More on Singing – Part 2

As promised, here’s part two of this blog. This has been a difficult entry to write – I can usually put a post together in two or three hours, but this has been exceptionally challenging and I’ve been picking at this for two days. The problem is that we’re now into the complicated bits of singing.

This is where we get into harmonics and resonance, and how they affect singers. I’m indebted to the “for Dummies” website for their information on harmonics as I’m really not great at physics. This will lead on to how singers use the various parts of their voice, and how you can mix them together. This is probably the most complicated bit about singing and this is where trained singers can add so much tonal variety to their voices.

If you need coffee, wine, cookies or chocolate, get them now! As always, feel free to pick my brains, either here, via Twitter or come and find me on the QAL Fans United 2 Facebook group if you want me to explain things in more detail.

OK, here’s the physics:

Pic credit: imgbuddy.com

Pic credit: imgbuddy.com

Sound is made of vibrations travelling through the air, which become sound waves. We hear sound because it vibrates against our eardrums and triggers the movement of the tiny bones inside our ears, setting off an entire chain reaction which means that we perceive sound through the auditory nerves in our brains. When we sing, we make the sound by our vocal cords vibrating together.

Each complete vibration of a sound is called a cycle, and the number of cycles per second determines how high or low that sound is. The higher the frequency, the higher the sound (so at least that bit’s easy).

There are two basic types of sound; pure tones and “mixed” sounds (impure sounds? No, I’m not going there for now).  A pure tone vibrates at only one frequency.  These are produced by instruments such as tuning forks or pure tone generators, like the devices using to test hearing. However, most sounds we hear are a mixture of many different frequencies.  This most definitely applies with voices – even the relatively pure tone of a choirboy contains harmonics.

A singing voice gets its specific sound – its timbre – because it’s a mixture of many different tones all sounding together at different frequencies. These are called harmonics and they are what make a sound interesting; pure tones get boring quite quickly.

Still with me? If you need a rest, here’s a picture of a rather gorgeous physicist.

Pic credit - unknown - please let me know!

Pic credit – unknown – please let me know!

That was completely gratuitous – I do apologise.  Back to how physics applies to a human voice…

The sound (or timbre) of a voice is determined by the distance between the vocal cords and the lips, but the shape of that space – the resonance chamber – can be changed, and this adds different harmonics to the sound, inaddition to using the natural resonances that are produced by the different registers of the voice.  This is where a trained voice will always have the edge over an untrained voice, as you have been taught how to add colour and resonance. For me, this is the main reason why Adam’s voice sounds so multi-faceted, particularly when you hear it live.

I explained in a previous blog that a singing voice is made up of different “gears” or registers, caused by the movement of the larynx.  It moves as you sing up a scale and then falls when the structure of your throat won’t allow it to rise any further. In technical terms, this is called the “passagio”.

Most human voices have three of these gear changes – singers usually label them as chest, middle and head.  There is also a falsetto register for men and a “whistle” register for women, but these are produced in a slightly different way, rather like producing a harmonic on a guitar or violin string.  I’ll talk about these another time, as they’re a bit strange.

This rather handy little diagram shows the ranges of the different types of “standard” voices and also where the register changes usually are.  Needless to say, a lot of voices don’t fit into these neat pigeonholes, but it’s useful as a guide.  The thing that jumps out at me is that Adam definitely doesn’t have a standard voice – this is why I have nicknamed him a supertenor. The bottom of his range fits into the “tenor” definition, but the top absolutely doesn’t – look at where the top of the mezzo-soprano range is, and that’s the high notes that we regularly hear Adam hit.  They’re not just an occasional special effect; they’re a normal part of his voice.

Pic credit: schillerinstitute.org

Pic credit: schillerinstitute.org

How do registers work? OK, this is where we can get interactive!

While you’re sitting here reading this, think of the starting note of your favourite hymn or folk song and sing it. (If you’ve got access to a keyboard, go and play a G above middle C if you’re a woman, and a G below middle C if you’re a man). Unless you’ve chosen a tune that starts on an unusually low or high note, you will more than likely produce a note in the middle of your voice.  If you put your hand on the front of your throat, you will feel a vibration – this is your vocal cords vibrating and setting off the rest of the apparatus in the larynx and throat.

Now, sing down a scale from your starting note; it doesn’t matter if is sounds a bit gravelly at this point.  You will still be producing the vibration in your throat (obviously!) but if you put your hand on the top of your chest, you’ll feel a vibration there as well. Congratulations; you’ve just located your chest voice.

Go back to your starting note and sing up a scale; after six or seven notes, you should start to feel ringing or buzzing in your face as well  as the vibration in your throat.  This is your head voice.

These three zones relate to the bits on the diagram above. Most people should be able to feel the difference between chest, middle and head voices, even if you’ve never had a singing lesson. When you have voice lessons, after you have got through the more basic techniques like posture, breathing and making a supported sound that doesn’t tire your throat out, an awful lot of time is spent on making those gear changes more even, and how to colour your voice by mixing the registers and adding harmonics.

So, on to Adam (as you’ve been incredibly patient!).

Pic credit: socialitelife.com

Pic credit: socialitelife.com

Some of my Glambert buddies suggested that Runnin is a really good example of the wide range of Adam’s voice; it also divides itself really neatly into those three different registers.  It has a big, big range – nearly three octaves. What’s an octave for those who’ve never done music? Easy – sing doh-re-mi-so-fa-la-ti-doh – and you’ve got an octave, or a scale if you like.

(video from RiotLuke1’s YouTube uploads)

Runnin is a fairly typical pop song structure – it has two verses, each followed by a chorus, then a bridge section and a final chorus and coda (that’s the bit at the end).  The two verses are almost identical in structure.

For the verse section, up to about 0’36” in the recording, Adam is quite uncharacteristically low in his voice.  You don’t often hear him use the lower notes, but these are his chest register and show him using those lower resonances by letting his voice drop into a more relaxed mode.  The next section, up to about 0’55” moves up into middle register. This is always the “comfortable” bit of anyone’s voice – it’s the bit you sing with most naturally, but the resonance area you use is smaller, as unless you’re adding a special effect to the voice, you’re just employing the spaces in your throat and mouth.

The third section, from about 1’16” moves up again. Now this is where it gets slightly complicated as Adam is using a mixture of resonances here. The range of the music has moved into his head voice, but when he opens up into a big sound, this is the music theatre/pop technique known as “belting”.  This mixes in a little bit of the tones from the chest voice but also uses more of the natural tones you use in your speaking voice.  The “belting” technique is used to add cutting edge and power; this isn’t a technique you ever use in opera or classical music but does occasionally pop up in avant-garde classical music.

The bridge and coda, from about 2’22” onwards, is almost all in this mixture of head voice and the “belting” technique. One of the very exciting things about Adam’s voice is that he is able to take this mixed sound so high.  He has acknowledged in interviews that there is a risk to this technique, as if you misjudge it, your voice will crack and you’ll split the note. He loves being live and dangerous!

Many thanks to Erica Knights for letting me use her wonderful “flail chart” which she produced after hearing Adam sing Runnin – it demonstrates exactly how big the range is that he covers for this song.

Pic credit: Erica Knights

Pic credit: Erica Knights

The best song I can think of to demonstrate the use of head voice in isolation is Mad World. Adam sings most of this in head voice with little other lower resonance added, producing a silvery, shimmering tone that will always grab the attention of the listener. The tone is still properly supported with the breath, but you allow the tone to find its own place inside your head (sorry if this sounds a bit new age-y to those of a logical mind, but this is really how you do it – you can’t force your body to find resonance as that leads to vocal strain; you “let” your body do it).  The sound floats on top of the air column and produces that ethereal sound.  When you’re doing it, it feels as though you’re making a sound that’s a long way from the rest of your body.

(video from istaykool’s YouTube uploads)

Adam does play with the resonance at times – you’ll hear a tiny flick into falsetto at 1’15” on “nervous” to colour the word, and he adds a touch of that “belting” technique as he opens up around 1’30”, but this is an incredibly good technical performance.  An untrained voice simply would not be able to produce that level of control or add those tonal colours.  If I’m being absolutely hyper-picky (sorry, I’ve got those sort of ears!), he goes minutely flat for a fraction of a second on the last note at 2.13, but he adjusts it very quickly. As I never got the opportunity to compare Adam with his other Idol contestants, I can only guess this was one of the songs that really set him apart from everyone else, as it is so accomplished.

Whilst I’ve been writing this, I’ve been musing about where Adam’s supertenor range come from? This is only my theory, but I do wonder whether he has an extra section of head register – an extra gear produced by his larynx being able to do another cycle of rise and fall, even when he’s near the top of his voice. I need to research this, so I’ll get back to you!

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25 thoughts on “More on Singing – Part 2

  1. Well that was wonderful – and fascinating! Education + entertainment with Adam as example: what could be better? TYSM, and TY for the gratuitous Brian as well. As for your final larynx speculation, I’ll share this old poem I wrote on the subject:

    Natural Selection
    (July 2009)

    Sir David Attenborough reflects:
    “In nature, singing’s all about sex.”
    This lovesick fan thinks
    With his “versatile larynx”
    Our Adam would surely be Rex!

    (…after hearing a BBC World Radio broadcast called “A Lesson from Nature” at 5 a.m. one weekend morning. The quotes are from Sir D. He noted that male birds attract females by having either the most beautiful plumage OR the most intricate song. Adam has an embarrassment of riches in BOTH categories, so it’s no wonder we’re helpless!)

    Thanks again – a great & informative essay!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brava! That is the most succinct explanation of how Adam uses his voice than any I’ve seen. I would be interested to hear how you think Adam so beautifully navigates his passagio. Only once or twice have I ever heard that break in his voice. Even with the incredible range of Runnin’ you don’t hear him make the switch. I’m a mezzo and I know I’ve worked hard to disguise mine, but it’s hard to do, but Adam makes it sound so effortless. I really think that’s one of the reasons Adam is so often underrated as a singer– he makes it sound so easy when what he’s doing technically is really unbelievably difficult. Thanks also for that remarkable version of Runnin’. I’d never heard it before. It really strips back everything but that amazing voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Shannon! I think there are a couple of reasons why the passagio in Adam’s voice isn’t often noticeable; one is that his voice is naturally very light – you hear this from his speaking voice as well, but teachers and coaches I’ve spoken to seem to agree that the heavier the voice, the more noticeable the passagio is. Therefore this bit is down to anatomy and good luck. I also suspect that because he’s so single minded, he will have done an awful lot of work in the practice studio when he was a teenager and a young man. Even when you listen to recordings like Brigadoon, his voice is beautifully even, which is remarkable for the age he was at the time (22?). A lot of singers of that age would kill for an instrument as balanced as that!

      Making it look easy is the key though – it alwasy frustrates me when you see a singer that makes it look like hard work, as that’s not the name of the game at all.

      My thanks to the ladies on the QAL Fans United 2 group for the suggestion of that particular recording of Runnin!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Good question! I’ve picked a couple of other singer’s brains about this as it isn’t a technique that you see classically trained singers use very often. There are a couple of possibilities:

      * Adam may have a large tongue (don’t laugh!) – like everything else, our tongues vary in size. As a singer, if you do have a large tongue then you need to be able to keep it out of the way without pressing your larynx downwards, which can be quite harmful
      * Extending the tongue is occasionally used by singers with very high voices – there is a type of very high soprano called a coloratura soprano and they have a very high top extension on their voices; Adam has a similar ability as a very high tenor. Extending the tongue in a controlled way (again, without pushing the back of it down on to the larynx) can help lift the larynx a fraction and assist the very top of the voice.

      Adam can do this more when he’s vocally tired, so I wonder if he uses it as a way to assist the very top of his voice when he’s had to put a lot of pressure on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kym, I don’t know if you are familiar with his first performance of Mad World on American Idol. This was the performance that people really went nuts over. It includes the infamous sharp last note, which was a real shame. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfR0JGWX62E.

    Love your articles. I’m also a classical musician (violinist) and always enjoy reading what trained singers have to say about Adam’s voice.

    Like

    • Hi there – yes, I’ve watched both performances of this, and you’re right, the last note is out of tune on the original! To be honest, the main reason I picked the other video of this was the length of it; the one from Series 8 of AI had the preamble which I didn’t think was so relevant to the way he sang the song.

      It’s good to know there are other classically trained musicians out there that appreciate Adam’s voice!

      Like

  4. Thank you Kym! So interesting! Adam is just so amazing. Yes, Mad World really put him on the map during AI!!! Although I loved all of his performances! Just amazed me to hear all that goes into singing, when here I figured it was good genes, which I’m sure does play a role. I just get disappointed why he doesn’t get top billing here in the Us at festivals etc. The so, so singers seem to get the spots. Oh well, he does have a nice fan base. Thanks again!

    Liked by 2 people

    • What we get given in terms of our anatomy certainly has a big effect on how we sing. People born with a well-constructed throat have a big advantage!

      The whole thing about who gets picked up and noticed by record companies and promoters is a vexed question that I think has gone on for ever. There are always people with less talent who seem to get the luck, and it happens in classical music as well, sadly.

      Like

  5. Thanks for your explanations. Have you heard Adam’s first version of Mad World that he sang while seated. I liked that version better.

    Like

  6. Thanks for this. I always enjoy reading about the technical aspects of singing. Interesting hypothesis at the end about Adam’s “fifth gear”… That voice should be scientifically studied for sure 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What an excllent read! I understand the techniques of signing and vocal range so much better! Always look forward to your expertise and how it relates to Adam. He is truly a remarklable vocalist!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Kym, I finally got a chance to read this and am always so impressed with your analysis of Adams voice. Sometime, could you explain the importance of tongue placement in singing? I read once from a teacher that a creased tongue is a well placed tongue. Do you find this true? And I will leave you my comment about your last line in a Mssg, to contemplate…

    Like

    • Hi Cameron – singers can get really screwed up with the thought of what to do with their tongues! Usually the thing is to “let” it be in a natural position; people end up doing unnatural things and the tongue gets rolled up, curled up, shoved down the back of the throat and worse. This is another thing that is dependent upon your own anatomy; if you have a small tongue it’s less likely to cause problems as the main thing is not to let it get tense as that will cause strain on the larynx. So much of singing is about “letting” your body so things rather than “making” it do things!

      Like

  9. oh wow well this is a treasure trove!! I will need to reread as its so much information to process but wonderful indeed. I find it interesting that Adam has such a voice that really its the professionals more than laymen that are kind of awed, as only an informed pro would know just how hard it is to do what he does. I think live its even more evident and we have seen certainly Brian & Roger but others as well, expound on his voice. Nile Rodgers did that once after playing with him live, just went on a twitter rant about his singing lol. but I think its the smoothness that make some people say he’s too “broadway” sometimes its the rawness of a voice that makes it more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. WOW! these articles are wonderfully interesting. I feel as thought I could stand up and sing the Messiah. That’s interesting about the chest, middle and head voice. Its so technical but all this info is putting a perfect picture together of what it involves.
    Quick question. Do all the 3 voices have to be in sync with each other? If one was out, e.g. head, would that be a vocal that isn’t working?
    I’m all questions.. Sorry bout this. When a vocalist is performing, Andreas Bocelli, Adam, Mrs K Jenkins, and they hit a bum note, would that be connected to one of the 3 voice areas mentioned?
    I’m finding myself reading these 2 0r 3 times. So interesting Kym. May many thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dave – yes, the various bits need to be matched together into one continuous piece, That’s the difficult bit! Usually the middle is the part to concentrate on, as if that works properly, it’s the foundation for the other parts to match to.

      Bum notes have a variety of causes! They can be a result of not being able to hear properly, overshooting on a note by putting too much air pressure on it, undershooting by giving it too little air, splitting the note as you haven’t approached it correctly, or placing it incorrectly.

      Like

  11. I love Adam’s voice so much. I love reading your blogs. I always noted how he sang “nervous” in Mad World. I wondered what he did to make that word unique. Now I know!

    It seems like a lot of singers lose power in the higher registers of their voices, but Adam seems to gain power. He sings those ultra high notes so well. When he sang “Somebody to Love” with Queen on X Factor UK, when he sang “LORD,” he started the word softer and in the middle of the word he full out belted the word and sang higher. He gained power in the middle of the word. I would imagine that that takes a lot of breath control.

    On The Voice, singer India Carney was a voice major in college. Yet, she can’t keep the pitch when she holds notes. Why do singers lose pitch?

    I have watched opera singers use the shape of their mouths when they form notes. I don’t see Adam doing that. Why do opera singers do that when popular singers don’t?

    How do singers control the vibratto? Why would they use vibratto sometimes and not other times?

    Adam and Freddie sang in different ranges but how do you see Adam’s singing as different from Freddie’s?

    Can you name any singer of popular music in the last 50 years that had a voice like Adam’s? Did you see the Tribute Concert to Freddie that took place in 1992? Not one singer who performed that night could fully sing the song that they chose. I can see why Brian and Roger were so enamored with Adam’s voice.

    Adam sings melisma so well. Many singers cannot do this. Adam sings up the scales and down the scales so fluently. Why can some singers do this and others can’t?

    Which of the songs Adam sang on Idol do you think was the best regarding his vocal technique?

    Thanks for all of the time and hard work you put into helping us understand the infinitely talented Adam Lambert?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue – wow, a whole bunch of questions! Let’s see if I can give you some answers:

      It seems like a lot of singers lose power in the higher registers of their voices, but Adam seems to gain power. He sings those ultra high notes so well. When he sang “Somebody to Love” with Queen on X Factor UK, when he sang “LORD,” he started the word softer and in the middle of the word he full out belted the word and sang higher. He gained power in the middle of the word. I would imagine that that takes a lot of breath control.

      Yes – this is about breath control and also about the music theatre “belting” technique which Adam uses a lot at the top of his voice. This adds a cutting edge to the sound.

      On The Voice, singer India Carney was a voice major in college. Yet, she can’t keep the pitch when she holds notes. Why do singers lose pitch?

      Nine times out of ten if a singer is flat it’s because there’s not enough air – this is either because the breath control isn’t good enough, or very often it can be because of nerves. So India Carney’s real problem might be her head rather than her throat!

      I have watched opera singers use the shape of their mouths when they form notes. I don’t see Adam doing that. Why do opera singers do that when popular singers don’t?

      Ah, this is about the size of the air column that an opera singer uses! Opera singers are almost never amplified, so you have to produce an awful lot more volume with your own body. This requires a lot more control of how the sound is shaped, particularly at the top of the voice, When you’re putting that much air through your body you have to make sure it’s very well-controlled, or the consequences are a really horrible sound or damage to the vocal cords.

      How do singers control the vibratto? Why would they use vibratto sometimes and not other times?

      This is something that tends to differ between pop/music theatre singers and classical singers. As a classical singer I’ve always been taught that a vibrato is a natural part of the voice and results from the passage of an active air column past your vocal cords. In classical music you tend to think of removing the vibrato as a special effect. However, all voices have some sort of vibrato, even if it’s only slight, as a voice totally without it gets unpleasant pretty quickly! Again, vibrato is something that can be affected by nerves. I noticed that when I listened to Adam singing with Queen the first time at the MTV awards, he had quite a noticeable vibrato, and I’d hazard a guess that he was pretty nervous that night!

      Adam and Freddie sang in different ranges but how do you see Adam’s singing as different from Freddie’s?

      The range is one big difference as Freddie was essentially a baritone with a tenor extension, whereas Adam is a tenor with a sort of “supertenor” extension. Higher voices are always lighter in quality and as a consequence of that, Adam has a smaller voice that Freddie; Brian has also remarked on that in interviews. But of course the big difference is that Freddie was self-taught, which in some ways shows what a remarkable voice he had. It does make me wonder that if he’d had proper voice lessons from a young age he would have gone into music theatre or opera.

      Can you name any singer of popular music in the last 50 years that had a voice like Adam’s? Did you see the Tribute Concert to Freddie that took place in 1992? Not one singer who performed that night could fully sing the song that they chose. I can see why Brian and Roger were so enamored with Adam’s voice.

      Every voice is different! I suppose that’s the whole joy of singing as none of us will sound exactly like anyone else. But the thing that makes Queen’s music so difficult for other singers to cover is the sheer range of it, and that’s where Adam can get round those songs. Probably the most successful male singer from the 1992 tribute concert was George Michael – he has the range, but a much “softer” tone than Freddie. A lot of Queen songs are very comfortable in a female voice because they are so high!

      Adam sings melisma so well. Many singers cannot do this. Adam sings up the scales and down the scales so fluently. Why can some singers do this and others can’t?

      This is another one for breath control – but there are also tricks to singing melisma, or coloratura which are an integral part of vocal training. You can get untrained voices that can do it, but that’s more about luck.

      Which of the songs Adam sang on Idol do you think was the best regarding his vocal technique?

      For me, I think Mad World was one of the best (apart from the last note!), as it showed a huge amount of control and the ability to carry through a long phrase in a really stylish way.

      Phew – I think I got there!

      Like

  12. Pingback: Adam Lambert Week – May 11-17, 2015 |

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