Voice Break: A Problem or Not?

In our series on vocal technique, we’ve looked at singing with and without compression quite a few times, but we haven’t touched on one part of it yet: the transition from singing with compression to singing without compression and the voice break that comes with it. Read on and learn how to deal with it.

Beyoncé in 2011 – Photo (edited): Beyoncé (New York), by Claudio Mariotto, licence CC BY 2.0

The text on this page is from Alfons Verreijt, developer of the VocalFeedback Method and author of the book The Essence of the Voice.


We previously looked at compression more closely, but I’ll refresh your memory: singing with and without compression is all about tensing and relaxing your vocal cords. Singing with compression requires tensed vocal folds (active mode), while singing without compression depends on keeping the vocal cords relaxed and only engaging the surrounding muscles (passive mode). Mastering both techniques increases the range of things you can do with your voice, even if they both come with their own set of limitations. As you can see in the table below, singing with compression limits your dynamic range, where dropping below volume level 3 makes your vocals ‘crackle’, and going beyond volume level 7 can damage your vocal cords. Singing without compression, however, opens up the full dynamic range, so from volume level 0 to level 10. On the other hand, when you sing without compression and engage only the edges of your vocal cords, your voice will sound soft or thin. This is called falsetto (or head voice) in bel canto and EVTS. In CVT, it’s called the neutral voice. Singing without compression using the full width of your vocal cords does result in full-bodied vocals, but limits your high pitch range by four or five notes when you carry the same note up in pitch, that is.

Get a Good Grasp

Since both modes have their own set of limitations and doing it wrong can easily lead to damaging your vocal cords, it’s vital that you’re able to tell the difference between singing with and without compression. If needed, you can revisit our article on compression. As a singer, you could decide to always sing with compression, which is perfectly fine as long as you accept that you won’t be able to do certain things with your voice, like sing really loud and high at the same time (see our article on belting and twanging). Mastering both singing with and without compression ultimately gives you more options and is worth learning so you can switch between both modes at will to vary your vocals.

Voice Break

Switching between singing with and without compression does come with a ‘drawback’: the transition is audible. In classical singing, this is called voice break and it’s actually not that much of an issue unless you’re involved in classical styles like bel canto where singers will often spend years working on eliminating the audible transition. In pop music, it’s generally not that big of a deal.

Back to bel canto. In this vocal style, there are two distinct registers called the head voice (used for the high notes) and the chest voice (used for the low notes), which are named after the area where the resonance can be felt the most. They’re also not to be confused with the place where sound is produced, which is obviously your throat, or more specifically, the vocal cords. The vocal cords can be engaged in various ways and both bel canto and modern singing techniques make use of that versatility. The fact that you ‘feel’ the low notes in the chest and the high notes more in your head has everything to do with the size of both ‘resonance chambers’: big versus small. Also, there’s a movement or substyle in bel canto that distinguishes a third register: the mixed voice, called ‘voix mixte’ in French and ‘mezza di voce’ in Italian. The mixed voice is essentially singing with compression, but with as little compression as possible. With loads of practice, you can learn to release compression inaudibly while singing in this register.

Bel Canto and Voice Break

So how do the head voice, mixed voice, and chest voice relate to the table below? The low notes (chest voice) are sung without compression using the full width of the vocal cords, the middle notes (mixed voice) are sung with compression, and the high notes (head voice) are sung without compression using only the edges of the vocal cords. While it’s possible to sing high notes with compression, this is generally considered not-done in bel canto. Take Pavarotti, a classical tenor who almost exclusively used his mixed voice and sang with compression, the only exception being extremely high notes, which he produced by belting. Meanwhile, in pop music, singers like Beyoncé can go really high with compression. The transitions between the three bel canto registers come with two voice breaks since there are two transitions where you go from singing with compression to singing without it. As mentioned, however, audible voice breaks resulting from register transitions are deemed inappropriate in bel canto, where the aim is to make the head voice, chest voice, and mixed voice sound as similar as possible. That’s why a large portion of the training that classical singers go through is focused on eliminating the sound of voice breaks. Bel canto singers will practice scales daily, trying to keep the larynx as low as possible while raising their soft palate, which makes it more difficult to use compression and also lowers the risk of unintentionally using it. It’s mostly the lower position of the larynx that gives you that classical sound. Here, the only downside of making everything you’re singing sound more or less the same is that the words get harder to understand.

Estill and Sadolin

There are two gurus of pop music who are responsible for a breakaway from bel canto ideals: Jo Estill, who’s known for the Estill Voice Training System (EVTS), and Cathrine Sadolin, who’s known for the Complete Vocal Technique (CVT). Estill and Sadolin claimed and proved that singers have access to their full dynamic range whether they’re singing with or without compression, meaning you don’t necessarily need to use the chest voice for the low notes and the head voice for the high notes. This also means that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a voice break when you shift from low to high and vice versa. That said, Estill and Sadolin still distinguish between different registers, which Estill refers to as ‘voice qualities’ and Sadolin calls ‘vocal modes’. Also, when using compression, switching registers still comes with an audible voice break. The VocalFeedback Method developed by Alfons Verreijt cuts things down to just two modes: singing with compression and singing without compression. Explaining his reasoning, Alfons says: “All sounds are produced in either of these modes and there’s a clear crossover point that’s always going to be audible. You either sing with compression or without, there’s no middle ground. Within these modes, you can do various things with your voice that you can gently and gradually switch between. For example, you can sing without compression using the full width of your vocal cords or just the edges. But you can also, as if on a spectrum of sorts, go somewhere in between. There’s no clear crossover point like when you’re going from singing with compression to singing without. There’s ample room for variation within either mode, which is why you will have full control over your voice once you get to grips with both modes.”

Avoiding or Hiding Voice Breaks

Back to what this article is about. As mentioned before, voice breaks aren’t much of an issue in pop music — in fact, avoiding or hiding it is more like an artistic choice and to do either, you have a few options:

Voice Break: A Problem or Not?
Kate Pierson

Hard Line

The first option is to ‘hard line’ it. This is where you always sing loudly and without compression using the full width of your vocal cords. Since this would mean that you never sing without compression, you’ll never have to deal with voice breaks. The downside is that this option limits your pitch range since you’re sacrificing four or five of your highest notes (see the table below). To compensate for this, you can decide to belt out the high notes just like Aretha Franklin and Kate Pierson (The B-52s) do. Want to learn more about belting and twanging? Read our other blog.

Soft Line

Instead of hard-lining it and always singing loudly, you can also opt to soft line it. This means singing without compression as well but singing so softly that you’ll never need to use compression at all.

Compression On

Singing with compression almost all the time, like Beyoncé and Pavarotti, means you won’t have to deal with voice breaks either. The disadvantage is that your dynamic range is limited: your internal volume dial can only be set between 3 and 7.

Switching Modes Between Words

You can ‘hide’ your voice breaks by switching modes between words instead of in the middle of a word. This way, it’s much less obvious. This is done a lot and means you can never sing a glissando, which requires transitioning from singing with compression to singing without and therefore comes with an audible voice break. Have a listen to ‘Ashes to Ashes’ by David Bowie if you want an example.

Singing Bel Canto-Style

As explained earlier, an important part of bel canto is eliminating audible voice breaks as much as possible. Using this vocal style is another option, just bear in mind that it depends on keeping your larynx as low as possible, which gives you a classical singing voice that may not be what you’re looking for. Not only that, it takes years of training to master bel canto. Alfons Verreijt: “And remember that you’ll be completely re-trained. Most bel canto teachers refer to themselves as vocal pedagogues, which is kind of odd when you think about it. You don’t go to a guitar pedagogue for guitar lessons.”

All of the above options can be combined and alternated as long as you understand the basic principles. With the right technique, and as long as you put in the work required, you can take on literally anything with your voice.

Singing With and Without Compression

Pop and Jazz

Pop and jazz singers sing in various styles and use different ways to hide their voice breaks. Someone like Ella Fitzgerald works a little bel canto into her high notes to conceal the sound of mode transitions, while Norah Jones tends to sing so softly that you can’t actually hear her voice breaks. Chet Baker also had his own way of doing things, just listen to ‘My Funny Valentine’. Dutch singer Janne Schra from former jazz band Room Eleven sings with compression and switches to singing without compression for the high notes, adding in a bit of air in the process and making sure her vocal cords aren’t completely closed. This is called partial adduction. In her younger years, Aretha Franklin sang without compression using the full width of her vocal cords. When going up in pitch, she’d skip compression and go straight for belting out the high notes. R&B singers will sing with compression most of the time and release it every now and then. Mariah Carey is a great example.

Voice Break: A Problem or Not?
Janne Schra

Make a Decision

To sum it all up, there are various ways in which you can harness the full potential of your voice and colour in your vocals with underlying artistic and technical considerations that are partly based on whether or not you want to avoid or cover up your voice breaks. As explained, audible voice breaks aren’t much of a problem in pop music, nor are they damaging to your vocal cords. The most important thing is being able to tell the difference between singing with compression and without, and learning to do both. Currently taking singing lessons and keep being asked to sing scales? Then it’s worth pointing out that those scales are part of the bel canto school, which is focused on concealing voice breaks. Practicing scales is often considered to be the one-and-only way to train a voice. It’s also worth asking yourself if that’s worth your time and energy. In any case, get a grasp of things and make a decision. “There’s more than enough new insights that make those scales unnecessary,” says Alfons. “What you rinse and repeat is obviously what you learn and remember, so practicing a lot of scales makes you great at singing scales, after which it’s up to you to decide how you implement that skill into your repertoire. It’s a training regiment that doesn’t necessarily work well for pop singers since what they do on stage isn’t accompanied as tightly. Unless, of course, you’re doing a scale-only show, which I personally wouldn’t buy tickets for. I’ve already sung and heard too many scales in my life.” Again, it’s crucial that you understand how it all works and make a decision for yourself. Find a vocal coach that takes your style seriously and is willing to help you train and develop what you want to learn.

With and Without Air

Singing with the edges of your vocal cords (called falsetto or head voice in bel canto) can be done in two ways: with and without air. Without air is called a full adduction, where your vocal cords are neatly lined up and fully closed. With air is called a partial adduction, where your vocal cords aren’t fully shut. The latter can only be done when you sing softly and without compression. When you just can’t get the air out of your sound when singing with compression, then it’s probably worth looking into phoniatric therapy. You may be dealing with something like a polyp.

See also

» Singing with Vibrato
» Singing with Effects: Growling, Grunting, Distorting and Screaming
» Vowel Pronunciation for Singers
» Belt & Twang: the Loud & High Vocal Technique
» Singing With and Without Compression
» Dynamic Breath Support & Blending = Flowing Vocals
» The Breathing Cycle and Breath Support for Singing
» Singing Technique: A History

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Books
» Vocal Effects Gear

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