One singing technique for everything? Classical versus popular singing

Bernadette & Friends29 September 2022
Two staircases in different colours - the picture is symbolic for the comparison of the singing technique pop versus classic

From time to time, singing students with previous classical experience come to my singing studio. They have previously taken classical singing lessons, but don't really want to sing classical repertoire, but rather rock or pop songs. They realised that they couldn't sing the songs with their classical singing technique. Their vocal "sound" doesn't match. Why is that? And is there a non-classical vocal technique that covers the rock/pop range?

Quite a few singing teachers are convinced that classical vocal technique can be used to sing all styles of music. It goes back to a long tradition of composed music that has produced admirable vocal virtuosos. The "heroic tenors" or "colouratura sopranos" still take our breath away in today's concert life. If you have learnt to sing like this in classical vocal training, can't you sing everything? "One size fits all"? As impressive as that is - no. Let's take a look at the history of music 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. 

In addition to the volume, it is important that the soloist sings beautifully and clearly. This placed high vocal demands on the singer. This gave rise to the "bel canto", the art of beautiful singing, which was taught well into the 19th century. There are doubts as to whether bel canto was ever a standardised "technique". However, there are some general characteristics of bel canto singing.

Typical characteristics:

  • 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 the Italian bel canto, other influential classical singing traditions emerged later. French opera has a long tradition, as does German opera. We can still hear Wagner's famous music dramas today. Singing from the German opera tradition differs from Italian bel canto. Here there is an additional dark colouring of the sound: the sung vowels are given additional space due to a pronounced low position of the larynx. This makes them sound fuller and darker.

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

From "Belter" to modern popular singing

From classical singing in old Europe, the path to modern popular singing continues via the USA. When people still sang without microphones, there were two types of singers in the concert halls and music theatres of the USA. Firstly, classical singers, also known as "legit singers", who had classical vocal training. And secondly, the "belters". They used their voice in the manner of powerful speaking or shouting, as in an official announcement in the marketplace. The "belten" as singing in a high register with a speaking voice quality later entered popular music. 

In the 1930s and 40s, the electrical amplification of music became established. Now it was no longer necessary for singers to fill concert halls with their purely acoustic voices. With microphones, softer, more intimate sounds reached the audience's ears via the orchestra or band. Radio carried the singing even further - right into the living rooms of listeners. This allowed a third type of vocalist to establish themselves alongside the classical singers and belters. The so-called "crooner". In German, he is called (also somewhat pejoratively) a "crooner". The young Frank Sinatra, for example, was one of the early crooners.

Rock 'n' roll then appeared on the scene in the 1950s. It spawned a variety of styles and genres in the following decades. Today, these are summarised under the general label "popular music". (In English "contemporary commercial music", CCM for short). Since then, we have heard an unprecedented range of vocal sounds. This ranges from breathing in ballads to screaming techniques in heavy metal. But despite this variety of sounds, there is a characteristic difference between popular and classical singing. Vocals in the rock/pop spectrum typically have a bright, forward sound quality. Unlike classical vocals, the sound is orientated towards the speaking voice.

A new sound

This can already be seen externally: classical singers always sing with oval, vertically opened mouths. Rock or pop singers open their vowels horizontally, i.e. wide. The so-called "width tension" also gives the vowels more space, but unlike in classical singing, the sound colouring becomes lighter instead of darker. Many rock/pop singers combine this opening into the width with the tone-sharpening "twang", a constriction in the larynx area. In this way, they create more resonance for the carrying capacity of their voices instead of falling into the "classical" sound. Because this sound does not suit 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, additional noises are also mixed into the vocals or screaming techniques are used. Puffs, vocal fry or roughness of the sound are examples of this.
  • 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 wide vocal opening so typical of rock and pop singing, twang, belting, tone approaches ranging from the breath to the vocal fry to the growl, special techniques such as 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 that they are components of a non-classical singing technique that is widely established today. This technique is taught by professionals all over the world. To pick up the old phrase from the 1930s: In addition to the classical singing technique, the popular or CCM singing technique can now also lay claim to the term "legit singing". 

But there are also similarities

Despite all the differences, there are of course also similarities. For example, popular singing technique benefits from many techniques and exercises from the classical tradition. This applies to the breathing and supporting muscles, register transitions, articulation (consonants) and much more. There are also stylistic overlaps: classically trained singers who sing pop songs and are successful with them. One example of this is the mezzo-soprano Ann-Sofie von Otter with the title "This House Is Empty Now". In the original, Elvis Costello sings with the bright, straight tones that are typical of popular singing. But with Ann-Sofie von Otter we hear a slightly darkened tone colouring and a lot of head voice:

This is unquestionably a skilful interpretation, and wonderful for anyone who likes classical sound aesthetics. I would therefore refer those interested in singing in classical sound aesthetics to esteemed colleagues who teach classical vocal pedagogy. There is still a demand for classically trained voices in opera houses, concert halls, musical theatre and musicals.

Tools versus a singing technique for everything

One question remains unanswered: 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.? As you can imagine, the "one size fits all" principle raises false expectations here too! The genre-typical singing styles in the broad field of rock/pop music are very different. Lessons in popular vocal technique are not a standardised vocal training course that gives you the ability to sing everything there is to sing in the rock/pop genre.

Think of it this way: Popular singing lessons show you the tools you need to sing the style of your choice in a technically sound, vocally healthy way. Techniques such as vocal fry, belting etc. are tools with which you can learn to achieve the special vocal effects of your genre with confidence. In the popular vocal studio, the toolbox is ready and waiting, and with expert instruction in the use of the right tools, you're off and running ... and you're right 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!

Sing a Song - Be Happy!

Sing A Song - Be Happy

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