How Can I Influence My Vocal Sound?

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This has probably happened to you: You hear an amazing singer and think, Man, I want to sound like that!

So you start asking yourself, How can I learn to control my voice so it sounds the way I want?

At The Balanced Singer (TBS), we have developed a system that will help you learn how to control and adjust your voice so you can sound just as amazing as all those famous singers you admire.

And the great thing about our approach is that it not only gives you maximum freedom of choice (like choosing your singing style or genre), but our method will also come intuitively to you as you learn to balance your voice. 

There are so many important factors that influence your vocal sound. We’ll go over each of these factors in detail in other blogs, but for now, let us introduce you to all the key concepts that you simply must know about as you begin your quest for vocal control and balance.

Sound good? You better believe it (and there are tons of examples to listen to below!), so hear us out . . .

The two big players

When it comes to influencing your vocal sound, there are two main aspects that play dominant roles, defining the major characteristics of your sound: airflow and vowel shape

Airflow

Airflow refers to the amount of air actually getting through your vocal folds as you sing. Makes sense, right? 

We didn’t start with airflow by chance: Airflow actually determines the basic quality of your tone. (It’s kind of a big deal.

Within a certain range of airflow, you can manage to keep a sustainable tone, but you’re also able to vary the characteristics of your voice, moving between balanced phonation, compressed phonation, and breathy phonation. So what does all that even mean?

Balanced phonation is what we tune our voice toward when balancing it. Its sound quality is soothing and floating, which is ideal for a lot of classical music and soft ballads. Listen to Jussi Björling singing “Pearl Fishers’ Duet,” and you’ll know what we mean.

Compressed phonation means a little more vocal fold adduction and thus a little less airflow. It’s typical for rock and R&B music, but you’ll also hear it in more dramatic classical repertoire. Beyoncé’s phonation is more compressed in the chorus of “Listen.

Breathy phonation means a little less vocal fold adduction and therefore more airflow. It’s used in nearly all genres for stylistic effects. If you listen to the beginning of “And I’m Telling You” by Jennifer Hudson, you will clearly hear her breathy sound. The same is true for the beginning of the first verse in “Listen” by Beyoncé

It is possible to shift smoothly between balanced, compressed, and breathy phonation, finding a healthy airflow rate between the three.

But if you sing beyond compressed or breathy, you won’t only knock yourself out of balance, but you’ll also face technical issues like strain, lack of power, breaks in your voice, and intonation issues.

In some styles, you can also play with the onset or offset of a tone in order to achieve certain effects—this also has to do with airflow, but we’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog or video.

Vowel Shape

Airflow determines the basic quality of your tone, so once you’ve got that down, you can start modifying your sound quality by changing vowel shape.

You can move every vowel in four basic directions and mixtures, and here’s how we break down those directions:

  • Nasal
  • Mouthy
  • Dark
  • Bright

These elements are related to each other and can be paired as opposites (nasal vs. mouthy, dark vs. bright). Although they can be found in all genres (and pretty much in every singer), we’ll give you some obvious examples. Let’s start with the first pair:

Nasal vs. Mouthy. You can hear vowels with a nasal touch in these songs:

Generally, a light nasal touch is very popular in a lot of R&B music. But don’t forget country music—you can find traces of nasal sounds in most country songs. Listen to these examples:

Mouthy is essentially the opposite of nasal. The more mouthy you get, the less nasal you can be (and vice versa). You can hear a lot of mouthy sounds on the high notes of these two songs:

And there are many famous examples in Broadway of belting that exemplify mouthy vowels: Check out Sutton Foster’s “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Whether your voice sounds more nasal or more mouthy has to do with how much sound travels through your nose and how much travels through your mouth. Your tongue and your soft palate are what mainly influence how and where sound travels. 

Bright vs. Dark. Bright vowels or sounds can be heard in the high notes of a tenor in classical singing, like at the end of “Nessun Dorma” by Luciano Pavarotti.

Other totally different examples of bright vowels can be found in many notes in “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees or in “Jane” by Jefferson Starship.

As for dark sound quality, listen to these songs:

Dark and bright sound color mainly have to do with the larynx position. A high larynx will cause a brighter sound and a low larynx results in a darker sound. But to a certain degree, bright vs. dark have to do with whether you have a high or a low voice. 

Higher voices naturally tend to be brighter, whereas lower voices tend to be darker. Just compare Adam Levine with Barry White, and you get the idea.

We can sum up these four vowel relationships in a handy diagram:

TBS vowel chart showing breathy, mouthy, dark and light

The circle around the center of the diagram shows the area you want to stay within when performing vowel alterations. Anything outside this zone will start to jeopardize the balance in your voice. You might be able to do it once or twice, but it won’t be sustainable in the long run.

The center of the diagram symbolizes the mixture of the four vowel directions that is present in the pure and natural version of the vowel you are trying to sing.

By moving the vowel around on that diagram, you can find every sound color you can think of. Cool, huh?

And learning to feel where your vowel is on that chart and how to move it around is one of the most important skills you need to develop if you want to be in control of your vocal sound. 

The sidekicks

Exercising the correct airflow and vowel shape for what you intend to sing will already contribute massively to whether your sound is more pop, rock, R&B, or classical. 

But let’s add some other factors—some sidekicks to our big players—that will further shape your sound:

  • Vibrato
  • Dynamics
  • Pace
  • Pitch
  • Supra glottal events

These are the cherry on top of the results you have already achieved from mastering airflow and vowel shapes.

Here’s a quick overview of each of these sidekicks:

Vibrato

The speed of vibrato and how much of it is used is distinctive for certain styles of music and for certain singers. 

Classical singing without vibrato just isn’t a thing. 

And rock and R&B with an all-present vibrato would just sound wrong. 

Although vibrato is a sign of a well-balanced voice, when it comes to sound and style choices, it’s an ornament you add on top of your sound and want to be in control of. 

Listen to how the vibrato really spins on every sustained note right away in The Magic Flute aria sung by Fritz Wunderlich. 

Then in contrast, listen to “Rosanna” by Toto, where nearly no vibrato is used at all.

Dynamics

Alternating between soft and loud singing has a profound influence on how your voice is perceived. The ability to control the intensity of your voice plays a very important role when you want to communicate emotions through your voice. 

Eva Cassidy singing “Fields of Gold” is a great example of using dynamics to evoke emotion.

Pace

When it comes to phrasing lines, we have many options, like singing legato or using a percussive or even staccato-like approach.

You need to change up the pace of your sound depending on whether you’re singing a ballad, an up-tempo song, a classical piece, or a blues classic. 

Good examples for percussive use of the voice are “Faith” by George Michael or “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson

Now have a listen to the long legato lines in Michael Bublé’s “Always On My Mind.”—a total change of pace (and style) from the other two examples.

Pitch

In some contexts, you need to add variations to the pitch you’re supposed to sing to sound stylistically correct (or just cooler). 

Think of rock and blues singers who slide up to or above a note, or they might scoop a note or perform an alternating slide in between two notes. You can hear a lot of slides and scoops in “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.

R&B singers sometimes add fast riffs and runs as embellishments to their vocal lines. At the beginning of “Countdown” by Beyoncé, you can hear some great riffing.

Classical singers perform trills all the time. Take a listen to “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto, performed by Maria Callas.

Supra glottal events

In order to produce effects like vocal distortion—perhaps a growl or a certain kind of scream—you have to involve structures in the vocal tract that lie above the vocal folds, such as the false vocal folds. 

These are like a finishing touch for a rock sound, but they need to be applied carefully. 

To be able to make these adjustments the right way, you need a lot of vocal experience and a pretty well-balanced voice. Otherwise, you might run into trouble with your voice or vocal health.

Are you ready to learn more?

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Photo of Andreas Grussl
Voice instructor, vocal producer and lawyer, Andreas Grussl runs a very successful voice studio in his hometown of Graz, the second biggest city in Austria.

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