5 Versions of Vocal Onset in CCM
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
In Popular Singing Styles, there's More Than One Right Way
This post is the written version of my video of the same title. If you’d prefer the video, click HERE.
There are a great number of things that differentiate classical singing from CCM/Popular singing. 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, or, how one starts one’s 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, but in CCM/Popular, there are many. Here are five.
1. The Glottal Fricative (or Aspirate Attack)
This is a fancy way of saying that you start with an “h” sound. In CCM 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.
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 sub-glottal pressure 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.
All I can say to that is, “Tell that to Sting.”
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. (If you need an example, 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 distain 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
A. R&B/Blues/Gospel Growl
This growl is used to convey passion, and takes a TON of breath support. It’s a vocal distortion, and the gargling effect occurs as the arytenoid cartilages bounce off the lowered epiglottis. (Click HERE to see.)
On one hand, and as a voice teacher, I warn against using this much at all due to the possibility of vocal trauma from overuse. On the other hand, as a singer and voice teacher, I know how much air a singer has to move to make this sound, and very few singers know how to do that. If you’re the kind of singer that routinely moves that much air, you probably have a really healthy default sound that allows you to growl from time to time without any threat to your vocal health.
B. Death Metal Growl
This growl is simply not optional in Death Metal. It’s become the very definition of the sound of the genre.
The difference between this growl and the first is both register and tone. The Gospel growl is typically done to convey passion, and is thus occurring in a middle to high part of the singer’s range. The Death Metal growl is to convey menace or anguish, and thus is used in the lower parts of the range. It’s not as loud, and employs the microphone as an integral part of the sound.
The Death Metal Growl is also more “covered.” In addition to the physiology described in the Gospel Growl, the Metal singer also pulls the tongue to the back of the mouth, drops the jaw, and brings the lips in. As you might imagine, this is not the most effective way to have one’s lyrics understood, but that’s not what it’s about.
There are more ways to initiate a vowel sound in CCM singing , and more probably being created even as this blog post is being written. These five are basic, and will get you started.