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5 Versions of Vocal Onset in CCM

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

In Popular Singing Styles, there's More Than One Right Way

There are a number of things that differentiate classical singing from singing for microphone styles. One of those has to do with framework. Classical singing, like all classical art forms, enjoys an existing framework. In order to be true to the art form, the art is executed in a certain way. Students of the art form learn those certain ways. Therefore, skills needed for classical art “look” from the art form to the singer, if you will.

Popular music, because of its nature, turns that way of doing things on its head. The artists generate the aesthetics as they go, and as other artists use those same skills, the skills become incorporated into a given genre. Then the teacher learns them in order to both be an expert and to be able to teach them to students wanting to acquire those skills. So the skills "look" from the singer to the art form.

So it is with vocal onset; fancy talk for how a singer starts their sound on a vowel. As humans, we enjoy many ways in which we can initiate a sound on a vowel. In classical singing there’s only one correct way (with exceptions, of course) but in microphone styles there are many. Here are five:


Read the blog or watch the vid...or both!


1. The Glottal Fricative (or Aspirate Attack)

This is a fancy way of saying that you start with an “h” sound. In microphone styles you can do that even when the song doesn’t start with an “h” if you want to. So you might sing the word “and” as though it’s “hand.”

“But,” you may say “’and’ and ‘hand’ are have different meanings. Doesn’t that confuse the listener”? Like many words that are mispronounced or under-pronounced for the sake of a singer’s style, it’s all about context. It’s fair to assume that the word “hand” in “you hand me” is a stylistic mispronunciation rather than an accurate pronunciation.

2. The Coordinated Attack

This is the way classical singers are trained to initiate vowel sounds. It’s a sound that is smoother than speech, and the aim is to bring the vocal folds together gently and beautifully. For the sake of simplicity I tell my students that it’s a glottal fricative in which the listener cannot hear the “h” sound. That’s not exactly right, but it’s really close. And it will work.

3. The Glottal Plosive (or Glottal Onset)

You do this all day in your speech. With the glottal plosive, the vocal folds are held together until there is sufficient pressure beneath the vocal folds to blow them open. Like, say the word “ice.” That was a glottal plosive.

I read a number of articles and blogs about onsets to see if this post would be redundant. Many of the writers insisted that one should never, ever initiate sound with a glottal onset, and that to do so would inevitably lead to vocal damage.

That's flat not true. If you sing contemporary music theater or other microphone styles, please don't worry about it.

There is one thing I’d warn singers about, though, as regards the glottal onset. Oftentimes singers will begin with a hard glottal plosive because they’re trying to be loud. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t make you any louder.

4. The Glottal Scrape (or Vocal Fry, Pulse Tone, Vocal Rattle)

This is as loose as your vocal folds can be and still be making a sound. It’s the lowest pitch you can make. You probably use it in your speech when you’re speaking quietly, or when you’re at the end of a sentence and don’t have much air left.

(For my video of what it is and how to do it, click HERE.)

This vowel initiation is used a lot in ballads, jazz, R&B, and Indie. Justin Bieber would be nothing without it. It can convey a sense of intimacy, or it can make the singer sound despairing. I love this sound because it doesn’t endanger one’s vocal health, but it sounds kind of tortured.

P.S. Just because I can't help myself, I have to point something out. It has been very fashionable, in recent years, to focus personal disdain for this vocal texture at young women. Seems that's just another manifestation of cultural misogyny that people accept because it's, well, cultural.

This is from Time Magazine, 11/2/2017:

Women aren’t the only ones who use vocal fry. In a forthcoming study of 18- to 22-year-olds, researchers at Centenary College of Louisiana found that young men not only fry, but they do so more than young women. “Our data showed that men spend about 25% of their time speaking using fry, while women use it about 10% of the time,” says Jessica Alexander, an assistant professor of psychology at the college.

5. The Growl