This is going to be a two-part blog (I’ve just decided), as if I include all of the information I thought of originally, there are going to be far too many words at once. This “episode” is going to be some more technical information about how singers do it (as I’ve had quite a few questions on Twitter and Facebook about this lately), and then Part 2 (in a few days’ time) will be about some other cover versions which Adam has performed.
If you look back to Singing 101 – a Quick Overview, (should be a link on the right hand side somewhere) this describes how a voice works in terms of the basic type and colour of it – whether you’re a soprano or a tenor, for example, and whether you’re able to produce “dark” or “bright” sounds.
And in Why This Voice – a bit more technical insight, I’ve also gone into the importance of words to a singer, and why thinking about what you’re singing makes such a big difference to the overall performance.
As I’ve said before, singing is not a dark art and as long as you haven’t got a major disease or disability affecting your lungs or vocal cords, you will be able to sing, even if only a bit. Anatomy determines how good your basic “instrument” is – some people are born with a Bentley in their throat, whereas others get the basic pedal car, but you have what you have.
I sort of got one of these – makes plenty of noise when you rev it up, but is a bit rough around the edges and needs a lot of maintenance….
But joking aside – how do you make the sound? How does the sound get out and go somewhere, and why is there such a bit difference between a trained voice (like Adam’s) and an untrained one?
The quick answer to this is air! We all need air, all the time; you know the stuff – it’s made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and bits and pieces of other gases. Quite simply, when you sing, you are passing a column of air from your lungs across your vocal cords. These are two little bits of tissue in your throat that vibrate together to make a sound. Consonants are formed by our lips, teeth, tongue and hard palate (the roof of your mouth) to produce words.
When you learn to sing, just about the first thing you do is learn the basics of controlling the air to produce your voice properly, which is the difference between singing and just “shouting” the notes out.
This is where all that stuff about breathing and “support” come in. There are lots of different ways of explaining it and this can be where people think that singing is difficult. Actually the most complex thing about the physical part of singing is co-ordination. It’s a bit like keeping the plates spinning….
But putting it simply:
* You need to put yourself in a good posture, which means that your torso (the bit between your neck and your waist) is upright and not collapsed in on itself. You will produce a better sound if you stand, but people with mobility issues can still sing perfectly well.
* You relax and breathe in – you don’t have to gasp, force air into your lungs or overfill them; they’re programmed to fill on their own – breathing is one of the body’s autonomic reactions (if these don’t happen, you’re dead!). What you do have to do is be aware that you’re letting the air go deep into your body to fill your lungs properly. One of the commonest faults of untrained singers is “clavicular” breathing – your shoulders heave and you only fill the upper portion of your lungs. The correct breathing technique is something that your body learns by “muscle memory” – in the same way that athletes learn to use their bodies. Eventually, even when you’re not singing, you will automatically fill your lungs properly and be aware that when you breathe, the muscles around your waist are moving, rather than just your shoulderblades.
* You control the breath as it comes out – this is where people get tied up about it and they start doing peculiar things with their bodies to try and either force the air to stay in your lungs, or constrict the air flow as it comes out. Note: doing strange things doesn’t work! You control the airflow with your mind, and then your body will do as it’s told. This is where the words come in – if you are concentrating on the words (and the sentences) that you’re singing, then the airflow will continue as a natural consequence. You have to think of the words as being alive – as soon as you can do that, you will produce a supported sound that isn’t just produced in your throat – like this:
(Video from theBestArts YouTube uploads)
There are no fancy bells and whistles, no special effects, but this is what a well-produced, well-supported voice sounds like. This recording shows off Adam’s trained voice the way it was as a result of his music theatre training, without the “belting” technique that is used for pop and rock.
One of the consequences of breathing properly is that your voice doesn’t get stuck in your throat, so you don’t shout. Most people with untrained voices will produce this “singer’s shout” as soon as they try to put any pressure on their voice. If you’re singing quietly, it’s OK as you will just use the natural resonances in your body (more about this in Part 2!)
Singing on your throat is tiring and will eventually cause strain and damage to the vocal cords; many pop and rock singers have ended up with the dreaded “vocal nodules” which need rest and in the worst cases, surgery to fix them.
But when you support your voice properly, you can sing longer phrases that have an equal intensity at both ends of the phrase – you’re less likely to gasp for breath in the wrong places, as you are controlling the air flow by keeping it energised.
A properly produced voice will also automatically travel (or “project” as classical singers term it). The amount that the sound will travel unamplified depends on the structure of your throat and how big a column of air you are able to put underneath the sound – and of course, the acoustic of where you’re singing. This is where there is a big difference with opera/classical singers as most of the time you have no mic and have to depend on your own body to produce the sound. When you’re singing amplified, the sheer volume of the sound is less important as this is adjusted by the engineers to balance the voice and whatever instruments are accompanying it.
Now, back to the difference between singing with a trained voice and singing on your throat. OK, I love Muse – I love their “raw” Brit rock sound, the complex music they write and their use of bits of classical music from time to time. They’re a fantastic arena band and they pull in massive audiences. But I would so love to get hold of Matt Bellamy and teach him how to breathe properly!
(Video from Muse official YouTube uploads)
Unusually, Matt is separated from his guitar for this performance, which does actually improve his singing as he’s not having to think about playing at the same time. His voice in this track is fairly well-controlled – I’ve heard lots of recordings (studio and live) where he breathes in odd places, but the most noticeable thing in this recording from Rome is that you can hear him gasping for breath with almost every phrase. As a singer, this makes me feel uncomfortable as it makes me feel as though singing is hard work for him and this is absolutely not the name of the game.
We can do a straight comparison on this song as Adam performed Starlight on the Idol Tour in 2009; this recording is from the show in Portland.
(Video from megbro’s YouTube uploads)
He’s had the song transposed higher to show off the top of his voice, but the first thing to notice is that you only hear the occasional breath. Also, the lines he sings are longer; they flow easily, in what us musos call a legato line. Now, the quality of Adam’s voice is very different to Matt Bellamy’s; Adam’s tone is headier, brighter – because he has been taught to use the resonances and how to access the different part of his voice (these are “registers” – more about these in Part 2!). Matt’s voice is his “raw” sound. I have to say I love both versions – they’re very different.
Now, cover versions are a really vexed issue amongst fans, and this is where the controversy will rage about whether or not one version is “better” than the other. If you read the comments from Muse fans on Adam’s version of the song, a lot of them were very unhappy at someone else doing “his” song – and this always seems to happen with covers. Any of you who have been following the QAL experience will know that this has been the source of many an argument with the hardcore Queen fans.
This is a phenomenon that is pretty much unknown if you’re a classical musician as you nearly always sing other peoples’ music and it’s immaterial. However, music fans get really exercised about this; some of it is about memory (the original version of a song will usually stick in your brain somewhere) and some of it is about loyalty. One of these days when I feel like doing a PhD thesis, I might write something long and involved about fandom, as it’s a fascinating subject!
Part 2 soon….