One singing technique for everything? Classical versus popular singing

From time to time, singing students with previous classical experience come to my singing studio. They had previously taken classical singing lessons, but actually don't want to sing classical repertoire, but rock or pop songs. They have found that they cannot sing the songs with their classical singing technique or that their vocal "sound" does not suit them. Why is that? And is there a non-classical singing technique that covers the rock/pop range?

Quite a few singing teachers are convinced that classical singing technique can be used to sing all styles of music. It goes back to a long tradition of composed music that has indeed produced admirable vocal virtuosos - just think of the "heroic tenors" or "coloratura sopranos" who can still take our breath away in today's concert life. If one has learned to sing like this in a classical vocal training, can one not sing everything? "One size fits all"? Impressive as that is - No. Let's take a look at music history to understand why.

Characteristics of classical singing

What is considered "classical singing" owes much to the tradition of sung musical drama, the opera. The solo centrepiece of opera has been the aria since the time of the Italian composer Monteverdi, at the beginning of the 17th century. In an aria, the soloist had to be able to sing over the whole orchestra. 

To drown out the orchestra with the singing and at the same time to sing both beautifully in sound and understandably in text, this placed high vocal demands on the soloists. This gave rise to "bel canto", the art of beautiful singing, which was taught until the 19th century. Although there are doubts as to whether bel canto was ever a uniform "technique", there are some general characteristics of bel canto singing. Among them are 

  • the resonance of the voice, important for its carrying capacity across the orchestra, 
  • Unity of the voice registers i.e. the inaudible transition between head and chest voice, 
  • Dynamics i.e. the transition between loud and soft without audible change in sound quality, 
  • Support and hold long notes or phrases, 
  • Tone ornaments such as trills and vibrato. 

After Italian bel canto, other influential classical singing traditions emerged later. There is the tradition of French opera, and then above all German opera, which we remember from Wagner's famous music dramas. Singing from the German operatic tradition differs from Italian bel canto mainly in an additional darkening of the tone: a pronounced low-pitching of the larynx gives the sung vowels additional space, making them sound fuller and darker. 

In the singing tradition of the German art song, on the other hand, the brighter tone colour without laryngeal low register continued to be cultivated (audible, for example, in settings of Franz Schubert's "Lindenbaum"). We see: Singing from the European classical tradition does not offer a completely uniform (sound) picture. Nevertheless, in retrospect, Italian bel canto has become the epitome of "classical singing", often extended by the low position of the larynx, the so-called "yawn position" when singing.

From "Belter" to modern popular singing

From classical singing in old Europe, the path to modern popular singing continues through the USA. Before electronic amplification of singing came along, there were two types of singers in the concert halls and music theatres of the USA: (a) classical singers, also called "legitimate singers", who had classical vocal training, and (b) the "belters", who used their voice in the manner of powerful speaking or shouting, as in an official announcement in the marketplace. Beltering" as singing in a high register with a speaking voice quality later entered popular music. 

When electrical amplification of music became established in the 1930s and 40s, it was no longer necessary for singers to fill concert halls purely acoustically with their voices. The microphone also made it possible to bring soft, more intimate sounds to the audience's ears via the orchestra or band - and to the listeners' living rooms via radio. In this way, a third type of vocalist was able to establish himself alongside the classical singers and belters: (c) the "crooner", also referred to in German as "Schnulzensänger" (crooner). The young Frank Sinatra, for example, was one of the early crooners.

In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll came on the scene. In the decades that followed, it gave birth to the variety of styles and genres that today are grouped under the general label of "popular music" (in English, "contemporary commercial music", or CCM for short). Since then, we have heard an unprecedented range of vocal sounds, from breaths in ballads to screaming techniques in heavy metal. But despite this variety of sounds: if we compare singing in the rock/pop spectrum with classical singing, we notice in contrast what is typical of popular singing: a bright, forward sound quality oriented towards the speaking voice. 

A new sound

This is already evident externally: while classical singers always sing with oval, vertically opened mouths, you see rock or pop singers open their vowels horizontally, in width. The so-called "width tension" also gives the vowels more space, but unlike in classical singing, this makes the sound colouring brighter instead of darker. Many rock/pop singers combine this opening into the width with the tone-sharpening "twang", a narrowing in the larynx area. In this way they create more resonance for the carrying capacity of their voices without falling into a "classical" sound that does not fit their music.

Now look at an example of this, from the musical field: Idina Menzel with the title "Defying Gravity". The dramaturgy of her interpretation of the song is very revealing for us: while in the first part of the song she still switches between chest and head voice with soft transitions, as we know it from classical singing, she then goes into a powerful "belt". She sings with a full voice in her highest register, as if in an acclamative shout. And she uses range in the high register to keep her vocal sound bright and lyrically intelligible. She could not achieve this sound with a classical vocal technique. Here she is:

Characteristics of popular singing 

We can now name some typical characteristics that distinguish popular singing from classical singing, as it was characterised above:

  • The resonance of the voice is amplified with the help of the twang and the width tension (sharpness and brightness of the sound).
  • Singing is oriented towards the speaking voice quality, in high registers: belting (singing with the full range of the vocal cords).
  • Chest and head voice are often separated from each other instead of being tonally united (intentional vocal breaks or squeaks).
  • For a more intense emotional expression, incidental noises are also mixed into the singing or shouting techniques are used: Breath, vocal fry (creak) or roughness of tone.
  • Only rare or no use of vibrato (straight notes).

These characteristics of popular singing allow us to better understand why classical singing lessons are actually not suitable for all styles of music. The vocal opening in width so typical for singing in rock & pop, twang, belted, tone approaches that go from breath to "vocal fry" to "growl", special techniques like shouting: These are all techniques that are not taught in classical vocal training - after all, they are not needed for the interpretation of classical works. The good news is, they are components of a non-classical vocal technique that is now widely established and taught by professionals all over the world. To take up the old word from the 1930s: In addition to classical singing technique, popular or CCM singing technique can now also claim the designation "legitimate singing". 

For all the differences, there are of course commonalities. For example, popular singing benefits from many techniques and exercises developed in classical singing traditions - for breathing and supporting muscles, register transitions, articulation (consonants) and much more. Stylistic overlaps also occur, classically trained singers singing pop songs and being successful with them. One example is the mezzo-soprano Ann-Sofie von Otter singing "This House Is Empty Now". While Elvis Costello sings in the original with the bright, straight tones that are so typical of popular singing, in Ann-Sofie von Otter's version we hear a slightly darkened tone colouring and a lot of head voice:

This is unquestionably a skilful interpretation, and beautiful for anyone who likes classical tonal aesthetics. I therefore refer those interested in singing in classical tonal aesthetics to esteemed colleagues who teach in classical vocal pedagogy. There is still a need for classically trained voices not only in opera houses and concert halls, but also in musical theatre or modern musicals.

Tools versus a singing technique for everything

One question still remains open: Is it possible to sing all styles equally with the popular singing technique? Jazz, Heavy Metal, Soul, Folk, Rhythm & Blues, Mainstream Pop, Musical, Independent, Country etc.? You can already imagine: the "one size fits all" principle raises false expectations here too, as different as the genre-typical singing styles are in the broad field of rock/pop music. Lessons in popular singing technique cannot be something like a uniform vocal training course with which one acquires the ability to sing everything there is in the rock-pop field. 

Think of it this way: Popular singing lessons show you the tools you need to sing the style of your choice in a technically secure, vocally healthy way. The techniques mentioned above, the vocal fry, the belten, etc. are like tools that will help you learn to achieve the specific vocal effects of your genre with confidence. In the popular singing studio, the toolbox is there, so to speak, and with expert instruction in the use of the right tools, you're off and running ... and you're in the middle of an exciting process of developing your very own vocal expression - with a sound that suits your musical genre.

In my online singing courses you will learn important tools for building your voice. Feel free to check out my Online singing courses in!

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