what’s referred to as bel canto, which is Italian for ‘beautiful voice’. This technique dates back to the Renaissance, just after the middle ages which ended in around 1500. After the ‘dark ages’, art and literature bloomed across Europe, and rich citizens were able to attend operas and concerts, which became increasingly grandiose, where the orchestras, the choirs and the theatres grew bigger and bigger. The size of these larger venues and orchestras placed increasingly higher demands on the singers, who often sang solos that needed to go above and beyond. These singers needed to produce more volume while maintaining a beautiful tone of voice, which is exactly how the bel canto singing technique emerged: a technique that simply allowed vocalists to produce more volume while retaining the quality of the sound of their voice. The development of the bel canto technique is the first peak in the history of how humans learned to sing louder.

Full & Open Sound

The main, physical aim of the bel canto technique is to create as large a space as possible between the larynx and the soft palate, which makes the voice sound full and open. What’s crucial here is good breath support. Without good breath support, the larynx shoots up when singing higher pitched notes. A common bel canto exercise is to sing scales that gradually rise in pitch, while guided by a piano. The aim is to retain as full and open a voice when singing at a lower pitch. A downside of this technique is that the openness of the sound can often make the lyrics of a piece harder to understand, because, when the larynx is always pushed down, all mouth-sounds start to appear similar. Also, the bel canto method had almost no scientific grounding at the time, since back then, we knew very little about human anatomy in general. All we had was observational proof: if you stuck to the bel canto method, then you could sing louder. Bel canto has continued to be taught to generations of singers, and is still taught today – 300 years later! In classical music training and even in some pop music academies, lessons in bel canto are still given, simply because the technique helped form the foundations of the classical singing tradition as it is today.

Geschiedenis van de zangtechniek

Beyond the Gospel Choir

Jumping a good few centuries forward (and over the pond), we land in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, where African slaves had brought blues and gospel music to the continent. While blues could be sung relatively quietly, gospel was a completely different story. Gospel choirs had to be loud enough to reach the back of the church and compete with the musicians playing behind them. The gospel choir singers that were given solos were the singers who stood out from the rest; who did things differently; were able to sing with a firm and open sound. These singers weren’t using the bel canto technique, they were belting it out and sometimes even screaming. These methods definitely weren’t something you could ever learn at the music conservatories, they were intuitive. They were simply the way it was done. Some of these voices became legendary names, so without gospel, we would never have had Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin or Anastacia. These singers belt out their lines to the point where the sound verges on shrill, making the lyrics far easier to understand than singers who use the bel canto technique – something that’s essential to the religious guidance that runs through gospel music.

Tin Pan Alley & Musical Theatre

We’ll stay in America for a while, at the start of the 20th century when Tin Pan Alley (the nickname for 28th Street in New York) gained its renown. This one street was teeming with stores where you could pick up sheet music and, in almost every shop stood a piano which the owner would use to compose a bespoke ditty on the spot if, say, you wanted to surprise your mother with an extra special gift on her birthday. The owner would then sell you the sheet music for said ditty so you could take it home and start practising.

Tin Pan Alley became a monument of American music history. In its glory days, the street also saw the rise of musical theatre in which, just like gospel music, singers had to gain enough volume to sit on top of the sound of a band or orchestra and reach the back of the theatre night after night. And, like gospel, the go-to technique was to ‘belt it out’. In really high registers, it almost sounded like screeching. While belting out gospel songs and belting out musical theatre songs is something slightly different, it is interesting to note that both approaches were emerging at the same time.

Geschiedenis van de zangtechniek

Through the Microphone

If bel canto formed the first peak in the quest for more volume, the musical and gospel traditions formed the second peak. From there, the limit had been set – there was no way to sing any louder. At least, not without any amplification. But, following the Second World War, audio tech boomed, to the point where instruments and singing voices could be amplified, recorded and even played on the radio. This opened up perspectives and invited new singing methods almost immediately. Vocalists could suddenly sing much more softly and quietly, with a speaking voice in place of a calling, ‘belting’ voice – all thanks to the microphone and the event of amplification. Also, the accompanying bands at the time (mostly jazz bands) were not so big just yet.

Then came the fifties, and with it, the emergence of the crooner: a far more relaxed way of singing at a medium volume. Well-known crooners include Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Following two peaks in vocal technique development with the goal of creating more volume, the third peak in the vocal technique evolution would actually focus on singing more softly.

Raw Vocals

A little later, even despite electronic amplification, things needed to get louder again. This next step wasn’t necessarily about singing loudly, but making it sound like you were loudly. This method starts by singing with your speaking voice and applying compression, until the vocal cords are slightly tightened and pushed into each other. Unlike with the bel canto method, the larynx is no longer held as low as possible but allowed to give in to the natural tendency to rise in response to higher pitched notes. While this technique did compromise on volume, it resulted in a much clearer vocal sound and expanded the possible range, since now even the highest notes within the vocal range could be reached without sounding too thin. On top of that, singers had the option of adding some distortion or texture to their vocal sound by (often consciously) folding the epiglottis back, sometimes even too far back to increase the effect. Applying this texture costs a lot of energy, and therefore volume, but it sounds really raw. Inspired by the emerging electric blues scene which included the likes of B.B. King, the pioneers of the new raw, rock ‘n roll sound included Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. These singers kickstarted a new vocal tradition – one that’s still going on today. Genres like R&B and maybe 80 percent or more of the pop music that’s made these days wouldn’t have happened without the simple method of singing at medium volume with a little vocal compression.

Geschiedenis van de zangtechniek

Artistic Choices

Audio technology has advanced so much that there’s actually no need to pick a specific singing technique any more. Instead, the technique you choose depends on the kind of sound you want – even in a given moment, so that your singing style matches the genre. This makes selecting a technique an artistic choice. Do you need to take singing lessons to achieve certain techniques? Not always. Check the list further below to see if singing lessons are for you and the kind of vocal sound you’re after.

In the next edition of this blog series, we’ll cover the basics of breathing and breath support.

Good to Know

Speaking & Singing

In principle, anyone who can speak can also sing and, if you can’t naturally sing in tune, this is usually something you can learn. However, the fact does remain that some people have a singing voice that is easier to develop than others, but you can always improve by recording and listening to yourself a lot, and by thinking about how you want your voice to sound. Technically, speaking and singing are very similar processes. When speaking, you’re following a melody in much the same way as you would when singing. But when singing, a greater melodic range is required and the notes need to be reached with more precision than when speaking. Singing also places greater demands on the voice, For example, notes are held for much longer when singing, which requires more conscious use of breath support than when you speak. Breath support prevents air from escaping too quickly so you can actually make it to the end of the sentence, so it’s actually something that you use naturally when speaking, but it’s not something you’re likely to be aware of or know how it happens. We’ll talk about breath support in more detail in the following blog in this series, but what’s worth noting for the moment is that most vocal issues arise because the singer is trying to sing too loudly with their speaking voice (especially with compression), or they try to sing really quietly and aren’t able to release the compression.

Bands: Be Kind to Your Singer!

No matter how much it’s amplified, the voice has a physical limit. Any band needs to be aware of this – especially during rehearsals. Often, bands rehearse so loudly that the singer is unable to hear themselves and are forced to sing harder (too hard!) to try to bring up the volume. The singing voice suffers greatly as a result. It’s a bit like driving on the motorway in second gear. You’re just going to kill the engine. This is why singers often suffer more during rehearsals than they do during live gigs.

Band rehearsals often happen in small rooms, where the sound can’t dissipate and the musicians are seeking the same musical high that they would get when playing a show. On top of that, the problem with a lot of guitar amplifiers is that they only start sounding really good when you turn them up, and the drummer often just can’t afford to get a second practice drum kit that can be played at a lower volume. You can limit the impact a little bit by setting up a plexiglass screen in front of the drums, but the fact is that playing loud rehearsals will cost both the quality of the vocals and therefore the quality of the songs.

If you’re the singer in a band that rehearses too loudly, then you could ask yourself if this is the right band for you, or just have a chat with your fellow band members about the volume levels and come to some sort of agreement. If the band doesn’t stick to the agreement, then you could solve the problem by using in-ear monitors during rehearsals and avoid singing any louder than you actually can because, in the long run, it’s actually dangerous for your voice and probably won’t result in the sound that best fits the song anyway.

Singing Lessons: Yes or No?

It’s wise to get singing lessons if you:

  • Want to know if you have more to offer as a singer.
  • Want help choosing between the many different options there are for your voice type.
  • Want to get to know your voice better and what’s possible and impossible.
  • Want to improve your sound or expand your sound.
  • Want to expand your vocal range.
  • Have vocal problems after rehearsals or live performances.
  • Need some personal coaching before going into the recording studio.

Choose the Singing Teacher That Fits

“If you’re looking for a singing teacher, choose someone that’s going to teach you what you want to learn”, advises singing coach, Alfons Verreijt. “Your singing teacher shouldn’t interfere unintentionally with your taste or preference for a particular sound or music style. A good teacher teaches you how to do ‘your thing’ but better. Therefore, generally speaking, bel canto isn’t the best technique to learn if you want to improve your pop vocals. If you want to achieve a classical sound with your voice, the bel canto singing method is perfect. So if you want to sing pop, it would be wiser to choose a teacher that works with the Estill Voice Training System (EVTS) or the Complete Vocal Technique (CVT). Then, you’ll learn how to sing with compression and how to shout and scream without damaging your vocals.”

See also…

» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» How to Record a Full Choir
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Training Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

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