The Colours of the Voice: How and why different registers have their own sound and feel (part 1 of 3)

I’ve been trying to write about this for some time, but it’s not easy.

Firstly, it’s a fairly abstract topic.

Secondly, so much of singing well is sensory as well as sonic. As such, trying to get less experienced singers to recognise descriptions of what higher registers should feel like without said singers having experienced it themselves, is a somewhat futile endeavour. The discussion inevitably becomes more academic than instructive.

Thirdly, it’s sufficiently complex enough that it isn’t easy to provide a concise explanation for.

Nevertheless, the idea that different parts of the voice have their own distinct qualities and ‘colours’ to them is evident when you listen to great singers. Whether that’s great classical singers, pop singers, rock singers, musical theatre, etc.

The objective of this article is to help people appreciate this as a concept, and also to understand the idiosyncrasies of the various registers of the voice. To do this, and to make sure the structure of this longer articles is clear, I’ve split the explanation into three parts:

Part 1: How the voice is built – We’ll do a quick tour of how the voice is built and works, to provide context for later explanations.

Part 2: Instrument Idiosyncrasies – Before diving into discussing the voice, we’ll illustrate the same principles by referring to other more easily discussed instruments, e.g. how they work, how they like to played, what works well/what doesn’t, etc.

Part 3: Idiosyncrasies of the Voice – At this stage, we should have enough context and illustrations of the principles we are seeking to discuss, and we can grasp how these relate to the voice.

Feel free to visit these part by part rather than trying to digest it in one go. Either way, let’s get started with part 1.


Part 1: How the voice is built

You can read a more fully-featured discussion on the way the voice works here. For now, let’s do a whistle-stop tour.

At the bottom end of our instrument, is what many refer to as chest voice. This is the lowest and darkest sounding register of the voice.

The top end of the voice is, broadly speaking, referred to as head voice.

The chief transition point from chest to head voice occurs in different places for men vs women, but it must nevertheless occur. In our nomenclature, we call this the first bridge (also known as the first passage (passagio), etc).

There are other bridges (read: transition points from one register to another), lying within what we would call head voice. There is a second bridge, a third bridge, a fourth bridge, etc.

These occur at distinct points roughly every half octave, but the first and second bridges are by far the most well-observed aspects in the history of vocal pedagogy.

Who should learn to deal with their first bridge?

Honestly, everyone should. Here’s why. Continue reading “The Colours of the Voice: How and why different registers have their own sound and feel (part 1 of 3)”

The Bad Habits that Different Genres Foster in Singers

There are many challenges involved in helping someone to build their voice. Different levels of ability, facility, ages, voice types, musical experience vs lack thereof, etc. All of these play a part in how rapidly we can develop a voice. On top of that, some people are more effective in how they practice at home, which means we can progress faster.

The people who find it hardest

One thing I’ve noticed those who find it the hardest are often the people with MORE musical and singing experience, rather than less. Often they’ve been singing that way for years, so not only are there underlying habits to address, but often such singers already feel they know what they’re doing and just need a little help.

NOTE: As a life-long musician, this was 100% me when I started. I was in tune, I didn’t sound that bad, yet it was such a slog at the start. Why did it feel so hard? Truthfully, I had a lot of bad habits, and a lot of things that were – quite simply – foundational elements to building a voice that I wholly lacked. As such, I can fully empathise with those who end up thinking “Oh my word, I feel like I’m rubbish at this! Why is it so complicated?!

In this article, I wanted to talk about bad habits that certain types of genre tend to cultivate in singers. Sometimes these habits are horrendous, sometimes they are oh-so-subtle, but in most cases they have become near enough invisible to the singer, so they don’t even realise they are doing it.

“Their habit has become background noise, interfering with their ability to control their instrument, yet they cannot hear it.”

Continue reading “The Bad Habits that Different Genres Foster in Singers”

Sounding your best: Optimising songs for your voice

There’s a quote falsely attributed to Albert Einstein:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live the rest of its life thinking it’s stupid.”

While Einstein appears not to have said this, and this quote can often be misapplied, the underlying sentiment is an important one when it comes to getting the best out of your voice.

Make sure it’s not the song leading your voice astray

If we are judging our vocal ability based on songs that don’t suit our voice, we will forever be disappointed in what we can do. Perfectly chosen song choice is so case-by-case and hard to give generalised advice on via the written word, ergo it’s beyond the scope of this article.

However, almost any song can be adjusted to work better in someone’s particular voice, especially when it comes to key choice. All too often, people find songs feel awful, when in reality an often subtle key change can radically transform how the song feels to sing. But a wrong key that’s too high/too low (often by even one semitone), will often leave us disheartened and frustrated by how “off” our voices feel and sound.

This is especially true for those who sing in bands, where key choice is imposed upon them. Even for singers who maybe accompany themselves, they know all too well how key choice can make some songs soar and others crash and burn. And very often in bands, other musicians simply don’t quite realise how critically important key choice is for singers.

As such, I thought I’d comment a little on this topic, primarily regarding how to make sure you sound your best in the face of ignorance or even our own ego. Continue reading “Sounding your best: Optimising songs for your voice”

Recording Yourself: Why you sound different, and how the pros fix this

Many of you reading this will have likely tried recording your own vocals. You’ll likely have a microphone like the Shure SM58 or Rode M1, or perhaps you have a more typical condenser microphone. Or maybe you’re just recording on your phone and listening back.

Either way, the usual first experience that people have when recording is “do I really sound like that?!

The second set of experiences that people have (once they get over the first reaction) is typically along the lines of “hmmm, getting a good sound is harder than I thought“.

Real world vs Digital world

One of the things that’s odd about recording is that it is taking something that we typically hear naturally in the real world, and translating it to the artifical digital domain – i.e. the computer. Then when we listen back, we listen back via an artificial system of reproduction (speakers).

The way a microphone works is via a thin layer of material (called a diaphragm) that vibrates as it receives sound, and a secondary mechanism coupled therewith turns that diaphragm vibration into an electrical signal that exactly represents the soundwave as it was received at the diaphragm.

Your ear works in much the same way. Our eardrum is that thin layer of material that vibrates as it receives sound, and a secondary mechanism (cochlear) translates that into signals to go to the brain.

The thing that makes the human system different is that there is a brain directly involved to translate and make sense of the signals for us. Here’s how that matters Continue reading “Recording Yourself: Why you sound different, and how the pros fix this”

The Constant Pursuit of Musical Novelty is Eroding Standards

I like whisky. But I didn’t always like whisky. In fact, I thought it tasted pretty damn foul for most of my life. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve got into that whole world.

What’s interesting about whisky, is that it takes YEARS to even get a “first draft”. After getting a first draft, to improve it you need to learn what worked and what didn’t, to identify which elements need tweaking and which need to be kept the same. Each further iteration adds years more to the process.

As such, when you see a successful whisky distillery that has been running for any length of time, there’s often centuries of hidden experience behind even just a single whisky recipe. Established distilleries have often run for hundreds of years, with more modern recipes building on the expertise garnered by the generations who went before.

Much time has been spent on distilling recipes and methods, multiple drafts spanning multiple years, exploring dead-ends only to move on to more successful avenues, etc. All of this, just to produce even one specific whisky.

A proverb worth remembering

There is a proverb that echoes the sentiment behind such a time-spanning endeavour:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

With that in mind, consider what has happened to music, art, and everything else over the last few decades. Continue reading “The Constant Pursuit of Musical Novelty is Eroding Standards”

There is no one size fits all vocal warmup routine

If you were to go onto Youtube right now, and search for “vocal warmup routine“, you will find hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of videos.

Many of these will contain similar exercises, but many of them will also contain conflicting advice. Such conflicts won’t be covered in this article.

The top video on Youtube (at time of writing) has racked up 22 million views. This is clearly a topic people want the answers to, and I totally understand this. In truth, I actually use very similar exercises to some of these videos, at least on paper.

So if people want good exercises to warmup their voice, and there’s enough similarity between what I’m doing and what these Youtubers are doing in the videos, why haven’t I put out a video on this?

Philosophically simple, technically more complex

As per the title of today’s article, it’s because there is no one size fits all vocal warmup routine (or vocal practice routine for that matter).

But why?

The problem philosophically is relatively simple: a generalised video does not take into the account the specific individuality and vocal requirements of any given singer. Such a general video also ignores the fundamental learning process that underpins any individual who is looking to acquire a technical skill.

Here’s what needs to happen

To deploy any exercise in someone’s voice, we need the following three elements (at least):

1) Select an appropriate exercise for a given singer, and teach the singer to do it correctly
2) Take that exercise over an appropriate range in their voice for a desired result
3) Develop their ability to have a constructive self-guided practice

Let’s go through each of these to clarify: Continue reading “There is no one size fits all vocal warmup routine”