Understanding Key Elements of Vocals

The human voice may very well be the most versatile instrument. Singing is found in just about all styles of music throughout history. And while many may forget that the voice is indeed an instrument, most will agree it’s significance in defining periods of music history. 

Unique to each singer, the qualities and characteristics of each individual singer’s voice can define the person, and by extension, the music that person sings. From a song to a genre, the vocals can create an unmistakable aural portrait and landscape, colored by not only the sound but how the singer uses the sound to tell a story. In learning to sing, it’s important to understand the qualities of your voice and how they may differentiate from others, both technically and stylistically. 

What are vocal qualities or characteristics?

young woman singing with microphoneUnique qualities of your voice include things like resonance, tone, and power. Vocal resonance is critical to the overall sound of your voice. Where the sound resonates in your body will have an impact on how deep, throaty, or nasally the voice is. Tone is often described as the quality of sound and timbre, including how soft, smooth, hard, or coarse the sound is. Power is very unique to each individual, and can be characterized by sheer volume, dynamic range and the singer’s control at those high volumes. 

Two contemporary singers known for exceptionally powerful voices include Whitney Houston and Freddie Mercury. Whitney Houston is one of the most awarded vocalists of all time, and the quality, control, and range of both artists is simply astounding. 

What are key elements of a vocal performance?

Beyond those very specific vocal characteristics are more general, musical characteristics like feel, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, meter, and rhythm. These vocal traits are key elements of any vocal performance. In a vocal sense, feel and phrasing relate to pacing and relaxation. Without being relaxed, vocal cords can tense up and strain the voice, causing a thin, raspy sound. Focusing on pacing the breath will give space to help enunciate and articulate each sound. 

These musical traits will often separate artists stylistically and have a profound impact on the overall sound of the music. Jazz artists like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald have distinct phrasing, articulation, rhythmic feel and note bending. However, it’s clear the phrasing, diction, rhythmic feel and pronunciations are very different from rock and pop artists like Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, and Elvis Presley.  

What are different types of voices? How do you know which is yours?

young man singing with microphoneThe voice can be categorized into one of five categories that include soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, or bass. A singer’s range will indicate which voice type they are. The range is defined by the lowest note to the highest note the singer can produce. 

Famous singers in a variety of styles can be found in each vocal range, and some singers have phenomenally wide ranges that could be characterized by more than one category. Well-known soprano singers include Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, and Christina Aguilera, who all have ranges that stretch beyond the soprano range. 

Famous mezzo-soprano singers include Beyonce, Alanis Morisette, and Sheryl Crow. Perhaps the most famous tenor could be considered classical icon Luciano Pavarotti, but the list includes contemporary artists like Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney, and Michael Jackson. Michael Buble, David Bowie, and Dean Martin are examples of very well known baritone singers. And two of the most famous bass singers include Barry White and Johnny Cash

What vocal characteristics determine a good singing voice? 

The same vocal characteristics that define any vocal performance are the same elements that determine a good singing voice. It’s important to understand that the voice takes time to mature. Typically, voices are not fully matured until well into adulthood. How a singer learns to control their voice at various volumes, their timbre and texture, and resonance will all factor into the pleasing sound of a singer’s voice. This is where vocal lessons and training can really pay off. The features of musicality that include pitch, phrasing, feel, and articulation will also determine the attractiveness of style.