10 Surprising Ways That Singing and Speech are Different
With the rise in popularity of speech singing technique and pop singers who often sing in a speaking style, it’s often hard to find a singing approach that actually shows you how to sing, and sing well. This list of 10 surprising ways that singing and speech are different will show you just how important proper vocal technique is for your vocal health – how many times have you heard of pop singers who have damaged their voices or cancelled tours due to vocal strain care of improper vocal technique?
While they use the same mechanism, singing and speech are ultimately two unrelated processes that involve a different application and development – everyone can speak, but learning to sing takes time, practice and professional guidance.
#1 – You breathe differently
We often speak with a shallow breath which is controlled by expansion/contraction of our ribs using the intercostal muscles – it really does depend on your voice and accent, but in general, most of us don’t “think” about breathing when we speak. Now, singing is a completely different animal and requires you to avoid intercostal breathing and instead breathe via an extension of the diaphragm instead. In singing, this is either known as diaphragmatic breathing, support or even Appoggio in a classical sense. In short, singing and speech require two different methods of breathing.
#2 – Your vowels are different
Have you ever wondered why a great singer loses their speech accent when they sing? This is due to differences in how vowel sounds are created in singing compared to speech. When we speak, we often articulate aspirated air or minimal resonance into words using our lips, teeth and tip of the tongue – also known as the articulators. To sing correctly, you actually need to EQ your resonance into each of your vowel sounds by forming a specific tongue shape and matching it with a corresponding vocal tract width – don’t worry, this is actually a very simple concept that takes a bit of practice. To illustrate, try alternating between an “EE” vowel like in the word speech, and an “AH” vowel like in the word “Love” – can you feel your tongue rise at the back on the EE, and lower on the AH? Congratulations, you just shaped your first two vowels.
Now, the second aspect of your vowels is you vocal tract width, or vowel width as it’s often known – can you also feel a difference in how “open” your throat feels on each of these vowels? EE is actually the most narrow vowel sound, and AH is respectively the widest vowel sound. This change in width can (and should!) be trained into your singing for the most efficiently resonating vowels throughout your full range.
#3 – Singing involves very little aspiration of air
If you hold your hand in front of your mouth and speak, you’ll likely feel a decent amount of air flowing out of your mouth, especially on your consonant sounds. Now, in great singing, you actually trade airflow for air pressure and resonance. If you breathe correctly with an engaged diaphragm and form your vowels in the correct manner, you’ll soon realise that any aspiration of air that occurs in singing is actually a minimal by-product of singing, not the cause of – in essence, you sing with very little airflow but more air pressure than when you speak.
#4 – There is no accent in singing
Well, generally. Someone with a broad accent, such as myself as an Aussie, or even The Beatles with their thick English articulation, will often ‘lose’ their accent in singing. If you’re trying to sing with your speech accent, which comes from the use of the articulators instead of proper vowel formation, then you’re really not singing correctly – that isn’t to say you can retain the natural character of your voice, but proper vocal technique is first, stylistic delivery is always secondary.
#5 – Consonants don’t exist in singing
This one is a little bit of a loaded answer, as a great singer knows how to create consonant sounds in the right way to retain their vocal health and proper vocal technique. Singing is a form of controlled resonance, and consonants in speech are largely created by an articulation of aspirated air or even a glottal stop – these two aspects of speech are like poison to a singing voice if brought over to your singing voice in an uncontrolled way. Each consonant sound group really requires it’s own approach so as to allow continual and free resonance without any force or excess airflow – so in a technical sense, your speech consonant sounds don’t exist when you sing.
Now, that doesn’t mean you sing ‘without’ consonant sounds and simply slur through your words – I’ve developed a very specific approach to consonant grouping that means you can retain the clarity and power of your consonant sounds in your singing voice:
#6 – Speech doesn’t require coordination
Everyone can speak naturally, but not everyone can sing naturally – at least, not without proper vocal training. When someone is said to have a ‘gift’ or ‘talent’ for singing, this is actually due to a natural aptitude towards the coordination required for singing. Singing is often a balancing act or coordination between the vocal folds, your breathing, your muscles, your resonance – singing is an act of coordination, speech is not.
#7 – Singing is often closed
I know, I know – this challenges those YouTube gurus selling expensive courses who tell you Open Throat Singing Technique is the only way to sing. In singing, your voice is often closed – your vocal chords are closed, your soft palate is often closed which means there is no airflow through your nose and your vowels are often narrowed towards closure. Very few elements of singing are open in a true sense, where speech IS often open in that you don’t control the soft palate, you don’t always achieve full vocal fold closure and no heed is payed to vocal tract width.
The term Open Throat Technique is actually a literal translation of what is really meant to be a figure of speech or figurative instruction. The actual classical term is La Gola Aperta, which yes, translates in a literal sense to “The Open Throat”, but really means you should sing without muscular force in your throat, in essence singing with low support and high resonance rather than from your throat.
I often see beginner singers straining to ‘open’ their throats while inadvertently widening their vocal tract, limiting their vocal fold closure and generally reversing the proper setup of the soft palate. Figurative terms like Open Throat do little to help you sing, and do lots to sell expensive courses. If a voice coach uses terms like this without explaining how and why they are intended to help your voice – they’re being used as a marketing term.
#8 – Speech is largely consonants, singing is mainly vowels
Your singing voice is made up largely of vowels and how you articulate the resonance allowed by a properly formed vowel, whereas in speech we largely just articulate consonant sounds with added airflow and very minimal resonance, or at least resonance that isn’t controlled in any manner.
#9 – Singing uses different muscles
Singing is often a coordination between vocal fold weight, which is controlled by the engagement of the TA (thyroarytenoid) muscles and vocal fold tension/stretch which is dictated by CT engagement (cricothyroid). By coordinating your vocal fold weight and tension you can retain the depth and rich tone you associate with your chest voice while accessing the extensive range afforded by your head register – speech often occurs with minimal vocal fold tension and higher vocal fold weight than in singing. This is why your speaking voice is generally situated at the bottom of your range (full vocal fold weight) compared to a fully developed vocal range. Along with these two important muscles using in vocal fold control, you also use the diaphragm, intercostals and set up your posture in a different manner when you sing to how to speak.
#10 – Speech is often partly sung, great singing is never partly spoken
This is a phrase I heard many years ago and never understood properly until I developed my vocal range properly – singing is a controlled, coordinated and intentional act, where speech is not. Your speaking voice will actually benefit from vocal training and developing proper control of your vocal mechanism, where very few aspects of speech are helpful, or healthy in a singing voice.
As you can see, speech and singing are largely unrelated even though they make use of the same mechanism. Singing is a delicate act of coordination and control that takes time, practice and training to perfect – but we can all speak with ease. By developing proper control over your voice you will be able to sing with a powerful and extensive vocal range that is consistent, controlled and pleasant. If you’re ready to power up your singing voice by developing proper control and coordination of your vocal mechanism, you can book a Skype Session in the online booking calendar and we’ll get started today!
If you have any questions about how singing and speaking are different processes, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.