Singing Terms

This is not intended to be a musical glossary or dictionary per se; I've only included common vocal terms. (This musical thesaurus may also be helpful.)





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A Cappella: Singing without any form of instrumental accompaniment.

Accent: Giving a particular note or phrase more stress than the ones before or after it. Italics do it in print, accents do it in singing. To be effective in solo singing, accents must usually be subtle.

The instrumentation that plays beneath the singing.

A pianist who plays music beneath the singing.

See this page.

Aria: In opera, a song, especially a solo.

Art Song: In classical music, a song not from an opera, but sung in classical style. Art songs were created primarily for concerts.

Attack: Describes the process of a singer first hitting a note, as in "his attack on that high C was too harsh," or "her attack at the beginning of the song was very gentle."

Back phrasing: A stylistic technique where the singer is either ahead or behind the beat, on purpose. Jazz singers typically use this technique, as do some pop singers. (Beware, however, most musicians do not understand back phrasing, and you'll make them crazy with it! My advice is to tell them to keep the beat instead of following you.)

Baritone: See this page.

Bass: See this page.

Bel Canto: Singing that focuses on beautiful sound, not on acting or emotion. It's characterized by ornate vocal style.

Originally a term applied to female voices only: "This is a loud, driving sound that is produced by pushing the natural chest register beyond its normal limits. Most 'belters' can carry it fairly comfortably up to around B flat in the middle of the staff..." (Oscar Kosarin, The Singing Actor) Although the original terminology didn't include men, male singers can also belt.

Blend: In solo singing, the smooth transition between the head and chest voice. Or, when more than one individual is singing, the sound combination between singers, which preferably makes it difficult to pick out one singer's voice amid the group.

The sudden change in tone between the head and chest voice, caused by vocal tension. When a singer hits his or her break, there may be a "popping" sound, or some other sound that is jarring and ugly. This can be avoided with good vocal technique.

Breath Support:
Efficient use of the singer's stream of breath, controlled primarily by the diaphragm.

Catch Breath:
A quick, short, unobtrusive breath.

See this page.

In layman's terms, an "Irish Tenor." A male who sings in his falsetto, the highest of the male voices.

A term used mostly in opera to describe a darker tone.

Chest Voice: Or "chest register." The lower notes of a singer's range; in the same general range as the speaking voice. When singing in the chest voice, the vocal cords become naturally thick, and the resulting sound is generally associated with deep, warm tones.

"The dome shaped muscle attached to the bottom of the lungs that separates your chest and stomach cavities. Its main function is to initiate inhalation." (Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Center For Voice Disorders, A Reader's Glossary of Common Terms Related to Laryngology and the Voice)

Diction: The clear pronunciation of words. This requires attention to both consonants and vowels. Different types of music may require more or less diction; for example, in musical theatre, it's essential that the audience understand the lyrics, but in jazz or blues, the singer may occasionally slur words on purpose in order to achieve a desired sound. Good diction helps produce good sound, however, so all singers should pay attention to it.

As in a "dramatic soprano," "dramatic tenor," etc. A type of singing that is heavier than "lyric," often accompanied by more focus on acting than on making a "pretty" sound.

The variations of soft and loud singing in a given song.

Falsetto: In male singers, a high register (actually, sung in the female range) similar to the head voice. However, unlike the head voice, falsetto cannot blend with the chest voice. This type of singing characterizes the stereotypical "Irish tenor" or countertenor sound, with light, often breathy notes. All men also have a head voice.

Forced: Singing that is forced may sound strained, and is accompanied by unnecessary tension in the throat.

Head Voice: Or "head register." Singing in the higher part of the range. While singing in the head voice, the vocal folds are thin; the head voice is usually associated with light, bright sounds.

Imagery: The situations, people, or emotions a singer pictures in his or her head while they sing, in order to achieve emotion and a good level of acting in their songs. Imagery may also be used to help a singer achieve better vocal technique.

Refers to pitch. If he or she has "bad intonation," they sing either flat or sharp.

Irish Tenor: A layman's term for a countertenor.

Lead Sheet: A type of sheet music that contains only the lyrics, the melody line, and chords. No piano accompaniment is written out.

Singing as though all the notes were tied together; the notes flow together smoothly.

Legit Voice (legitimate voice): Singing in a classical style, generally in the head voice. The term "legitimate" probably comes from the days when there was "legitimate theatre" (i.e. opera and "serious" drama) and, on the opposite spectrum, "vaudeville," which would have used more chest singing.

Lyric: As in "lyric soprano," "lyric baritone," etc. A type of singing that is lighter in style and sound than a "dramatic."

When a singer chooses to sing half-voice for a rehearsal, usually because their voice is tired. Marking should be done infrequently.

Mezzo-Soprano: See this page. (Incidentally, this is the same range that the "castri"-the castrated males of the 17th and 18th centuries-sang in.)

A type of polyp on the vocal cords that prohibits good singing. When vocal cords get irritated (from fatigue, poor technique, an infection, etc.), they swell. Singing repeatedly with swollen vocal cords causes nodes. The only way to know if you have or are developing nodes is to go to a throat specialist (ENT). If you have frequent hoarseness or a constant sore throat, see one immediately. Treatment is usually rest, although surgery may be required in severe cases.

A style of theatre in-between opera and musical theatre. Generally, it's a comedy with both music and script. It contains classically-inspired music, sung in a legitimate style.

Parlando Singing: A style where the rhythm--and often the pitch--of the tune are usually observed, but the "singing" sounds more like the speaking voice than the singing voice. Notes are often shortened, and the ends of phrases often have a downward inflection, simulating natural English speech. Rex Harrison was a master of this technique and used it in his role in My Fair Lady, among other musicals.

Patter: A "patter song" is one with many lyrics sung rapidly. "Patter" also refers to the brief periods in-between songs where a singer talks to the audience.

Phrasing: Refers to the breaths or "stops" inbetween notes. Natural phrasing will include "stops" after all periods, commas, semicolons, or colons. Additional phrasing may be necessary for the singer to take catch breaths or to achieve a certain style. It's an excellent idea for singers to sit down with sheet music in hand and mark their phrasing before they begin to sing. This helps prevent unexpected losses of breath and awkward phrasing that draws attention to itself.

Pitch: The sound of a particular note. When pitch is referred to, it's usually in reference to being "on" or "off" pitch. "On pitch" means the singer is singing in tune. "Off pitch" means the singer is either flat or sharp.

Placement: A singing technique that uses the sensation of vibrations in the head to achieve healthy sound that resonates and carries well. Most healthy singing is done in what is often referred to as "forward placement" (or "the mask"), with vibrations behind the teeth/lips, on the cheekbones, and sometimes the forehead and/or nose. The resulting sound is full, not nasally or thin.

Projection: Generally, the ability to be heard by the audience. Sometimes also refers to the ability to communicate emotion to the audience, as in "she projects great sadness."

Range: Refers to the notes that a given performer can sing comfortably.

The songs a singer knows well and can perform. In opera, repertoire may also refer to the characters a singer knows well; for example, a soprano may have as part of her repertoire: Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adele in Die Fledermaus, and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffman.

"Occurs naturally when the voice is free to travel through the spaces above your vocal cords (your resonators) where it is modified and amplified before leaving your mouth; determines the final quality of your tone and makes your voice sound different from anyone else's." (Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Center For Voice Disorders, A Reader's Glossary of Common Terms Related to Laryngology and the Voice)

A jazz term referring to a technique where singers use wordless sounds and improvised notes, often imitating jazz instruments. Frank Sinatra's famous "doo-be-doo-be-do" is an example of scatting.

Scoop: Beginning a note beneath it's pitch, then sliding up to the correct pitch. Scooping was the prominent feature of "crooners" in the 1920s-50s; Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como were among the singers famous for this style. Today, scooping should be used infrequently and only to achieve a specific quality or emotion.

Sight Singing:
The ability to look at sheet music and read sing it with near-perfection. Very few singers have this ability. Most professional singers can read music and sight read with at least some accuracy.

Soprano: See this page.

A type of soprano or tenor. Translated, the word literally means "pushed," and describes a more dramatic, dark sound, and usually a heavier voice.

The opposite of Legato. Each note is separate from the one before and after it.

See this page.

Tone: The quality of sound of a note.

To change the key of a song; to lower or raise the notes of a song or a portion of a song.

An operatic "trick" used mostly, but not exclusively, by sopranos. A trill consists of a rapid alternation between two notes, usually a half step or a step apart.

Triple Threat:
A musical theatre term; someone who is a "triple threat" can sing, act, and dance.

"The steady pulsation of the voice that is heard of a sustained note. The pulsation is caused by a slight fluctuation in pitch above and below the tonal center of the note." (Oscar Kosarin, The Singing Actor). It's important to stress "slight fluctuation." One singer who uses a great deal of vibrato, with mixed results, is Erin Neville. Some singers produce vibrato naturally, others have to be taught. Although some singers and teachers consider vibrato to be ugly and perhaps even harmful, correct vibrato is not only an attractive sound, but will not harm the voice. The best singers have full control over their vibrato and use it to accent certain words or phrases for dramatic or emotional effect. Vibrato should not be confused with a warble, which is a large fluctuation in pitch, which is usually the result of bad singing technique.

Vocal Cords:
Muscles found inside the larynx (or voice box). The vibration of the two vocal cords, caused by expelling air from the lungs, produces vocal tones or singing. Also called "vocal folds."

Warm Up:
Anything that helps the singer prepare for a rehearsal or performance. Typically, a warm up consists of vocal exercises, such as running scales. It may also include warming up the body with stretches to relieve tension and help wake the sense, with special emphasis on the jaw, tongue, and lips. The latter may include tongue twisters.

(c) 2002 by Kristina Seleshanko.