You’ve all heard it before: “If you can sing classical music, you can sing anything!” “Pop singers won’t be able to sing classical music, but classical singers can easily apply what they know to pop music.” “If you have a healthy classical foundation, you’ll be able to sing any genre in a healthful way.” It’s a very alluring idea: that you can just learn how to do one thing the right way and then apply it to everything else. The only problem is that it’s not true. If you spend your life learning how to sing classical music, well, you’re probably going to be good at classical singing. You’ll probably also transition pretty easily to the classic Broadway sound. If you spend your life learning how to sing pop music, you’re probably not going to be so hot at classical singing, although you’ll likely transition pretty easily to rock musicals (provided you were learning pop music with a belt). I’m not here to make a judgment about the value of classical singing vs. pop singing. But I will say that if you want to be in operas, classical singing is definitely the way to go. And if you want to try out for American Idol, by all means, go invest in some pop training and skip the classical voice lessons.
Recently, I became frustrated when a student of mine came back home from a famous commercial voice college program, only to tell me that the training she was receiving there was classical and that she was told that she’s not good enough at the classical sound. This girl is one of the best pop vocalists I know. She has no interest in classical singing and has an excellent shot at making it in the pop singing world–and no college program has any business telling her she needs to sound more classical. The conversation with her prompted me to write this post about the differences between classical and pop singing.
Classical Singing vs. Pop Singing: How Do the Two Differ?
First off, I’d like to say that all of these differences are generalizations. There are many, many varieties of both classical singing and pop singing. French classical uses more nasal resonance, while the German school often emphasizes a lower larynx. Pop belters like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson use a lot of chest, as well as forward resonance, while singer-songwriters and more folksy pop musicians tend to use a more relaxed, open, and even airy sound. But to make matters a little easier, I’ll narrow the categories down to classical music found in most American conservatories vs. pop belters.
Differences in Vowels
Pop singers use a lot of bright, chesty vowels. An “AH” sound, for example, might be modified to an “A” sound (as in “cat”) to make a high belt more accessible. Classical singers tend to use headier vowels. “AH” might be modified to “UH,” in order to help transition into a more head-resonant sound. Vowel modifications also depend on the singer’s vocal tendencies, as well as what part of the voice he or she is singing in.
Pop Singers Use More Twang, While Classical Singers Use More Back Resonance
Twang is the narrowing of the epiglottis that allows for a forward, bright sound. It’s all a matter of degree: Classical singers use twang, and pop singers use the more open, back resonance, but less so than classical singers use back resonance and pop singers use twang.
Pop Singers Tend to Sing With a Higher Larynx than Classical Singers Do.
The ideas that all belters sing with a high larynx, or that all classical singers use a low larynx from the bottom to the top of their range, or that larynges should remain neutral no matter what, are all just myths. But one thing that isn’t a myth is that, in general, classical singers use a slightly lower larynx than pop singers do.
Pop Singers Tend to Use Less Vibrato Than Classical Singers Do.
Pop singers do typically use some vibrato. But it’s lighter and often only used at the end of a sustained note, after a period of straight tone.
Pop singer Use More Chest Resonance in their Mix than Classical Singers
Both pop singers and classical singers spend a good portion of their range in their mixed voice, but pop singers tend to use a more chest-dominant mix, while classical singers tend to use a more head-dominant mix.
How Pop Singing and Classical Singing Are Similar
I don’t want to overemphasize the differences between pop singing and classical singing, because there are plenty of crossovers. Both require good breath support to hit notes powerfully, regardless of whether the notes are belted or sung in head voice. Both require sympathetic resonance in multiple areas, even if the distributions of resonance are different. Both require a good sense of pitch and timing, and both types of singing, ideally, should be free of throat constriction. Just to name a few…