The human voice is designed much like any handheld instrument that relies on the power of the lungs to produce sound. The larynx acts in a similar fashion to the reed of a clarinet or saxophone, while the cavities of the head and chest work together to amplify the sounds produced by the vocal cords. This makes the voice a powerful and highly personal instrument, capable of producing some of the most emotive sounds in music. Read on to learn all about the use and care of the singing voice.
1. Is a good singing voice a natural talent or a developed ability?
Professionals suggest that with enough time, dedication, and practice, almost anyone can develop the ability to sing decently well. At the same time, some people are born with physical characteristics that make them better equipped to sing, such as an ideally shaped and sized set of vocal cords and larynx. The size of the person’s head also matters. Other factors that may influence a person’s ability to sing well include the age at and frequency with which he or she was exposed to music as a child. Still, most of those with relatively little exposure to music in early life and limited natural talent for singing may employ the help of a vocal teacher to learn techniques that can dramatically improve the quality of their singing voice.
2. What are the different voice types for men and women?
From a functional standpoint, male and female voices are not dramatically different. The tone of a person’s voice is shaped by the length of the vocal cords and the size of the larynx, both of which are influenced by the levels of testosterone in a person’s body. To distinguish between the vocal ranges of women and men, professionals use two sets of terms to describe male and female voices, depending on variables such as range, tessitura (that part of the range at which the singer is most comfortable singing), and vocal register (a term that describes the way a singer physically produces sound).
Among women, the singers capable of reaching the highest notes are sopranos, who have the ability to sing notes between B3 and C6, though certain subgroups within the soprano range can sing even higher. Next, with a range between G3 and A5, are the mezzo-soprano singers, followed by the contraltos. Known more commonly as “altos,” contraltos sing in the E3 to F5 range and are the rarest of the female voice types.
For men, there are four different vocal classifications, with the highest voice being the countertenor at a range of G3 to C6. Countertenors are the rarest voice type among both men and women. The second-highest range, from C3 to B4, is sung by the tenor, followed by the baritone at G2 to G4. The lowest of all voices is the bass. Men with bass voices can sing as high as E4 and as low as D2, rivaling the tone of the notes played on a cello.
3. What is a vocal register?
A vocal register refers to the different ways that sounds are physically produced in the body when a person is singing. Research performed by professionals within the fields of speech pathology and vocal training suggest that there are three basic vocal registers—the head, middle, and chest. Singers with exceptionally high voices may find that they are capable of reaching an additional level called the whistle register, while singers with low voices may also produce sounds that reach a register known as vocal fry.
Among the three basic vocal registers, the voice sounds its deepest, lowest, and most powerful when produced in the chest register. These notes are felt primarily in the chest cavity, and the vocal cords will feel thicker than they do at the middle register. Within the middle register, singers often feel the most vibration within the area of the upper neck and lower face. In the head register, the singing voice resonates primarily within the sinuses, creating a higher sound that can be felt predominantly in the upper half of the face.
4. Why is it important to care for the voice?
Whether a person considers singing to be a hobby or a professional pursuit, he or she must take certain steps to prevent damage to the vocal cords. Becoming a good vocalist is a long process, and those who ignore simple voice care face the possibility of ruining their hard work through neglect and bad habits. Actions that can cause immediate short-term damage to singers’ voices include excessive shouting, throat-clearing, or untreated acid reflux.
Over the long term, lasting damage can be caused by failing to warm up before a practice or performance, frequent dehydration, alcohol or tobacco use, or pushing the voice to reach high registers at loud volumes through unhealthy means. Those who fail to take care of their voices run the risk of developing nodules, polyps, or hemorrhages in their vocal folds, which can completely ruin an individual’s ability to sing at his or her personal best.