The Truth About Speech Singing
With the rise in popularity of speech singing technique and pop singers who sing in a speaking style, it became hard to find a singing approach that actually shows you how to sing well. Speaking words and singing them is not the same, and singing in a speaking style can actually severely damage your voice. You have probably heard about pop singers who have damaged their voices or canceled their tours due to vocal strains. A vocal strain can occur due to many different reasons, but in most cases, it occurs because you have incorrectly applied a particular vocal technique. Here are ten surprising ways how singing and speech are different, and how vital proper vocal technique is for your vocal health.
During singing and speech, we are using the same mechanism. However, singing and speech involve utilising that mechanism in a different way. To explain things in a simple manner – if singing and speech are the same, why everyone can’t sing? Everyone can speak, but learning how to sing takes a lot of time, practice, effort and professional guidance.
#1 – You breathe differently
During speech, our breathing is shallow and controlled by expansion and contraction of our ribs. Most of us don’t think about breathing when we speak, and we just use our intercostal muscles naturally and with ease.
Singing requires you to avoid intercostal breathing and breathe only through the extension of your diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing in singing is called Appoggio which translates as support. As you can see, singing and speech requires two different ways of breathing.
#2 – Your vowels are different
Have you noticed that singers sometimes lose their speech accent when they sing? This happens because vowels do not sound the same in singing and speech. When we speak, vowels are created by articulating aspirated air into words using our articulators (lips, teeth, and tip of the tongue). However, in order to sing a vowel, you need to EQ your resonance into a vowel sound. This is done by forming a specific tongue shape and matching it with a corresponding vocal tract width. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually very simple and just need a bit of practice. To see how simple it really is, try alternating between an “EE” vowel like in the word speech, and an “AH” vowel like in the word “Love”. Do you feel your tongue rising at the back on the EE, and lower on the AH? If you do, you have just shaped your first two vowels.
Apart from forming a specific tongue shape, to sing a vowel, you need to match it with a corresponding vocal tract width. Using the example above, do you feel the difference in how open your throat is on each of these vowels? EE should feel narrow, and AH should feel wide. This change in width must be trained in your singing in order to ensure your vowels resonate 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 feel a decent amount of air flowing out, particularly on your consonant sounds. In good singing, you trade this airflow for air pressure and resonance. If you breathe properly through your diaphragm and form your vowels the right way, you will notice that singing involves very little aspiration of air. In essence, that little air aspiration is a by-product of singing and not its cause.
#4 – There is no accent in singing
Even if your accent is very broad or has thick English articulation, you will lose it in singing. If you hear someone singing with their speech accent, it means their vowels come from the use of the articulators instead from proper vowel formation. Singing in a speaking style is not natural and may jeopardize your vocal health. Proper vowel formation during singing will retain the natural character of your voice. So don’t be fooled by someone who says they sing in their speaking style in order to retain the natural character and uniqueness of their voice. Even if shaping your vowels somehow affects the natural character of your voice, that is not an excuse to sing without proper vocal technique. Proper vocal technique should always come first and stylistic delivery second.
#5 – Consonants don’t exist in singing
Singing is a form of controlled resonance, and consonants in speech are created by an articulation of aspirated air, or sometimes through a glottal stop. Both mentioned aspects of speech are very bad for your singing voice if they are brought over in an uncontrolled way. While singing, consonants have to be created in a specific way in order to ensure proper vocal technique and not jeopardise your vocal health. In order to create a particular consonant group, you need to develop such an approach to allow continual and free resonance without any excess airflow or force. So, in a technical sense, speech consonant sounds don’t exist when you sing.
#6 – Speech doesn’t require coordination
We can all speak with ease and naturally, but it’s not so easy to sing naturally or at least, not without proper vocal control. When we say someone has a talent for singing, he or she actually has a natural aptitude towards the coordination necessary for good singing. Singing is above all an act of coordination between your breathing, muscles, vocal folds and resonance.
#7 – Singing is often closed
You have probably heard YouTube singing gurus multiple times saying Open Throat Singing Technique is the only way to sing great. However, no one explains what actually means to sing with an open throat in a physical sense. For start, singing with an open throat actually involves closing your vocal cord, closing the soft palate and narrowing your vowels towards closure. When applying this technique properly into your singing, very few elements actually stay open physically. When it comes to speech, it is often open, and there is no need to fully close your soft palate, vocal cords or your vocal tract width.
The term Open Throat singing is actually a literal translation of a classical singing term La Gola Aperta, but it’s not a singing instruction, but just a figure of speech. La Gola Aperta actually means to sing without muscular force in your throat, meaning you should sing with low support and high resonance, rather than from your throat.
Many beginner singers take these classical terms literally and strain to open their throats while unnaturally widening their vocal tract. Figurative terms like Open Throat do little to help you sing if you don’t understand how to apply them in your singing. However, they can do a lot in selling expensive singing courses. If a voice coach uses terms like this without explaining how the technique is intended to help your singing voice, they are just using it as a fancy marketing term, and most likely they have no idea how to sing with an open throat.
#8 – Speech is mostly consonants, singing is mainly vowels
A singing voice is mostly made of vowels, while speech is mostly articulating consonant sounds with added airflow and minimal resonance. In speech, you just articulate, while in singing, you also need to articulate the resonance allowed by a properly formed vowel.
#9 – Singing uses different muscles
Singing is an act of coordination between vocal fold weight, and vocal fold weight is controlled by the engagement of the thyroarytenoid muscles and vocal fold tension which is controlled by cricothyroid engagement. With proper coordination, you will be able to retain the depth and rich tone of your chest voice while at the same time accessing the extensive range of your head register. During speech, vocal fold tension is minimal, and vocal fold weight is much higher than in singing. Because of this, compared to a fully developed vocal range, you feel like your speaking voice is situated at the bottom of your range. Along with the two mentioned muscles, for proper vocal fold control, it is vital to use the diaphragm when you breathe, and intercostals to set up your posture for singing.
#10 – Speech is often partly sung, great singing is never partly spoken
Singing is a controlled, intentional and coordinated act, and speech is not. Vocal training and learning to take proper control of your vocal mechanism will help not only your singing voice, but also your speaking voice. However, although singing and vocal control can be good for your speech, speech in singing is never good neither for your singing voice nor for your vocal health.
As you can see, although speech and singing make use of the same mechanism and seem like similar processes, they are largely unrelated. While speaking comes naturally and with ease, in order to sing naturally and with ease, you need a lot of time, practice and training to perfect this delicate act of coordination and balance.
A great place to start if you want to learn how to use your vocal mechanism for actual singing is the free foundations courses here at Bohemian Vocal Studio. Then when you’re ready to take your voice to the next level you can book a Skype Session and we’ll get started!
If you have any questions about how singing differs from speech, 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.