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What Is Twang in Singing

Written by Molly Webb

Jo Estill at Graduation, by OgreBot, under CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the major problems in contemporary (and even classical) vocal training is the disagreement in terminology. Not only are there multiple terms for the same vocal phenomenon, often the same term applies to multiple forms of singing. The term twang, one that I use all the time because of its utility, is one of those confusing terms. So what is twang in singing?

Estill Twang

Typically, when I use the word twang, I’m referring to a term coined by Jo Estill that refers to the narrowing of the aryepiglottic sphincter (AES) in singing. In practical singing terms, this creates forward resonance, or brightness. Twang is balanced with other darker resonance, and the balance can be created in a variety of ways. On one extreme you have sounds like Joanna Newsom’s in “This Side of the Blue,” using lots of twang and very little more open, dark resonance.

On the other extreme, you have the opera diva sound in Maury Yeston’s The Phantom with some brightness but much more dark resonance.

I’m not making a value judgment, just illustrating different ways resonances can be balanced.

All singing uses twang to some degree, but some genres tend to use a higher proportion than others. In country music and belty pop, for example, there’s typically a higher proportion of twang, while in classical singing and legit Broadway, there is a higher percentage of dark resonance added.

Country Twang

Country twang in singing is related to, but not exactly the same as Estillian twang. Country twang certainly uses a lot of forward resonance, but it usually refers specifically to singing with a southern dialect. A southern accent tends to use a lot of thin, drawn-out vowels, like “a” (as in cat), and emphasizing these vowels typically leads to an increase in Estillian twang. Country twang in singing can also refer to an abrupt register shift, either from belt to falsetto or vice versa–a sound reminiscent of a vibrating bow string after an arrow is released.

Hope I didn’t lose you! If you have questions, post in the comments below.

Molly Webb

Molly is the founder of Molly’s Music. She is a dedicated singer and pianist whose musical journey spans 2.5 decades, with stops along the way to sing for the pope, pass Certificate of Merit at the highest level, study with Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen, and record an original album.

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