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:
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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!