Tag Archives: chest voice

How to Sound Gruff

Vocal Fringe Techniques: How to Sound Gruff

Singers spend years learning to perfect a crystal clarity that pleases the ear fluidly from low to high. But what happens if you just want to sound like Lady Gaga (in “Poker Face” or “Applause,” not in her Academy Award Sound of Music tribute)? Or if you want to sing folk music without taking it into the Broadway jukebox realm? The truth is, that “trained” vocal sound is something you can turn off and on if you have great control of your voice. Here are some vocal tips on how to sound gruff.

Isn’t Gruffness Something You Just Have or Don’t Have?

Well, if we’re talking about gruffness due to vocal injury, then yes. But I don’t think that’s what you’re after. Lady Gaga is a fantastic example of someone who can turn this sound on and off.

First, listen to this example of her gruff, untrained sound in “Applause.”



Next, listen to her in The Sound of Music tribute. Sounds like a legit singer, right?



Then here she is a year later with the gruffness back.



The reason Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute got so much hype wasn’t because she was the best singer of Golden-Age Broadway to ever hit the stage. It was because her audience was surprised and impressed with her adaptability–one moment she’s hoarsely speak-singing her pop songs, and the next she’s melodiously singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with the clarity of Julie Andrews.

But if she can sound so beautiful, why would she ever choose to sing another way? Well, simply put, her pop songs would sound ridiculous if you sang them like Julie Andrews. Observe:



Luckily, Lady Gaga can sing gruffly when she chooses to and can sing like a legit Broadway diva when she chooses to. And so can you.

What Are the Hallmarks of that “Trained” Sound

To ditch the trained sound, we first need to identify what makes someone sound like a trained singer.

Thyroid Tilt

A real biggie is the thyroid tilt. That little feeling of tilt (like a puppy-dog cry) onto the note that you experience is one of the hallmarks of the trained-singer sound. The thyroid tilt offers sweetness and helps facilitate that shimmering vibrato.

Even-Sounding Mixed Voice

Whether we’re talking about a beautiful trained belt sound like Sara Bareilles’s or a trained head-mix like Sierra Boggess’s, trained singers tend to instinctively thin out their vocal folds as they go higher and higher, lightening their chest voice more and more until it seamlessly becomes head voice.

No Vocal Fry

You know that lazy, rattly sound common with the So Cal surf culture?



(No judgment, by the way. I use it constantly). That’s called vocal fry, and it happens when your vocal folds are slack. You don’t really hear much of that at all in a trained, legit voice.

Sticking the Note

You don’t hear a lot of trained-sounding voices sliding up to notes or sliding off of them. They stick the note and hold it out (typically with at least some vibrato).

Now Remove All Those Elements

Un-Tilt Your Thyroid Cartilage!

You know how when everything is working well with your voice, it feels like you’re tipping onto the note instead of moving into the note head on? Let’s take that little tilt out and just move toward the note horizontally. Listen to these two examples, the first with a thyroid tilt, and the second without.



Singing without the thyroid tilt should feel more like the way you talk (depending on the way you talk!)

Just Go For Chest

Just go for a chesty speech tone instead of an even timbre from low to high. You won’t be able to go too high like this without adjusting some other elements (or injuring your voice), so when you’re doing this, make sure it’s low enough to be comfortable.

Throw in Vocal Fry

Throw some vocal fry into your tone wherever you want it to sound most world-weary.

Don’t Stick the Note

Feel free to slide off the longer notes instead of holding them. Scroll back up to Lady Gaga’s “A Million Reasons,” and listen to about a minute in: “I’ve got a hundred…” Listen to her slide off each note. It wouldn’t have the same effect if she stuck each note like this:



Without the sliding, it’s much cleaner and less gritty.

Mix and Match

You don’t have to use every one of these elements every time you sing. For a folksy feel, you might try to un-tilt your thyroid cartilage but add a little breathiness. For a higher-pitched song, you might want to scrap the chest voice altogether but keep the other elements. For something you want to sound fairly polished but still have a little bit of grit to it, you might just sing the way you normally do but add vocal fry. Play around and see what works for you on a given song. There’s no wrong answer here if you’re getting an aesthetic you want and your throat feels fine.

which vocal register to use

How to Know Which Vocal Register to Use

Vocal registers are one of the most confusing singing-related topics out there, because there are so many myths flying around about how you must shift into chest, middle, or head voice at certain unbending places. When I was a teenager, I once worked with a Speech Level Singing teacher who told me, “These aren’t my rules. These are the laws of physics.” I remember wondering, “Well then how are there so many singers out there defying physics so effectively?” It’s because deciding which vocal register to use is subjective, not some unshakeable law.

What You Often Hear

Many teachers I’ve worked with have offered a very limiting guide to where each of my registers should be. Chest voice was Eb4 and below; middle voice was Eb4 to Eb5; and head voice was Eb5 and above. If I was too chesty above E4, I’d get called out on it. If I was too heady below Eb4, that wasn’t right either.

What’s the Truth Behind the Myth

Whenever I debunk myths, I like to spend some time explaining where it came from, because most have a kernel of truth to them. Speech Level Singing teachers (and many others) are right about one thing: our voices have certain registers we’re the most comfortable in on a given note, simply because of our own habits and, of course, biomechanics.

How Pitch is Created

To understand registers, it’s useful to know what pitch is. The pitches we sing are created by the frequency with which our vocal folds vibrate. When you stretch a band out, it’ll vibrate faster than when the band isn’t stretched out, so it makes sense that low pitches are facilitated by shorter, thicker vocal folds and that high pitches are facilitated by longer, thinner ones.

How Does This Relate to Vocal Registers?

Chest voice occurs when our vibrating vocal folds are thick enough, and head voice occurs when our vibrating vocal folds are thin enough. So it makes sense biomechanically that low pitches, thick vocal folds, and chest voice would all be linked up and that high pitches, thin vocal folds, and head voice would go together. This combination of habit and biomechanics is something Estill voice teachers refer to as an “attractor state.”

Why is This so Limiting?

Just because we have attractor states, or places our voices tend to feel at home, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities. Our vocal apparatus is extremely versatile. Subtle changes in our resonance chambers (i.e. altering the shape of your mouth or moving your soft palate), changes in breath support, and shifts in our laryngeal structures can all shape what’s possible to do with our voices. When you’re totally relaxed, Middle C might be easier for you to sing in chest voice without your voice getting wobbly, but with some added breath support, it’s possible to sing the note in a beautiful head-mix. An F5 might be totally out of reach to sing in a belt-mix if your effort levels are low, but given some added support, a more horizontal-shaped mouth, and some false fold retraction, it’s very possible to do healthily.

So How Do You Know What Register to Sing in Then?

The bottom line is it depends on the genre, it depends on the song, it depends on the mood you’re trying to create on a particular line, it depends on your voice, and it depends where you are in your vocal training. For classical singing (as a female in particular) you’ll be shifting out of chest voice on a much lower note than you would for a Broadway belt or Katy Perry-styled pop. You’ll also need to figure out what’s possible for your own voice. If you’re trying to stay chesty on the highest note in “Defying Gravity” and you feel like you’re screaming and your throat is being ripped apart, I would recommend that you hold off on going full-on Idina Menzel. This doesn’t mean that it’ll always be uncomfortable. After working on supporting your belt for a year, your voice may feel completely different than it does now.

Even registration on individual lines of a song is subjective. Listen to Denee Benton build the song “No One Else.” The beginning of it is almost all in head tones, but it builds into chest tones later in the song. I might also point out that many of the head tones at the beginning of the song are lower notes than the chest tones that happen later on. She chooses registers in order to tell her story and build to the emotional climax of the song, not simply because of the lows and highs of the pitches.

Be playful. Figure out what feels good, what sounds good, and what expresses what you want to say with your song. And don’t forget: Your voice is constantly changing, and the way you sing can change with it. What works one year may not work the next, and what is out of reach may suddenly become possible.

Happy Singing!

How to Sing in Mixed Voice

How to Sing in Mixed Voice

Last year we gave you an article detailing what mixed voice is. In short, it’s many, many things, and you’ll get different answers from each voice teacher–everything from “It’s a healthy belt” to “It’s a twangy head voice,” to “It doesn’t exist.” The bottom line is that mixed voice (or middle voice) blends resonance from your chest voice and head voice , but it can do so in any number of ways–from being almost all chest voice with a little head voice mixed in to almost all head voice with a little chest voice mixed in. Learning how to sing in mixed voice so that you can eliminate (or at least mask) that dreaded voice break is an important and challenging part of learning to sing.

How to Sing in Mixed Voice

Where to Feel Mixed Voice

I usually stay away from telling singers exactly where to feel something, because everyone experiences sensations differently. But if it helps you to have an image in mind, aim the sound for somewhere in the middle of your face, like your nose and cheekbones.

Try Just Talking It

Try yelling “hey!” like you were calling a friend across a crowded room. It’s not a big low chesty sound, because that won’t carry. It’s a light call. Play around with that on various pitches. You can make it a little more trebly toward the high end of your range, and a little bassier toward the low end, but keep that forward but relaxed energy. Eventually you can try moving up a scale making this sound, and if you keep the fowardness, you should have a fairly consistent sound from low to high.

Try These Exercises

Lip Trills or Tongue Rolls

Lip trills and tongue rolls are great for blending registers, because they help regulate the speed of your exhalation without your having to think about it. It’s also virtually impossible to sing them very heavily, and their natural lightness will help you shift seamlessly into your upper registers. To learn how to mix, I prefer longer exercises that force you through more than one register at a time.


Imagine putting a puppy-dog cry into your voice as you go higher and higher to keep your registers connected. You can also visualize holding your breath or inhaling instead of exhaling.

Nay Nay

Thin vowels help add twang to your voice, allowing you to more easily maintain a consistent level of volume and brightness through your registers. If you’re having trouble shifting into lighter registers, add some “EE” to your nay sound to thin out your vowel. “EE” is a headier vowel than ay, so the vowel modification will help you shift from chest, to chest-mix, to head-mix, to head voice. Keep the sound twangy (think of a bratty child) in order to keep the volume and brightness consistent between registers.

Experiment with Sound Colors

You’ll notice as you play around with mixing that some notes you could do in either a head-mix or a chest-mix. With some it may feel obvious what makes the most sense, but others could swing in either direction. Play around, and try different things. On the exact same pitch, you might use head-mix in one section and chest-mix at the part that builds into a climax (often a bridge or a last chorus). Listen to the way Phillipa Soo builds into a chest-mix at 2.45.

Prior to this, she was singing many of the same notes, but was mainly sitting in her head-mix, just adding a few chestier notes at the bottom. There’s no real right or wrong here. She could have remained in a head-mix and played this part of the song as sweeter and more melancholy. Instead, she opted to interpret the sleepless winter sky as an excited build and chose to belt it.

Just have fun, be playful, and try new things. Some will feel great, others not so much. But this is the best way to explore all the colors your voice is capable of creating.

For a more involved look at how to sing in a chest-mix (i.e. belt), take a look at some of our other online singing lessons.

A new look at vocal registers

A New Look at Vocal Registers

The following post was written by one of our top voice teachers, Anne. I asked her to write it when she described to me her fantastic way of explaining vocal registers (one of the most difficult vocal concepts out there) to students.

Colors of the Registers

Head voice and chest voice are tricky. As singers, we tend to want to start here. They should be easy, right? We know where our head is, and we know where our chest voice is. Our heads are above our chests, so it is only logical that our head voice rings above our chest voice. Except it isn’t. Because we rarely sing in just head voice or just chest voice. We mix the two voices together, and that changes depending on the song we are doing and how we want the song to sound. And as it turns out, it isn’t very easy at all.

Pianists have the advantage of having the keyboard in front of them. They look down and right there is middle C. And everything above that (for the most part) is in the treble clef. And everything below that (for the most part) is the bass clef. As singers, we don’t have the luxury. We can’t see what our vocal folds are doing. So we will have to do the next best thing. We will have to visualize.

Think of head voice and chest voice as colors. I know this is an oversimplification, but for right now, it can help you figure out how to use these areas of the voice. The chest voice is blue. Blue is a dark, cool color, like something deep underground. The head voice is yellow; light and vibrant like daffodils and the sunshine. Just bear with me here. I promise.

Now, go ahead and imagine that you have two blobs of paint. On the left is the blue paint, our visualization of the chest voice. On the right is the yellow paint, our visualization of the head voice. Mix blue and yellow and what do you have? Green. The mixed voice is green, with more blue or more yellow depending on how much chest voice and how much head voice you are using. For example, when I sing in an opera, I use a lot of my head voice. We are talking a ton of yellow all across the board, with very little blue even in the lowest parts of my range. However, if I am belting, I am trying to keep a lot of blue in the green, and there will be very little yellow in the sound.

The chest voice doesn’t hit a point and suddenly stop and leave you with only your head voice. Think about it more like a green that is getting lighter. In the same way, I can sing the same note with more head voice or with more chest voice. How dark do I want that green to be? I can control that by adding more yellow (head voice) or blue (chest voice). They can blend and run into each other. There can be a lot of one or a lot of the other, or just a whole lot of mixed-up green.

Is this a perfect method? Of course not. Unfortunately, nothing really is. But it is a good way to think about the registers and the mixes. It is very important to know what we are doing as singers, but having a visualization is a very helpful way to wrap our heads around something that we can’t even see and begin to make sense of all the beautiful colors our voices can create.

vocal techniques to master for pop singing

5 Vocal Techniques to Master for Pop Singing

Adele singing at the Genting Arena, Birmingham, England in March 2016, by Egghead06, under CC BY-SA 4.0

People often think of pop vocal technique as a single skill that they can learn and master. I think of it more as a series of skills to conquer that make up an overall pop vocal technique toolkit you can draw from as you go. Contrary to popular belief, pop singing doesn’t have one particular sound that you hear across the board. Instead, you hear a variety of techniques in use, ranging from quiet breathy singing to loud full-belt singing, sometimes within the same song. In this post, we give you 5 vocal techniques to master for pop singing and link to some other resources to help you achieve those techniques.

1. Full Belt

Belting is often thought of as the cornerstone of pop singing, and for good reason. Singers from Whitney Houston to Christina Aguilera have used this technique effectively and are considered some of the great popular music singers.
Listen to Christina Aguilera singing “Hurt.” She employs several of the techniques discussed in this article, but you can skip to the prechorus at 1.13 for a full belt example.

2. Mixed Belt

Lighter than a “full belt,” but heavier and chestier than head-voice dominant singing, a mixed belt is also used constantly in pop singing. Ariana Grande is a great example of a fantastic mixed belter. For more help learning how to belt, feel free to poke around on this blog.

3. Breathy Singing

Breathy singing is extremely in vogue in the pop world. Not only do singers make whole careers out of singing that way (think Ellie Goulding), but aspirated tones are often used in the quieter, more intimate moments of belt songs–usually in the verses and outros. Listen to Taylor Swift in “Safe and Sound” for a great example of breathy singing.

4. Voice Break

Most voice lessons are focused on eliminating the dreaded voice break, but it’s a very commonly used vocal technique that results when a chesty tone suddenly breaks into a heady or aspirated tone. It’s certainly not as fundamental to pop singing as learning to belt or learning to sing breathy, but it can be a great stylistic device. Listen to Leona Lewis’s well-placed voice break at 3.06 of bleeding love.

5. Head Voice

For most traditional voice teachers, calling “head voice” a technique to learn for pop singing, as if it’s something optional, is pretty close to sacrilege. However, I’ve had plenty of decent pop singers come to me who don’t have much in the way of a head voice and still manage to sound good. Pop singing tends to be a fairly chest-dominant vocal form. But when belters don’t throw any head voice in at all, their singing begins to sound monochromatic. Adele is one of the great pop belters of our day, but if you listen to her music, head voice is sprinkled in all over the place. Listen to the word “deep” in every chorus of “Rolling in the Deep,” for example.

Online Singing Lessons: How to Sing in Chest Voice

Online Singing Lessons: How to Sing in Chest Voice

Kelly Clarkson AIS Arena, Canberra, 2005, by Jeaneeemunder CC BY 2.0

There’s so much written about how to sing high notes, how to find your mixed voice, and how to belt. But many voice teachers take for granted that singers already know how to sing in chest voice. After all, it’s a vocal register that most people are comfortable speaking in when they’re relaxed and not energetically or nervously pitching their voices up. First let’s get a few things straight.

What is Chest Voice (and Why are Vocal Registers so Confusing?)

Chest voice is the lowest part of the modal register, where many people’s speaking voices fall when speaking in a neutral, relaxed way. Because of this, it’s the easiest part of the voice for most singers to find. For men, a larynx-neutral chest voice usually falls around Ab3 to Eb4 and below. For women, it usually falls around Eb4 to Bb4 and below. The notes that chest voice is used for depend both on the anatomy of the singer and the stylistic choices he or she makes.

The concept of vocal registers is a hot mess in the vocal world right now, as it has been for a while. You’ll hear well respected teachers disagree over how many registers there are, how to use these registers, and if there even are registers. In my blog entry about mixed voice, I explain why there’s so much confusion. In short, while even trained singers do experience register breaks brought about adjustments in the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles in the larynx, these registers are rarely, if ever, distinct. The mix can have a lot of chest resonance mixed in with only a little head resonance (a configuration that sounds like a belt), or a lot of head resonance mixed in with a little chest resonance (a configuration that sounds lighter, and possibly more legit or classical). Singers rarely sing in a pure chest voice without any other resonance mixed in, but “chest voice” is still a useful designation. The next brief section is about the anatomy of chest voice, so if you aren’t a vocal nerd like I am, feel free to skip right on over to the next section.

What is Chest Voice Anatomically?

  • Vocal ligaments are short, lax, and the most adducted (closed) of the registers
  • Very engaged thyrorarytenoid muscle (TA): the muscle responsible for relaxing and shortening the vocal cords
  • Medial edge of vocal cords is a rectangular shape
  • As pitch in chest voice increases, so too does the use of the TA muscle
  • Use of the cricothyroid muscle (CT)–the muscle responsible for tensing and elongating the vocal folds–increases gradually with pitch. Surprisingly to many voice teachers, studies have shown that CT is used more in a chestier belt than in a chest-mix. Less CT, however, is used in chest voice than in a head-mix or head voice.

What Does Chest Voice Sound Like

Chest voice is a heavier sound than middle and head voice. When notes are low enough, it sounds a lot like your speaking range. When notes are higher, it sounds like a heavy, thick belt.

How to Sing in Chest Voice

If you aren’t sure how to access chest voice, try putting your hand on your chest and bellowing “euh!” in a loud, manly tone, as if you’re picking up something heavy. Do you feel the vibration near your chest? What about in your throat and mouth? If you can’t feel the vibrations, take heart! Not everyone feels sympathetic resonance the same way.

I’ve found two major reasons why singers have weak or wobbly chest voices. Oddly enough, the first two reasons are opposite of one another. The first is not pushing hard enough; the second is pushing too hard.

Reason 1: Not Pushing Hard Enough!

Singers often fear sounding too heavy or ugly. Especially for those of you who’ve grown up with any mediocre classical or choral training (please note that this is not the case with good classical training!), it’s easy to shy away from any sound that may not be light and beautiful. In the quest to stay away from these “ugly” sounds, singers will drag their middle or head voices down so far that the sound becomes harder and harder to support, resulting in a weak sound that drops out more and more the lower they go. The best remedy is to have confidence that pushing more from your chest when you’re singing these lower notes will actually thicken your vocal cords, give you more power, and allow you sound better.

Try this exercise: On a descending scale, sing “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!” as if you’re Santa Claus.

Don’t be afraid to push these notes. Imagine the sound coming from your chest. Slightly sustain the last “ho” each time you sing the pattern, so that you can get practice sustaining in chest voice.

Giving the exercise that extra push will help your TA activate so that your cords thicken and give you a bigger sound.

Reason 2: Pushing Too Hard!

Often the problem isn’t holding back, but rather pushing too hard. This is most frequently true at the very bottom of a singer’s range, where support becomes even more difficult. All singers have a natural end to their range at their lowest tones, because there reaches a point in which their vocal cords can’t thicken any further. This doesn’t mean you can’t slowly work to gain a few lower notes, but it’s not as quick a process as gaining higher notes.

To hit the lowest frequencies in your range, your vocal cords need to stay relaxed and loose, and your larynx needs to very slightly tilt downward. If you push too hard, you’ll increase your laryngeal tension and lose your lowest notes in your range as a result.

Try this exercise: Work on keeping your voice light, but maintaining good breath support (i.e. not letting too much air out as you sing), and sing descending 5-note lines. You can start with a hum.

As the hum becomes easier, repeat the exercise using an “Ooh,” followed by an “Ah.” The “Ooh” vowel still has a light quality to it, but the “Ah” vowel is easy to push too hard and is, therefore, the most difficult to keep light for many singers.

Vocal Profile of Johnny Orlando

Vocal Profile of Johnny Orlando

A few months ago, I wrote vocal profiles of the Kidz Bop Kids, discussing their ranges, what they excel at, and what they could use work at. Now, at the request of Tomsinger, I’m writing a vocal profile of Johnny Orlando, a 13-year-old singer from Toronto with over 600,000 YouTube subscribers.

Johnny’s Range

In order to get a real sense of what Johnny’s vocal range is, I’d need to meet with him and listen to him sing through his entire range. But with the help a few YouTube videos, I do know that he’s able to sing at least as low as a G3 in “Found My Girl.” From his “Happy” video, I also know that he’s able to stay in a chest-mix at least as high as Ab4 and sing in head voice at least as high as C5.

What Johnny Does Well

Because of autotune, it’s very difficult to be able to tell from the recordings what his strengths and weaknesses are, so I stuck with live performances. One of his major strengths is how well he’s able to stay on pitch while dancing on the stage. It’s an underrated skill worth mentioning. On “Happy,” he also does a great job stylizing his mixed voice, in general getting just the right balance of forward and back resonance and an even vibrato.

What He Could Work On

In the above “Found My Girl” video, Johnny could work on transitioning into his middle voice. He stays in chest voice, and his phonation sounds a little bit pressed and tense on the higher notes. It’s very possible that this could be from nerves (and because he’s so young in the video).