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There is so much going on physically during belted phonation that I need to break down my descriptions, explanations and comments into several sub-categories.
The muscle activity in belt voice is quite different from that of classical singing.
The vocal folds are continuously changing dynamic and stretching and thickening based upon pitch, loudness, resonance and register demands. Two primary muscles are responsible for vocal fold activity: the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles. The thyroarytenoid muscles are responsible for relaxing, shortening and thickening the vocal folds by drawing the arytenoid cartilages forward toward the thyroid, thus producing sound that is commonly associated with chest voice in both men and women. The cricothyroid muscles tilt the cricoid cartilage around the pivot formed by the cricothyroid joint, causing the arytenoid cartilages to move away (backwards) from the thyroid cartilage. This action lowers, stretches, thins and stiffens the vocal fold structure, increasing both the length and the tension of the vocal folds, and producing the sounds that are commonly associated with head voice and falsetto. The adductor and abductor muscles, the interarytenoids and the cricoarytenoids, also play a role in phonation. To understand more about how the larynx and the vocal folds work, read The Larynx: Structure and Function
There are many theories and explanations of how the belting voice quality is produced. Belt is described most commonly by classical technique instructors as extending the lower (chest) register upward past the first passaggio and employing the laryngeal function of that lower register to produce pitches that are usually associated with higher registers in order to create more powerful sounding notes. Whenever the laryngeal muscles and the vocal folds are not permitted to adjust or to naturally change vibratory patterns (registers) at the lower passaggio, the singer enters the ‘call of the voice’, in which he or she must increase volume, or begin to call or shout, in order to maintain steady phonation (without the voice breaking or shifting registers).
Those who teach belt technique argue that belt production is not purely ‘chest’ and is not created by the use of chest voice in the higher part of the range – by register abuse, which would cause tensions and lead to injury - but by the use of ‘mixed’ voice qualities. (Not all teachers of contemporary methods are in agreement, and not all condone belting. In fact, most tutors of the popular Speech Level Singing method regard belting as damaging to long-term vocal health.)
Research on belted voicing disproves the hypothesis that chest voice function is always carried up much higher in belted phonation than is recommended in classical singing, (although belting by new, misguided or untrained singers is often mistakenly produced through this kind of dangerous register abuse). This current research does, in contrast, support the theory that ‘correct’ belt is not purely ‘chest voice’ singing, which is seen to have a low laryngeal position, wide pharynx, elongated mouth position and sympathetic chest vibration. (As I will explain in a few paragraphs from now, different vocal postures than these are used in belting technique.) Extending this ‘chest voice’ function past the first passagio with a low larynx and wide pharynx – the posture of classical singing - is ineffective and unsafe, and produces the shouting or calling voice that is characteristic of chest register vocal fold function being carried up too high. Singing with a low larynx and wide pharynx would result in very unpleasant, uncomfortable sensations due to the amount of strain being exerted on the voice.
Although, in both men and women, the vocal fold function of belting is predominantly thyroarytenoid (shortener, chest voice, thicker mass) dominant, a balanced belt sound also requires that the cricothyroid (lengthener, head voice) action remain active in order to keep the vocal folds from ‘over-thickening’ and the voice from becoming too heavily weighted. The cricothyroid’s participation increases as the pitch ascends, although its involvement is still less than it would be in ordinary (non-belted) middle and head voice singing.
For a belt to be considered properly produced, there must be a balanced ‘mix’ of shortener and lengthener musculature. This shared muscle activity – that is, the balancing-act of coordinating the shorteners and lengtheners - is what is often described as ‘belt/mix’ sound. Belt/mix involves the technique of introducing more cricothyroid activity into the balance of laryngeal muscle activity as the pitch ascends, and it assists the passaggio transition so that there is no noticeable ‘break’ or unstable change in registration.
Despite this shared muscle activity, there is still an imbalanced use of the thyroarytenoid (shortener) cartilages that produce the chest voice. The vocalis muscle –a medial component of the thyroarytenoid muscle that runs parallel to the vocal ligaments and provides fine tension control in the vocal folds, possibly by stiffening the body while slackening the cover of the folds - still retains considerable mass when belting. As a result, belted phonation is always limited in range, especially at the higher end where the cricothyroid (lengthener) muscles need to assume complete control in order for the vocal folds to be able to elongate and thin and for high pitches to be successfully sung. Not finding the correct balance may stress the voice and produce a pressed tone, or there may be a dramatic change in tone quality between the registers. If only a heavily weighted, thyroarytenoid vocal fold posture is used, voice production will be imbalanced, and excessive tension and strain, particularly in higher pitches, will be present.
Those who teach belting technique, and earn a living by teaching it, refute the widely held belief that it requires straining of any kind, and they say that it is not damaging to the voice in any way. However, even supporters and teachers of belt technique recognize that there are certain tendencies, especially in new belters, which may cause strain and injury to the voice during belting. Many new belters mistakenly extend their shortener dominant sound (chest voice) without incorporating enough of the lengthener (cricothyroid) activity, thus pushing the chest voice up too far than is recommended in classical technique and than is healthy. Uninformed or misguided vocalists may confuse the forced sound of registration abuse with an acoustically considered, muscularly balanced alternative with ruinous results. Poorly trained voice teachers may not be able to differentiate between the sounds created by shared muscle activity and those created by (forced) thyroarytenoid activity alone.
Classically trained singers not studying opera also learn and use ‘mix’ as a tool. Many bel canto instructors teach a mixed sound in the area of the primo passaggio in order to eliminate register breaks caused by the sudden shifting of laryngeal functions and mismatches between the tones or strengths of the adjacent registers. However, this mixed voice is often limited to a smaller range of pitches beginning a few notes below the first passaggio and extending to a few notes above it. (Some teachers believe that the entire middle register in women and the zona di passaggio in men are comprised of mixed voicing, or a mix between the darker or ‘oscuro’ chest tones and the brighter or ‘chiaro’ head tones. This area of the singer’s range is often thought to be neither all chest tones nor all head tones.) The few pitches immediately below the first passaggio begin to acquire some of the brighter qualities of the middle register (women) or zona di passaggio (men), and those immediately above the passaggio retain a little of the darker, more heavily weighted qualities of the chest register. The philosophy, essentially, is that the tone should gradually progress from chest voice sounds to middle voice sounds, and then later to head voice sounds, rather than there being a sudden and dramatic shift in sound at each passaggio or register shift. This “voix mixte” (mixed voice) helps the laryngeal muscles to shift gradually, or in progressive stages, from thyroarytenoid dominant to cricothyroid dominant in function, thus preventing a noticeable break in registration.
Unlike in belt technique, however, this blended sound in classical technique is not created through increasing muscular control. Instead, it is achieved through ‘aggiustamento’ principles that involve subtle adjustments of breath control and vowel modification around the passaggio. (More information about successfully blending the registers can be found in Good Tone Production For Singing.)
Although classical vocalists can employ both the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles simultaneously, especially around the primo passaggio and in the middle range of the voice, the classical singer favours the lengtheners, (whereas the shorteners are favoured by contemporary vocalists). The different lengthener/shortener balance or mix is how two types of voicing that sound, feel and look vastly different from each other are created.
Jo Estill, a researcher on the singing voice, has studied the belting voice and has noted that there is also a downward tilt of the cricoid cartilage (a ring of cartilage around the trachea that provides attachments for the various muscles, cartilages, and ligaments involved in opening and closing the airway and in speech production), with a larger cricothyroid space in belted singing.
There is some debate over whether or not men actually belt. Registration in the male voice differs from that of the female voice mainly in that men sing with a shortener (thyroarytenoid) dominant arrangement unless singing in head voice or in falsetto, where the thyroarytenoid cartilage becomes more or less inactive and disengaged. In order to belt, men are not required to change vocal registers, as they can remain in the chest register. (Female singers, on the other hand, usually must have a register shift into their middle register in order to belt.) Narrowing of the pharynx and brightening the classical sound, thus creating the ‘forward’ tone and increase in twang, when belting and emphasizing the informal, speech-like phrases popularly used in contemporary singing is all that is needed for a male singer to belt. Shortener dominant sound being the primary vocal function for men results in male classical singing being comparatively closer to male belt singing than female classical singing is to female belt singing.
Although it is debatable as to whether or not the use of a mixed, though still more thyroarytenoid (shortener) dominant, vocal fold source is by itself dangerous for the vocal instrument, research on the voice during belting conducted with fiberoptics definitely provides evidence that numerous other unhealthy technical habits are employed during belting.
Estill describes the belting voice as an extremely muscular and physical way of singing. When observing the vocal tract and torso of singers, while belting, Estill observed several indicators of muscular tension and/or strain, as well as many other confirmations that the technique of belting is indeed unhealthy.
Belters use what Estill terms ‘torso anchoring’, which involves maximum muscular engagement of the torso. Estill also observed head and neck ‘anchoring’, which means that belters attempt to stabilize the larynx by relying upon the muscles in the head and neck. Most vocal instructors agree that muscular tension of any sort during singing is a sign of bad technique and can negatively affect the singing voice over time. In this case, breath management may be also impacted because a singer is unable to breathe lower into the body. Estill found that belters also use a maximum muscular effort of the extrinsic laryngeal muscles and minimum effort at the level of the true vocal folds.
Teachers of belt technique openly acknowledge that singing in a belt voice, especially for the first while until the singer adjusts to the new, unnatural sensations, creates a feeling of increased tension that is not typically present in classical singing. One such teacher writes on his website (www.anthonywinter.com): “When a classical singer first tries to experience a belt sound - they are usually shocked by the increase in tension throughout the body. The dominant T.A [thyroarytenoid], longer closed cycle and increase in lung-air pressure amplifies this bodily tension. The throat will feel tighter but will not actually hurt and the singer will take a while to adjust to the new sensations. It is wise for a teacher to increase a new belter’s twang and decrease the aesthetic until the student is comfortably accessing the T.A and is not tempted to implement their classical technique on a belt laryngeal posture.”
Vocalists who are experimenting with belt for the first time are encouraged to avoid practicing for extended periods of time because belting requires a new muscular activity that will cause them to tire easily. They are told that the muscles of their bodies need to be conditioned and that stamina needs to be built slowly, as in any new physical activity.
In belt technique training, increased stamina and muscular control are developed through overloading the muscles. The philosophy behind this overloading is that, because muscles cannot be trained without demanding more from them than they are used to giving, greater overload increases their functional capacity over time. By stimulating the muscles more intensely and over a longer period than normal, the desired response will be elicited. The body will gradually adapt to the given workload. The application of overload in a training program is supposed to be gradual, discontinuous, and progressive (e.g., hard training days should be followed by easy days with sufficient rest each day for adequate recovery). In other words, because belting is so hard on the vocal instrument, students are encouraged to balance ‘voice use’ time with ‘voice restoration’ time.
Although the overload theory behind muscle building makes some sense when it comes to weight lifting or body building, for which increased muscle bulk is the goal, my concern is what happens when it is applied to the delicate singing instrument. Increasing the strength or bulk of the laryngeal muscles in this manner is not a necessary, or healthy, part of vocal training. Oftentimes, the body’s response to this additional overload and to improper strength building techniques is to attempt to protect itself. In the case of the vocal folds, nodules – calluses on the vocal folds brought on by overuse and improper use of the voice - may form. The singer may experience pain and his or her voice may become hoarse, or even dysphonic (i.e., no voice or complete loss of voice) until the swelling on the vocal folds has disappeared. Singing with a high degree of tension in the body can be permanently damaging over time.
Furthermore, while singing well does require a certain degree of muscular support from the upper and mid torso for breathing and from the larynx for phonation and the upper vocal tract for articulation, ‘stiffness’ of the vocal tract caused by intentional constrictions and tensions is not considered to be healthy and sustainable over time. Teachers need to help their students undo these kinds of habits so that the musculature of the voice can move and function freely and without tension, not encourage their students to consciously increase bodily tension.
The major concern that most classical technique instructors and other teachers who do not teach belting technique have about belting is that it is harmful to the vocal instrument. The fact that singers who belt need to frequently rest their voices and limit the amount of singing that they do when belting sets off red flags for those instructors who don’t teach belting technique. Many contemporary singing methods that promise rapid results demand such drastic modifications to natural technique that the body can’t adjust quickly enough. While physical stamina does need to be built for all singers, whether they are studying modern methods or classical technique, a singer should not have to rest the voice for extended periods of time due to physical exertion, tension or pain. All of these are signs that the singer’s technique is not healthy, and while the singer may eventually adjust to the tension, the body’s ability to adapt to and even lose its awareness of this tension should not be taken as a sign that damage isn’t being done, nor that this tension is normal and healthy.
In fact, belters may not even be aware of the negative effects of their singing technique until it is too late and serious damage has already been done. A study presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation’s Annual Meeting & OTO Expo in Washington, DC, found that untrained and non-professional singers - the subjects in this study ran the spectrum of musical tastes, including country, rock, pop and gospel - are significantly less likely to identify (or take note of) signs that their vocal practices might be leading to serious vocal problems. These indicators may include very subtle changes in the voice that they either may not notice or may write off as mere fatigue and assume that some rest will resolve the problem. When these same singers return to their singing tasks after a time of rest and recovery, they use the same techniques and continue to encounter the same issues, and then assume that these problems and discomforts are a normal part of singing. (I have actually had adult students come into my studio and be surprised to learn that singing doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable or be difficult and stress inducing because all of their lives they have sung with tensions brought on by incorrect techniques and training.)
When a singer uses good technique, (classical or otherwise), there is never any need to have days of rest for the voice, unless, of course, the singer is physically ill, as the singer’s voice does not become fatigued, strained or injured. Stamina and muscular control are developed very gradually and the singer is never allowed to become hoarse or to experience discomfort or pain because of the incorrect use of the body. Only when the student attempts to work the voice improperly do excessive tension and other signs of unhealthy vocal development begin to appear.
Estill and other voice scientists have also observed that the larynx is higher in belting than in classical singing. Where a classical sound requires a relatively low and relaxed laryngeal position, belt calls for the larynx to be higher than ‘at rest’. In fact, most belters are instructed to consciously attempt to raise their larynxes during vocal production, and the specific adjustments made to the vocal tract in belt technique encourage this raised laryngeal posture.
Most experts on the singing voice believe that a high larynx position is both dangerous to vocal health and produces what many find to be an unpleasant sound. A high-larynxed approach to the higher range of the voice (i.e., the upper middle range and the head register) can lead to numerous vocal disorders, including general swelling of the vocal folds, pre-polyp swelling, ballooning of capillaries on the surface of the folds, or vocal nodules. (More about the correct and healthy position of the larynx during singing can be read in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping.) Since range is generally much more limited in belted singing, many singers who belt do not necessarily take note of the range limitations and discomfort that a high larynx can create in the head register.
Research conducted with video-fiberoptic observation of the vocal instrument during belting has indicated that belters have a closed quotient (the time that the vocal folds are closed during each cycle of vibration) that lasts for an average of about seventy percent or more of the cycle, which is significantly longer than in any other type of phonation - longer than in conversational speech patterns and also longer than in classical singing. This prolonged closed phase causes an increase in subglottic pressure (air pressure beneath the larynx).
This is very similar to the unhealthy technique of pressed phonation, which has been found to be damaging to the delicate vocal folds. With the folds closed so tightly and for so much longer than normal during the vibratory cycle, singers must use a tremendous amount of breath pressure in order to force the vocal folds apart and set them vibrating and to push the thyroarytenoid function upward further than the vocal folds are designed to carry it (e.g., above the lower passaggio where the voice would otherwise naturally shift into the middle register or zona di passaggio and adopt a more cricothyroid dominant function). The vocal tract constrictions make the sound more ‘squeezed’ and forced.
In Comparisons of Pharynx, Source, Formant, and Pressure Characteristics In Operatic and Musical Theatre Singing (J. Sundberg, P. Gramming, J. Lovetri), published in Journal of Voice, Volume 7, Issue 4, Pages 301-310, the articulatory and phonatory characteristics of both classical singing and belting were investigated. Video-fiberoptic observation of the pharynx, inverse filtering of airflow, and measurement of subglottal pressure were conducted on a female professional singer trained in both the operatic and belting styles, as well as in an intermediate vocal technique (“mixed”). The results of this study reveal that belting is characterized by very high subglottal pressures and sound levels, and apparently also by a comparatively high degree of glottal adduction (firm and longer vocal fold closure). Comparisons with other investigations of related aspects of belting and operatic singing support the assumption that the data obtained from this particular subject are representative for all singers using these vocal techniques.
Most voice scientists, otolaryngology (ENT) specialists and singing pedagogues are convinced that it is impossible to belt with excessive breath pressure and have the vocal folds survive without damage. Many belters suffer vocal nodules and/or hemorrhages that lead to scars on their folds. Furthermore, a great deal of the breath is used up to set the folds vibrating, so that less air is available for the vocal phrase. (Most contemporary songs are written with shorter phrases so that not a great deal of stamina is required to sing each line, making this lack of air in reserve less noticeable or problematic for the singer of contemporary styles.)
Although sticking with a highly text-driven repertoire that is comprised of short phrases and vocal lines may limit the number of occasions on which a singer would be required to sustain notes, it also increases the number of times that the vocal folds will begin phonation. Contemporary vocal lines are also very often syllabic, where each syllable of a word is given its own note. Since belting is, by definition, pressed or forced, having a significantly longer closed phase of the vocal folds and increased subglottic pressure acting on the folds, more consonants and vowel combinations mean more closing of the folds, and more pressure and strain placed on them as they are repeatedly blown apart by un unusual amount of breath pressure.
Secondly, in belting, there is no continuous vibrato during sustained notes, except for what the singer adds to colour the sound. The singer of contemporary styles typically adds an induced, unnaturally produced version of vibrato to the tone only at the end of a sustained high note, whereas in classical styles, vibrato is encouraged to shimmer in the voice from the onset of each held note.
Vibrato is a sign of healthy vocal fold activity during singing and is believed by voice scientists to come into vocal production as a natural relaxant principle when the body has a need for periodic muscle relaxation during heavy-duty or intense vocal activity. Vibrato helps the musculature of the vocal instrument cope with the demands being placed on it, such as when singing sustained notes at high pitches – what some people in the music industry affectionately call the “money notes”. Actively suppressing vibrato until the end of the note can be an unhealthy practice, especially when belting places a great deal of constriction and tension within the vocal tract, including the laryngeal musculature. Most voice researchers and teachers believe that allowing vibrato to occur naturally, rather than actively suppressing it or allowing it to enter vocal production only at certain times, is much healthier for the voice. Vibrato also can’t serve its natural purpose of relaxing the vocal instrument and protecting it from an excessive workload when it is permitted to enter vocal production only at select times. Since belting is a highly muscular activity, the voice needs vibrato.
Furthermore, belting produces an inconsistent vibratory rate, meaning that, whenever vibrato is allowed, usually only at the end of a sustained note, its rate is unhealthy and variable. The many constrictions and tensions of the vocal tract make it impossible for vibrato to have a healthy, steady oscillatory rate.
Jo Estill’s research has found that the pharynx is narrowed and the tongue position is high and wide during belted voicing.
Finally, there is a narrowing of the aryepiglottic sphincter (the ‘twanger’). Belt singing is very ‘chiaro’ or bright in timbre. It is distinctly different from the open, warmer classical sound. This brightness is associated with ‘twang’; a term given to the sound created by an intended tightening of the aryepiglottic sphincter and shortening of the vocal tract. It may be assumed that a tighter aryepiglottic sphincter is what results in the narrower pharynx allied with the acoustic characteristics of belting. More information about the aryepiglottic fold can be read in The Larynx: Structure and Function.
It is suggested that, to avoid a troubled register transition, twang should be increased and volume reduced before passing through the passaggio (Bartlett, 2005), which requires even more tightening of the aryepiglottic sphincter. The solution for poor registration navigation in belting technique, it seems, is to increase the tension in the body, rather than to relax and open it. Again, most teachers would agree that singing should not involve any kind of tension or vocal tract constriction when proper technique is applied.
The Master’s thesis research advised by PhD Silvia Rebelo Pinho also frequently found the same vocal tract adjustments like velar (soft palate) lowering, pharyngeal wall narrowing, laryngeal raising, and aryepiglottic and lateral laryngeal constriction. I have written about these deleterious types of vocal tract adjustments, as well as correct and healthy vocal posturing of the soft palate, pharynx and larynx in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping.