The Straight Dope on Straight Tone


I have to be honest.

I kind of thought we were no longer having this conversation in the world of vocal pedagogy. But It turns out there are a lot of singers and voice teachers who have been warned off of straight tone; both in singing and in teaching.


If you’re an independent voice teacher, though, or teaching music theater in a school or college, this presents you with a disconnect. You want to teach your students healthy technique, and they want to sing - or are singing - styles that call for a straight tone. If you teach them only “flow” vibrato, they’ll either sound inappropriate to their genre, or they’ll quit your studio.

Want to listen to the broadcast about this?

Click the video!

Let’s start with what it is

Without getting super specific, I’m going to describe the physiology of vibrato, and of straight tone. (There are many, more knowledgeable people than me who have described this process in a much more specific - and thus accurate - way than I am here.)


Vibrato, or lack of vibrato, occurs based on a combination of air pressure dynamics and bioelectric muscle stimulation.

TA Muscle

In a really basic sense, the way we get our vocal folds to make sound is that the strong thyroarytenoid, or TA, muscles try to stay closed over our windpipe while we push air past them, causing them to open and close in an oscillating pattern. Meantime, the cricothyroid, or CT, muscle contracts to create a very specific tension of the TA muscles that results in a very specific pitch.

CT Muscle

The way that healthy muscles work is that they contract based on bioelectric stimulation from the nerves that come in contact with them.


Those itty-bitty bioelectric currents don’t just send a single jolt. They send short jolts in oscillating impulses, typically 4-7 per second. What’s actually happening when you flex a muscle is that your muscle is very quickly flexing and relaxing. So fast that you can’t feel it. You just experience it as a flexed muscle.

With our little voice muscles, though, you can actually hear those bioelectric jolts. You don’t always, but you can. It’s part of what makes vibrato.


You want to make sound. Your brain sends those electrical impulses, via the laryngeal nerves, to the muscles of the larynx. The muscle gets a jolt and it contracts, the jolt passes and it relaxes. When the muscle that is receiving those impulses is the CT muscle, then you’ll hear the electrical impulse as the intended pitch, and the lack of impulse as something slightly lower than that pitch. So...vibrato.


If those jolts happen about 5-6 times a second, you’ll hear it as vibrato. If they happen faster than 7 times a second, either because it is your intention or because it’s a habit, then you will hear that phonation as having a straight tone. It’s a bit of an aural illusion.



What It Isn't

Another element in making a straight tone has to do with either slightly increased sub-glottal pressure, or an incomplete adduction that allows very little sub-glottal pressure (so you can hear air escaping). These techniques are ubiquitous in microphone styles, and the longevity of singers who use them speaks to the lack of damaging effects.

Straight tone does not cause vocal tension or damage. In my experience of teaching pop singers for over 30 years, the people who are making an unhealthy straight tone are actually making an unhealthy tone. In general. Unhealthy tones can present as a tight or compressed sound, and airy sound, or pushed sound with a large or uneven vibrato. It’s not that singing with a straight tone gave the singer an unhealthy sound. It’s that they have an unhealthy sound and they also sing with a straight tone.


Remember: In popular styles vibrato is an embellishment. It’s optional. And the manner of vibrato is not prescribed. The singer can do what they want. Additionally, if a singer is over 65 (ish) they really should develop their straight tone. Moving one's placement forward singing with a straighter tone is the best kind of vocal face lift you can get!


Exercises to Encourage Healthy Straight Tone

What follows are a few exercises to encourage a healthy, supported straight tone. These exercises will increase the singers awareness and control, and encourage a nice, balanced tone. Each exercise begins with an intention for an even, uninterrupted (straight) tone. The intention is important.


SOVT moving to phonation

  • With an intention for an even, uninterrupted sound, make an S sound.

  • Do that again, and after a second of two of S, add voice so that it becomes a Z.

  • Do this on easy, speech-like pitches

  • When you get the hang of it, move to higher and lower pitches.

  • This also works with an F sound moving to a V sound.


SOVT phonation

  • With an intention for an even, uninterrupted sound, make sound on an N, an M, a Zch, or by blowing through a straw into a (covered) cup of water.

  • Do this on easy, speech-like pitches

  • When you get the hang of it, move to higher and lower pitches.


Bright Vowel Phonation

  • With an intention for an even, uninterrupted sound, hold out an Ee vowel.

  • Do this on an easy, speech-like pitch with a medium volume. Be aware of your volume and don't try to be too loud.

  • If you feel you are squeezing from the larynx, start the sound with two short “he” sounds, followed by the sustained “he” sound.

  • Do this for a pre-determined count with a straight tone all the way through.

  • Do this “open-ended” and finish the sound with vibrato.

  • This exercise can also be done with an “oo” vowel.


Rich Vowel Phonation

  • With an intention for an even, uninterrupted sound, hold out an “Eh” vowel (as in “neck”).

  • Do this on an easy, speech-like pitch with a medium volume. Be aware of your volume and don't try to be too loud.

  • If you feel the sound is too breathy, try beginning with an “N” as in “Neh.”

  • Do this for a pre-determined count with a straight tone all the way through.

  • Do this “open-ended” and finish the sound with vibrato.

  • This exercise can also be done with an “Ah” vowel.


Want more awesome blog posts like this?

Let's be pen pals!




39 views0 comments