Theory and vocal techniques for contemporary music.

contemporary music.

Like identity documents, the voice is personal and non-transferable. The voice is the oldest acoustic instrument (it must be considered as such) in the world. Inherent in the human being, it has been used to talk and make music since the beginning of time, long before the first percussive elements appeared and were used.

It is also a very special instrument, more sensitive than any other to the different stimuli of the environment: both external and internal. That is why we must dedicate a greater care and attention than the rest. We only have one set of vocal cords and we can not go to a store to buy others if they spoil us. Then a few small theoretical notes express about the education of the voice for modern styles.

The voice, a bit of history

platoThe human voice was defined by Plato as an impact of the air reaching the ears to the soul. The voice is the substrate on which supports the habitual method of communication of the human being, with which the culture is transmitted, with which feelings and emotions are expressed. Due to its daily life, its extraordinary importance is often overlooked; however, because of its specific and exclusively human nature, it has been studied since the beginning of our civilization. We review the contributions of scholars in the main periods, especially from the sixteenth century onwards with anatomical dissection studies on The human larynx. A time of extraordinary importance was the seventeenth century where the works of Dodart and Perrault provided the basis for the next century Ferrein to initiate the experimental physiology of the larynx. Special mention should be made of Johannes Müller whose experiments would allow us to establish the theories of phonation that remain valid until today.

Although we set out to discover some of the secrets of singing for modern styles in general (pop, rock, blues, soul, etc.), it is worth noting that much of the theory and practical exercises of voice are equally and perfectly valid for both lyrical as for modern, since the foundations on which the song is based: breathing, phonation, and resonance, are the same in both types of music saving some small differences. That is why, I think it is appropriate to start with the characteristics common to both, and then distinguish those more specific of contemporary music.

Elements that give rise to the voice

respiratory systemRespiratory system. It is the place where air is stored and circulated. It consists of the nose, trachea, lungs and diaphragm.
Phonatory apparatus. It is the place where sound is produced by passing air through the vocal cords. It is formed by the larynx and vocal cords. The larynx contains the vocal cords and is the vibrating element of the voice.
Resonator apparatus. It is the place where the sound produced acquires its characteristic timbre. It consists of the palate, sinuses or nasal cavities and pharynx.


Types and traditional classification of voices

First, the voices are classified by gender: female (or white) voices and male (or serious) voices. Children’s voices are also considered “white.” Secondly, they are classified according to their tessitura or register (range that range from the most serious to the most acute, which is usually two octaves):

  • Soprano: sharp female voice. Tesitura: it goes from a do4 (the central one of the piano) to a do6.
  • Contralto: serious female voice. Tesitura: from a sol3 to a fa5.
  • Tenor: sharp male voice. Tesitura: from a si2 to a sol4
  • Low: male voice serious. Tesitura: mi2 up to a do4.

Here are the voices known as intermediates:

  • Mezzo soprano: between soprano and contralto. Tesitura: from a la3 to a la5.
  • Baritone: between tenor and bass. Tesitura: from a sol2 to a mi4.

Finally, we can also find other types of voices, very particular because they are male voices that use a sharp unnatural tone:

  • Castrati: Singer submitted as a child to a castration so that, as adults, they maintained a sharp tone capable of interpreting voices characteristic of female roles
  • Contratenor, falstista or sopranista: The appearance of these singers arises as an alternative before the refusal of the Catholic Church to continue using castrati. These would be the equivalent of current Heavy-Metal and Hard-Rock singers who use the “falsetto” or “lead voice” technique in their songs.

Modern VS Lyric
In lyrical singing is considered as a sign of quality of the interpreter the ability to maintain in a passage the same color and a homogenous line of sound.
In modern music, on the other hand, the interesting thing is the ability of game, the vocal versatility, the use of an extensive range of colors and vocal qualities within the same musical theme.

The relationship with the score is very different in the two worlds. In lyrical singing, the classification of voices, mentioned above, is taken into account when choosing a repertoire, and in general, the score is interpreted as written. In modern styles, however, the traditional classification of voices is not usually taken into account, since, in principle, the messages do not cover extreme notes of acute recording. In addition, the original tonality of the song is usually modified to achieve the singer’s comfort or to enhance in the voice the color most appropriate to the version that you want to make.

It tends, therefore, to adapt the work to the personality of the interpreter. Moreover, modern interest or virtuosity usually lies in the ability to improvise notes and phrases to recreate a song, even moving away much of its original form if not its composer. While it is true that the interpretations in the context of theatrical assembly tend to stick faithfully to the written, reserves the improvisation for the jazz or for live versions.

The Importance of Proper Breathing
breathingA well-developed technique for controlling inspirations and expirations is invaluable to singers and extraordinary to the general health of anyone. It will expand the chest, flatten the fallen muscles and even correct our posture. In addition, it cleans the lungs, effectively reoxygenates the blood and relaxes when we are nervous or tense.

Breathing when singing diaphragm The correct breathing is done with the lower part of the lungs, which allows it to be deeper and longer lasting and is the one that maximizes our lung capacity (chest breathing does not). With diaphragmatic inspiration, the muscles and ribs expand, the diaphragm flattens and is pushed down, and the abdominal muscles are pressed downward and outward, producing a general outward expansion of the body. Diaphragmatic and abdominal inspiration are often confused, but the latter causes swollen guts rather than a general expansion of the back and chest, so that their positive effects are less. At the expiration, the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm recover their original positions soon, the rib cage shrinks to its original position, pressing into the air to come out.

As important as knowing how to breathe well is knowing how to maintain the pressure of that air to attack long notes and give them the necessary power. This is done by keeping the diaphragm down with the air pressure.

Placement = phonation + resonance
In the lyrical, the sound vibrations produced in the vocal cords go towards the “back” of the head. It is a “head” resonance, which is felt at the top of the crown.

In modern, sound and air are taken to the nose and mouth area so that the sound is amplified with the resonators (cavities) of the face. It is a “nasal” or higher resonance.Performing a good placement is vital not to sing “throat”, that is, when the throat contracts over the vocal cords (incorrect phonation). Singing “throat” is the first thing to learn to avoid any singer, because it gives rise to the most common vocal problems: nodules, polyps, aphonia, etc. The vocal cords must have space to contract into the acute notes and expand into the bass and this is only achieved by keeping the larynx relaxed.

Let us now focus on the last type of resonance, which is what concerns modern styles. Superior or nasal resonance plays a very important role in the voice, even though our main amplifier is the lower resonance, that is, throat and mouth space, responsible for three quarters of our sound. As we said, the superior resonance brings a quality or “color” different from that of throat and mouth, it is a brighter sound that brings transmit power and a characteristic tone or timbre. This type of placement is typical of black voices and modern styles (rock, pop, blues, etc.)

Applying Eastern principles to voice education

Eastern principles
Another interesting aspect of the placement is its relationship with oriental philosophies and medicines. At first glance they may not be obvious, because they speak of rather abstract concepts, but knowing that our mood and personal circumstances have an immediate effect on our voice, we must not fail to take them into account. This little Western way of conceiving the human body can help us, if we take it and apply it from a practical point of view, free from religious axioms, to improve our placement in a totally natural and intuitive way.
According to Eastern philosophy, the human body is pure energy. Each person has a kind of “aura” that surrounds him, which can be larger or smaller depending on the number of energy centers that have activated, these are the chakras. A chakra, which means “wheel” in Sanskrit, is a center of energy, which normally can not be perceived but which controls the functioning of the parts of the physical body under its control. There are seven main chakras that correspond to the acupuncture points. Each of them is associated with some of the endocrine glands within the human body. These centers are composed of successive layers of energy that vibrate at increasingly higher frequencies and are linked by an energy channel that runs the entire spine.

Five of the seven total chakras, coincide with strategic points used singing. The first one is placed at the top of the head, at the height of the crown, which is exactly the point at which the vibrations in lyrical are carried. The second is in the brow area, key point of the upper resonance, known as the “third eye”. The third and fourth correspond to the vocal cords and the heart respectively (lower resonance), and the fifth is placed above the navel at the height of the diaphragm, where we maintain the pedal of the air. The theory of the chakras argues that when we are distressed or nervous these centers are closed and stop working, transforming positive energy into negative. Knowing these points can be of great help in the interpretation and the feeling of modern singing.

Complete and concrete exercise
There is a placement exercise based on a Buddhist mantra which, in my opinion, is one of the most complete to work for the top resonance: “Om mani padme hum”. It refers to “the lotus flower”, that is, to the Buddhist conception of the soul. Mantras are repeated ad infinitum phrases based on the nasal sound “m” and “n” and used in almost all religions. In typical Western singing classes vocalization exercises are used using the syllables “ma, me, mi, mo, mu”, which serve exactly the same purpose.

The vibrations produced by this nasal sound connect with the energies and frequencies of our body, performing a massage effect on our muscles and internal organs. It is not magic, but physical sound (transmission of vibrations in solid bodies). This is important as 90% of singing is based on relaxation. With this placement exercise, the brain assimilates this form of unconscious singing in which the breath is correct (relaxed and diaphragmatic) and the perfect resonance.
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