Belting Collection: Belting Studies, Part 1

Lea Michele at Walmart Soundcheck for Louder in 2014,” by Lunchbox LP, under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

There’s little in the way of vocal pedagogy that sparks such heated debate as belting. Opposers talk about it as if it’s a one-way street to nodes, polyps, and your all-around vocal demise. Advocates denounce the opposers as ivory tower snobs who don’t live in the real world of singing. Given the rabidly heated opinions on the matter, there are very few studies on it one way or the other and none that suggest with any kind of convincing evidence that belting in a chestmix (a mix of chest and head resonance that has a predominantly chesty sound) is harmful. Before I start posting blog entries teaching you how to belt, I’ll first begin with a discussion of the belt debate so that you can make a more educated decision about whether it’s something you want to learn to do. In this entry, we’ll discuss one of the most famous belting studies. Please know that the information in this entry is denser and more scientific than usual, so if you’d rather skip it and wait for the more lighthearted how-to-sing entries, I won’t take offense!

American Academy of Otolaryngology Study

Findings:

Probably the most oft-cited belting study was presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology in 1995. You’ll often hear it referred to by classical singing advocates to show that belting is damaging. The study measured muscle tension patterns in the larynx that can potentially be connected with vocal disorders, such as nodes, polyps, and cysts. In its findings, there was a statistically significant negative correlation between classical singing and muscular tension (MT) compared with various types of commercial singing. There was also a statistically significant negative correlation between singers with vocal training (of any type) and those with MT. When professional singers sang in their own style instead of the standard (the Star-Spangled Banner), they had significantly less MT. When classical singers sang in other styles, their MT increased dramatically.

My take on this:

I really appreciate that people are taking the time to conduct research on this subject, rather than simply relying on their trust of authority, but unfortunately, the study doesn’t really prove a whole lot. Here are two reasons I make that claim.

1. There are too many different ways to sing commercial genres.

There’s a wide variety of ways to sing in commercial genres, all the way from being breathy to belting with a full chest belt. We would need to know more about how these commercial genres were being sung to make any determinations one way or the other about belting. Even if we were to make the leap and say that everyone singing in a commercial genre was belting, we still don’t know if they were using a chestmix belt or a full chest belt. It’s much more likely that someone untrained would belt in a vocally abusive way than sing classically in an abusive way, since the stereotype for commercial genres is loud and forceful, while the stereotype for classical singing is soft and melodious. This does not mean that, as a rule, all belting is evil.

2. We don’t know what type of training these singers had.

The results about training–that there’s a correlation between amount of training and healthy singing–sound promising, but these are inconclusive as well. One explanation is that trained singers tend to belt in a healthy way. Another explanation could be that trained singers tend to not belt! We would need to know exactly how these trained singers were using their voices.

So what can you learn from this study?

The study revealed that professionals had less muscular tension when singing in their own style and that classical singers had significantly increased muscular tension singing in other styles. This could actually be a plug for learning to sing your style (belt, breathiness, opera, or otherwise) in a healthy way, practicing and training in it in order to build the appropriate muscles and breath control necessary for that task–rather than simply training classically and assuming it’ll translate into all other areas of singing.

In other words, there’s nothing definitive about this study. It’s often cited by classical teachers to warn of the dangers of belting, but in reality, it does just as effective a job at warning against singing in a style you aren’t trained and equipped for! Do I think it’s possible to harm your voice by belting? Yes, absolutely, if you aren’t trained for it or if your voice is out of shape! But I don’t think this study (or any other I’ve read so far) has convincingly proven that all belting is harmful.

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