In the recent years, contemporary musical genres have dominated mainstream media and art; from pop culture to R&B, singers adopt common methods to create the sounds we mainly hear in their music. But an everlasting split in how we create such tunes and sounds brings us to an essential aspect of definition: style.
Here’s the obvious deal: you don’t make opera soprano Renee Fleming sing like pop artist Ariana Grande; you don’t make pop artist Ariana Grande sing like Broadway star Audra McDonald. You just don’t. It’s like throwing a cheeseburger into a taco shell; the result is an awkward, alright yet still concerning combination of different attributes that do not seem to resonate so well together. It doesn’t take a trained ear to recognize that the teensy little quivers and really fun little roller-coaster like rides between notes in someone’s singing are better suited for certain styles, while that haunting, weird but cool… straight-line sound from a choir does better with others.
But you’re not here to reaffirm that fact; you’re here to learn what those little quivers and roller-coaster rides are called. You’re here to know what a singer does when frivolously performing “Toreador” from Carmen; you’re here to know how someone standing on the stage of Broadway awesomely belts through “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.
Before we begin, let us cover some basic terminology regarding vocal technique, effects, and preparation; the absence or presence of these factors is sometimes definitive to a certain style.
Different Singing Effects and Techniques:
Articulation: Differentiates or indicates how certain passages or notes are to be punctuated. Is it slurred? Is it abrupt and fast? Smooth and concise?
Vowel Placement: Refers to and depends on your mouth shape and tongue gestures in accordance with the resonance of your vowels in singing. A, E, I, O, and U are pronounced either extremely flat and open wide, with the larynx up in your throat and the mouth allowing for wide spreading, or extremely tall, with the mouth strictly positioned in a manner such that optimal airflow through that shape condenses the sound to be much darker while the larynx stays down and relaxed. Hard consonants pair more with flatter vowel placement, while alternative or omitted pronunciation of consonants vary in a tall vowel fixture.
Vibrato and Trills: Vibrato is the wavering between modulations of a note to achieve the effect of an assumed pulsation on the same note. Trills entail this same wavering, but between notes that are further apart, and often above the main note. Vibrato and trills can vary between how frequently a singer wavers in pitch and how much variation exists between the intended note and the dispersing notes in approximation. They are, indeed, the quivering, fast wavy thingies you hear singers do on the radio when you drive to work in the mornings, and they are easily present in various singing styles.
Runs and Riffs: Close in definition, runs and riffs define the rapid passage between multiple notes over the same word. Riffs entail this very definition; but runs specifically refer to riffs starting from a high note and rapidly descending to a note lower in the scale over the course of a word. When referring to these, think of Mariah Carey singing the word “is” in the beginning of “All I want for Christmas is You,” before she holds the word “you” afterwards.
Coloratura: Extensive vocal ornamentation (think ornaments or decorations, but to music) that implements elaborate use of runs, riffs, and trills to embellish the music; think “colorful” when approaching the idea of this term. WoooOOooOo. Your mind often bubbles up in this wonderful interpretation of lyrical and notational context.
Head voice: When a singer vocalizes notes mainly above their comfortable register and feels those pretty little vibrations of their art in—you guessed it—their head!
Chest voice: When a singer vocalizes notes mainly lower and in their comfortable register; if they were to put their hand over their chest, they’d feel the vibrations of their singing in—yes, you guessed it again—their chest!
Belts: Mainly refers to the usage of one’s chest voice or most powerfully driven tone to administer a note that exists in the more difficult head register (or simply at a vocal break between the two registers). Belting creates a powerful, loud result that is unforgettable; its power can be damaging if done incorrectly too often, but it is a common asset of singing that defines many singing styles.
These are only some of many vocal acrobatics and musical effects that exist in the singing world; but these are quite plentiful for a substantial evaluation of singing styles.
Now, let us see where they’re applied (or not):
Pop singing: A contemporary style of singing that utilizes a lot of power and special singing effects to achieve expressive and artistic outcomes. Pop singing comprises a lot of belting and use of mixed voice (a mixture between head and chest) to elevate the power of the singer’s voice. Throughout a good portion of pop singing, chest voice and comfortable singing carry through verses to contrast such power. Vibrato is implemented, but not always on every single note or phrase; it usually decorates the more powerful phrases or the remainder of a lyric. Likewise, riffs and runs are carefully added in, to make you feel like “Ooh!” when listening, while still being able to appreciate the clarity of musical lyrics and main notes that make the song. Think Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Adele. Their tones are not classical or upheld; they’re intimate, varying, and even smooth at times. This style has more flexibility with flatter vowels and hard consonant articulation when called upon.
Operatic Singing: A style of singing that follows the classical route and takes to heavy use of vibrato and coloratura; and when I mean heavy, I mean heavy! You hear opera singers do the wavy thing way more often through a single phrase than pop singers; coloratura is distinguished as a more operatic factor as well, since opera singers embellish their singing so much with frivolous riffs and trills throughout a majority of phrases and words. Tall vowel fixture is a usual component to this singing style, as it approaches singing with a classical feel.
Jazz Singing: Refers to a more pop-related style of singing through which performers can use their voices to implement a sort of sound or rhythm that would usually be upheld by instrumentals. This requires good articulation and precise note knowledge; in addition, jazz singing utilizes pop elements to personalize the song. A sprinkle of vibrato; some riffs, some runs. Think Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter. Ba da dee, ba da doo!
Broadway/Theatre Singing: Utilizes more of a flat vowel fixture and yet concise articulation to achieve the sound. Singers will often focus more on a stiff, fixed sound, still decorated with vibrato and riffs about their phrases. They’ll also seek to implement power in their music, with belts and usage of chest voice; a pop-reminiscent tone, but on a theatrical basis that allows for inclusion of acting characteristics and personalized emotional focus. Think of Dear Evan Hansen, Encanto, or the majority of Disney and musical film adaptations; voice actors and on-screen actors alike strive to achieve the awesome Broadway sound.
Solo singing: Usually comprises theatrical, pop, or operatic singing in its form and refers to a singular and individual voice performance. The goal of the soloist will be to stand out; to implement character, feelings, and fun into their music. Belting, heavy use of vibrato and coloratura, and extrema of vowel placement, flat or tall, distinguishes many solo singers.
Choir singing: The goal here is completely opposite to that of a soloist—you don’t want to stand out at all. Though various genres in the choral stylistic category might allow for contemporary approaches to pieces, the main aspect of choral singing still centers around achieving optimal blend. Blend is what you’d think it is: it defines the achieved “blend” of multiple voices so that they unify as one, like a milkshake of different ingredients. This is often achieved through agreement of the choir on uniform vowel fixture, articulation, and precise timing. Therefore, choir singers have to be exact. They can’t articulate one way as opposed to another throughout the cast; one person can’t sing all slurred and slow while another one exactly vocalizes their consonants and abruptly goes to the next word. Choir singers often utilize tall vowel placement in a majority of their songs, as an extremely mature sound is ideal, and tall vowels are easier to work with to specifically achieve blend and maturity. For the purpose of unity, most pieces will ask that extensive use of vibrato is omitted or withheld throughout either the entirety of the song or a portion of it. You don’t want to hear one person just going at it with those wavy sounds and belting while the rest of the choir softly sings oooh as straight as a bell; it kind of defeats the point of a choir. A collective approach with vibrato would best be achieved by further concentration and agreement on what frequency of vibrato is utilized; only then can those embellishments smoothly add in without distracting the audience from the overall choral sound. Both head voice and chest voice are utilized at certain breaks; if one must sing higher notes, they’ll approach the head voice vibration. If one must sing lower, they’ll work with their chest voice to better reach those particular vibrations. This skill can transcend the aforementioned singing styles, but it is more widely dispersed throughout choral singing, since sections work together to implement both most of the time.
These are just some of many differences, of course; but it’s good to know the main things you hear and see within the singers of these styles, as they are keystone elements to having birthed the unique musical genres that exist today.
What pleases your ears? What singing style appeals to you the most? Explore the talents and applications of singers, and you’ll find that there is a lot more to what a singer does than just sing wavy thingies and roller coaster rides. Now you know what they are!