Have you found yourself baffled by the technical terms sometimes used when talking about singing? Or heard a singer use a special technique and not known what to call it? In this article I’ll share some of the most common technical terms and singing vocabulary.
The human voice is a very sophisticated instrument, with singers able to use lots of techniques to produce various sounds and effects. This means there’s a lot of specialised singing terminology which can be confusing if you’re unfamiliar with the words.
Here is a list of some of the more common singing words you may have heard – or perhaps you have heard these techniques being used but were not sure what they were called.
Both a glottal and diphthong are two types of articulation techniques when enunciating words starting with a vowel. A glottal is caused by the soft palate (a muscle at the back of the mouth) quickly moving backwards, which distributes the air coming out differently. This in turn creates the clear-cut detachment of the vowel. A diphthong is the opposite, in that distribution of air does not change and the vowel sounds more gentle and gradual when annunciated. Both of these techniques can be used interchangeably to give more expression to what is being sung. Below is an example of a glottal (at the start of the word “over”), followed later by a diphthong (“feed on the absence”):
Phrasing is essential in singing to give life and expression to your sound, instead of it sounding monotonous or robotic. Phrases are formed through different inflections extremely similar to natural speech, however these may vary slightly depending on the genre or style of music being sung.
Portamento is a fairly subtle way of sliding from one pitch to another, either to connect two notes together or to provide more expression to the start of a phrase. It first became popular with Italian opera in the 19th Century, however it is used widely now in many genres as another technique to apply expression to what is being sung.
People will often refer to the “chest” and “head” registers; these are two types of sound produced by the voice using the corresponding parts of the body to produce vibrations. By default, the chest is more powerful and forced while the head is purer and tender. Every singer utilises these registers to create different sounds and express different moods in a song. Registers are not limited to just these two, however, and singers should learn to create combinations of the two in order to make their voice more versatile. Below is an excerpt of a song which alternates between my chest and head registers to create more expression in the song:
If you sing classical music, chances are you perform this technique without even thinking about it. The thyroid tilt quite literally is when the thyroid gland tilts from its natural flat position to a 45 degree angle. This is normally known as singing in your “head” or your “head register” even though most of the method behind this technique comes from the vocal chords. By tilting the thyroid gland in a very similar way to vocalising crying, you can change the colour of your timbre and also produce a healthy vibrato.
Falsetto is often the term used when male singers go extremely high into their head voice. It is sometimes used as a derogatory term, however there are many talented male singers who either have very large ranges and choose to express their sound through different registers, or in the case of counter-tenors in classical music, sing in falsetto all the time to create a unique timbre and sound.
Voices can sound distinguishable, even when singing the same pitches. This is down to timbre. You may have a very resonant and deep sounding voice, or a crystal clear and bright voice. Different types of timbres are suitable for different genres of music. While all singers have a different natural timbre, creating new timbres with the help of different registers help give a much bigger variety to a singer’s sound.
Belting is a very powerful way of singing, using the chest register to create a raw, down-to-earth sound. However, it is very easy to force the sound out from the chest too powerfully, or not with enough breath behind it, which can be very damaging to the voice. Singers who want to create a powerful sound should do so with proper breath control, and give the sound foundation by combining a little of their other registers into the sound.
Sustaining is a breathing technique, which allows a vocalist’s sound to stay consistent throughout a phrase. It involves tensing the abdominal muscles around the diaphragm and controlling the air flow as the sound is produced. It is often overlooked outside of classical music, however it is an extremely important technique in any genre if you want your overall tone to sound consistent.
Blending is a term used in choirs in order to make a group of singers sound like one voice, as opposed to lots of individual voices. This is done by encouraging singers to listen to each other and modify their voice accordingly to sound like what is being produced by everyone else.
Staggered breathing is a technique used in choirs where there is an extremely long phrase in a piece of music. If it is deemed impossible for each individual singer to get through the phrase without running out of breath, staggered breathing comes into play. This is where singers in the same part take short breaths at different times to their neighbour, to create the illusion that the overall sound created by the choir is one single unbroken line.
I hope these definitions help you feel at home in the world of singing vocab and terminology! If I’ve forgotten any important ones or you have a question just leave a comment and let me know.
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