The Basics of Vocal Style
Vocal style is one of the most popular concepts that my students want to learn about. Here in Austin, TX, there are as many vocal styles to listen to as there are singers.
That’s because the truth is that for every unique singer, there is also a unique voice in music.
And while it can be very tempting as a beginning singer to try to imitate your favorite singers (ahem, Adele and Sam Smith wannabes raise your hands), the most important and beautiful thing about taking singing lessons at Octave Higher East is that we work with your voice as it is. Without all the baggage of imitation, you’ll experience what your true voice sounds like.
It’s amazing, and one of the most rewarding parts of being a voice teacher.
But, how do you find your vocal style?
First let’s talk about the elements of vocal style, then we’ll talk about how you can find your unique voice.
The Elements of Vocal Style
Since people began singing, there has been vocal style.
From opera to rock, RnB to musical theater (legit and belt) styles, vocal style is a term that distinguishes one singer from another and each style of music from another.
That means that vocal style is unique to each person and each genre of music.
But when we talk about unique singing voices, what really causes someone to have or sing with a vocal style?
There are two parts to this explanation: a genetic and a musical component.
Genetic Components of Vocal Style
Genetics are definitely at play in vocal style and techniques. Last week, we talked about the three systems that make up singing.
With vocal style, we’re talking primarily about the phonation and resonation systems of the voice.
Phonation is the system of singing involved at the vocal fold or cord level. Phonation is the vibration that results from the vocal folds coming together to make sound.
Resonation is the system of singing where we see an interaction of the frequencies produced by the vocal folds and the cavities and spaces within your body (i.e. throat, nasal passages, and cranium, etc).
Both the phonation and resonation systems of singing are genetic. Which means that you’re born with a unique voice because your vocal folds and resonating centers are totally specific to you.
This is why you can never successfully imitate another singer. Unless you have the same genetics, chances are your body and therefore your vocal folds and resonance chambers will be somewhat different.
This is why it’s unfair to expect a 12 year old girl to imitate Janis Joplin’s vocal style for instance. Janis had a very thick belt vocal sound and a 12-year-old doesn’t have the structure and thickness of an instrument to pull this off.
The same is true for David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and even Elvis Presley’s vocal style.
In one of my recent articles, we talked about the 3 Traits All Great Singer Share. One of the most important traits we discussed was Self Awareness. For singers, that means gaining an understand of what your voice is built for.
This is why it would be a poor choice for a high Tenor to sing Tom Waits.
Or if you’re a bass, then Sam Smith might be a stretch.
But genetics aren’t everything. After all, there are some fantastic singers out there that have an amazingly unique voice or remind us of some other singer. Which brings us to the musical component to vocal style.
Musical Components to Vocal Style
While genetics are hugely important in determining a person’s vocal style, there are singers that are able to find a unique voice in any genre because they are good musicians.
Every genre of music has its own vocal style. While there are unique voices in every genre, each musical style has a tendency to have a certain kind of singing.
You’ll notice that Metal vocal styles are quite different from legit musical theater. That’s because these genres have evolved to create some conventions of what works and what doesn’t.
After all, it’d be pretty weird to hear the vocal effects of a metal singer in a musical theater song. I can hear it now: “One…EE-YAAAHHHH…Day…GRRRRRRR…MOOOOOORRRRE.”
The point is that as a singer, you can begin to learn the conventions of each music genre so that your vocal style matches the genre. The best way to do that is to listen to lots of different music and begin to speak the language of singing.
Are the vocals in rock music more or less aggressive? In general, rock vocals are more aggressive.
Is the vocal tone clean or dirty? Usually they’re dirty.
Does the lyric or the emotion take priority? The emotion. Rock n’ Roll is about passion!
Compare this to operatic vocal style where we are looking for very beautiful and full singing with a clean tone and emphasis on a lyric. You can see just how much your singing style is dictated by the genre.
So if I can’t successfully imitate someone else’s vocal style, but I know the kind of music I’d like to sing and some of the conventions of the genre, how do I find my own voice?
Here’s one exercise to help you find your own unique voice.
One Daily Exercise to Find Your Unique Vocal Style
I’m going to start with one of my absolute favorite exercises to give to students.
*You may want to record yourself doing this exercise for proof of your progress.
- Start by gently saying the word “Mum” (as in British mother) out loud at a comfortable volume
- There should be no strain or breathiness in your voice
- Next pick one of your favorite songs. Ideally, one that you don’t consciously imitate
- Take a part of the chorus that’s in a comfortable range and rather than singing the words, sing the melody on the word “Mum”
- For every change in melody or syllable, sing the word Mum instead
- Continue singing this melody on “Mum” a few times until you have forgotten that you’re singing your favorite song and are just singing the melody on Mum
- Now, using the same relaxed “uh” feeling that you found on the “Mum”, begin to sing the words. The idea is that you’re transferring the relaxed and natural “uh” sound to the melody you’re singing
A Few Things You May Notice
You will notice that the melody sounds more relaxed and feels more natural to you. Try recording this version and seeing if you notice anything unique about your voice. It should sound like you and no one else. If at first it’s not clear, repeat this process until you begin to hear your own voice, rather than that of the original singer.
For the science nerds out there, we used the “Uh” vowel in “Mum” to relax all the articulators in the resonation system (especially the tongue), forcing you to sing in your own voice.
Pretty cool, huh?!
Please note, you may not like the sound of your natural voice at first, but I absolutely promise you, there is something unique and beautiful about every voice. You just may not have found it yet.
If this exercise doesn’t help, consider booking a free trial lesson so that I hear exactly what’s happening in your voice.