Vocal onsets are something we don’t often give any attention to when we sing, and yet we use them constantly, every time we sing a note, in fact. You may not realize it, but our vocal onsets greatly influence the character of a song. As with almost everything I write about and teach in my singing lessons, there’s no one correct approach to vocal onsets. The “right” way to choose a vocal onset is to find the one that best artistically expresses what you are looking to express.
What Are Vocal Onsets
A vocal onset is the way you initially start a tone. Does air seep through before the tone starts? Is there a hardness to the beginning of the tone? Something in between? These are all different ways to create an onset.
Types of Vocal Onsets
Glottal onsets get a bad rap because, if done too forcefully, they can be hard on your voice. But as with most singing, they can be perfectly healthy if you don’t push too aggressively. A glottal onset occurs when your vocal folds approximate (come together) before your tone begins. It results in a slight sharpness to the tone, as when you exclaim, “uh oh!” If you pay attention to what your throat is doing, you’ll feel a slight closure (accompanied by a restriction of air) before you hit your note.
Why Use a Glottal Onset?
Glottal onsets are used all over the place. They allow for a more conversational feel, so they’re prevalent in rock and pop music, as well as contemporary musical theatre and character roles in classic Broadway. Listen to Betsy Wolfe sing “A Summer in Ohio” from the musical The Last Five Years. The song is filled with glottal onsets, but pay particular attention to the way she sings “I,” and notice how conversational it feels.
Drawbacks of Glottal Onsets
There’s a slight harshness about glottal onsets, and if you push them too hard they can be the most dangerous of the onset types.
An aspirated onset occurs when your tone begins before your vocal folds approximate. You can make this happen by exhaling a little more than usual as you begin a note, giving it a breathy feel. Adding a silent “h” before a vowel and then sighing before adding the tone is a great way to get a feel for this type of onset.
Why Use an Aspirated Onset?
Aspirated onsets are very popular right now in the indie pop scene. Think of your favorite breathy songs, like Birdy’s version of “Skinny Love” and Hailey Reinhart’s version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Aspirated onsets offer a feeling of vulnerability and intimacy and can sound fantastic with bare-bones instrumentation and the mic cranked way up. Listen to Haley Reinhart. Aspirated onsets are all over the song, but listen in particular to the way she sings the “I” in “but I.” You hear her breath come first, followed by the note.
Drawbacks of Aspirated Onsets
It’s very difficult to get volume using an aspirated onset. It’s probably not something you want to use in solo singing unless you’re using amplification.
Smooth, or Coordinated Onsets
Taught by some voice teachers as the only correct onset, smooth onsets occur when your tone and vocal fold approximation happen simultaneously. To make this happen, don’t push the beginning of a note, but don’t let air seep out either. Adding a “y” to the beginning of a vowel is an easy way to make this happen. Try singing “youuuuu,” neither pushing the “y” sound, nor exhaling through it.
Why Use a Smooth Onset
Smooth onsets are, well, smooth. There’s a beauty and clarity to them that’s appropriate at least some of the time in pretty much any genre you can come up with. It’s the go-to onset for classical and choral music, but that’s far from their only usage. Listen to the way Aurora sings “you” in “Once Upon a Dream” to get a sense of how smooth an onset can be.
Drawbacks of Smooth Onsets
The only real drawback of a smooth onset is that sometimes you want something a little less crystal-sounding to characterize your music and make it less vanilla. This is where adding some the breathiness of aspirated onsets or the edge of glottal onsets comes in.