Honestly, this article is not simply a case of “old man yells at cloud“…
It’s not simply a case of me staring into the middle distance and yearning for the “good ol’ days” – there is undoubtedly an epidemic of shouting masquerading as singing.
I was at an event recently where every single singer was just yelling their guts out. I’ve singers step away from the microphone to show how loudly they can bellow their lyrics. I’ve seen performers get gigs on not much more than them being louder than their peers.
But before we judge such singers too harshly…
… are there reasons behind why this is happening? I’m not advocating for justification or exoneration of those who do this, but seek to provide at least one plausible explanation for this trend.
What do I mean by ‘yelling‘?
When you hear someone shouting across a room to get someone’s attention, or yelling at a football match, or bellowing an order to a subordinate, this is yelling. We all know the sound, both having heard others do it, and felt it in our own bodies when we’ve done it.
NOTE: As a very quick argument against yelling of any kind as a valid foundation for singing, ask yourself: how long do you feel you can keep up any of the above activities, e.g. yelling at a football match, before your voice would not only give out, but start to hurt? And how long would you spend recovering from doing this?
Now ask yourself: if you were trying to vocally perform for hours every night, how sustainable would this approach be? Maybe for the odd 10-20 minute set once a month (or less frequently) you could get away with it for a period of time, but I hope you’ll grasp just how unsustainable this whole approach is.
How does this happen
What is going on mechanically best described as a megaphone-type structure. The vocal folds at the laryngeal level generate sound, and the vocal tract is wide-open and relatively un-engaged. This creates an effect like someone speaking into the narrow end of the cone of a megaphone.
Now think back to the last time you heard someone even remotely shouty trying to sing. What you may have noticed is that they are not yelling every note from bottom to top. Instead, this shouty/yelling quality tends to creep into people’s voices the higher they wish to sing.
This shouty-ness typically progresses fairly rapidly as soon as the singer starts to encounter difficulty with singing higher. The phenomena is also highly vowel dependent. In some instances it can be a binary switch, but generally this quality (or lack thereof) tends to creep in.
Why does this happen? Why do singers opt for this approach?
As we sing higher, we need higher and higher subglottal air pressure to sustain the note (i.e. air pressure underneath the vocal folds). In turn, this creates an increase of air pressure in the vocal tract.
This higher air pressure also ends up acting on the vocal tract, and for amateurs it is hard to know what to do with this sensation. They will be feeling pressure inside their throat, and typically experience a desire to release this pressure.
To the inexperienced singer, they have 2 options to alleviate this sensation of pressure:
1) Open the vocal tract (moving to that megaphone structure, i.e. yelling) – this then dumps the extra pressure that was in the vocal tract. It typically results in an initially high sound pressure level, but cannot be sustained for long periods due to the inefficient control/release of the air pressure.
2) Drop the volume (reducing the air pressure in the whole system) – this then dumps the extra pressure that was underneath the vocal folds, and in turn reduces the air pressure in the vocal tract. However, this typically changes the quality of the vocal sound quite dramatically, often resulting in a more head voice/falsetto type sound.
In both cases the singer is opting to suddenly diverge from the approach they were taking before and the vocal quality they WERE delivering.
In the first case, the vocals start to become very shouty on high notes, and have a distinct bellowing quality to the note (think Idina Menzel – Frozen).
In the second case, the vocals suddenly go very light on high notes, often sounding like they’ve gone to a light head voice or falsetto on those high notes (think Sam Smith – Lay Me Down).
So what is the solution?
As it happens, there is a 3rd option, but it isn’t obvious.
3) Keep the vowel the same*, and keep the volume the same*
We are talking about starting with the correct vowel and consistent volume, and learning how to stay the course. To the inexperienced singer trying to figure this out, it can seem like an impossible knife-edge of control.
No yelling by opening the vocal tract. No going light to reduce the workload. No bailing out to options 1 or 2. We are aiming to keep everything tightly controlled as we move higher and higher into the voice. This is the 3rd option.
It’s what you hear when you hear most of the great classical singers, and the best pop singers (e.g. Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, etc).
SIDENOTE: * – When I say “the same“, I am being slightly imprecise. The more learned and pedantic among you may know that vowels MUST be modified as we ascend. I am talking more specifically about keeping the vowels congruent and consistent, from one note to the next, and also over wider intervals, so that there is little to no perceivable shift/incongruency/inconsistency to the listener.
For the sake of ease of discussion, I have referred to this aspect as vowels/volume being “the same“, despite there being some modification going on to achieve this effect.
Conclusion: There are genuine reasons people yell
The physiological difficulties that singing presents inherently tends to lead people towards option 1 or option 2… mainly as an easy way out. We could also talk about how this then creates a cultural trend that aspiring singers then unhelpfully follow, but that’s not within the scope of this article.
This third option requires a LOT of co-ordination and practice. The higher we sing, the higher the air-pressure we have to contend with, and the more precise and controlled the respective parts of our instrument needs to be.
What I am describing is fundamentally a high-level skillset.
Few bother to invest this heavily into their voices, and most would rather take the easy road, even if it’s a short one. Yet, this long road is the one that the real professionals take in order to keep going for hours night after night, and also why it’s the amateurs that blow out their voices on such a regular basis.