CCM and Classical Are NOT The Same

I get so tired of hearing “classical” and “CCM” styles are all the same. All vocal production is the same, no matter what you are doing.


The only people who say those things are those who sing everything in the same way. Some people sing like robots, it’s all they can manage. I write about them in this blog all the time. Just because you are unable, yourself, to hear and/do the various things that different styles require doesn’t mean they are not there or that they don’t matter.

Classical singing has three universally accepted premises. Do not raise the upper body on inhalation (but I have seen very famous singers do just that), make the sound “resonate” up and forward in the head somewhere (fill in the blank…eyebrows, forehead, cheekbones, “masque”, nasal cavities, hard palate, front teeth, top of the head, etc.) and use good “breath support” (some kind of activity in the area of the belly (lower abs, middle abs, waist, lower back, all of the above, “diaphragm”) while singing. Everyone’s take on how you do this is their own.

Classical singing has to generate considerable volume (around 110-115 decibels in a large dramatic voice at full tilt). The resonance frequency range that has to be amplified is between 2800 and 3200 Hz, which is called the “singer’s formant cluster”. The sound should have a consistent vibrato from about 5.5 to 6.5 cycles per second of approximately 1/4 tone above and 1/4 below the sustained frequency (pitch) but can go to as much as 1/2 step above and 1/2 step below on emotionally expressive passages.

The sound should be a combination of opposite qualities: bright and warm, sparkling and creamy, powerful and flexible. Consonants should be clear throughout most of the range. The mouth should open easily on high and loud notes, but the face and neck should not distort into contorted shapes. The jaw should move easily. The sound must be clear, not breathy, noisy or nasal. And, it should be produced freely and easily, without fatigue, in a strong, properly aligned body that can also move comfortably.

The requisites of repertoire, particularly of foreign languages, has nothing whatsoever to do with vocal production although it has always been associated with it. Singing in Italian, French, German or some other language will teach you how to sing in those languages, not how to sing in English (which, when sung, is usually pronounced in classical music with more care than we use in day to day speech and therefore has to be “re-learned” by most Americans). Art songs require different kinds of stylistic nuance having to do with era, composer, tradition and language, all of which must be learned. Opera magnifies these skills so that they are more obvious and perhaps also more demanding. They are not a substitute for correct vocal production but rather interface with it.

Classical singing is still typically not electronically amplified. Singers do not change the keys of opera roles but may change keys of songs for recital purposes. They do not vary the rhythm or melody, unless to put in a cadenza, but there is some leeway about tempo (speed) and small variances of rhythm for artistic purposes. Classical singers learn repertoire just to know it, including preparing operatic, orchestral and oratorio roles for the purposes of knowing them in advance even though a specific performance may not be pending. Generally, classical vocalists must develop the voice until they find the right kind of roles that are suited to it and fit themselves into existing repertoire. There are specific pitch ranges for each voice type and specific colors or weight in each sub-category of vocal type in those ranges. Singers are expected to learn what these are and what the descriptors also are. Some vocalists can cover more than one category (fach). Some move from one category to another permanently (fach change).

Classical singing came from Europe, from the courts of royalty and nobility and from the church. It developed because the aristocracy paid composers to write music for entertainment or to have it for various religious services. The training was developed primarily in Italy, some say because the Italian language is melodious. The techniques brought out the strength and beauty of the voice and made it possible for someone to sing for a group and easily be heard. The music was meant for the cultured, educated few. It did not become popular with average people until some few hundred years after it’s initial creation.

In Contemporary Commercial Styles many many things are different.

With few exceptions, CCM styles (music theater, jazz, rock, pop, gospel, R&B/soul, country, folk, rap, alternative) arise from the sound of the speaking voice, called “modal” (for the “mode”) in voice science. This is also the chest register (not chest resonance). The sounds are not resonance driven because all the styles came from average people who were not cultured, nor sophisticated and they did not know or care about “resonance”. In most cases the music was played for personal enjoyment or to be shared in a community for entertainment. Sometimes the music was sung outdoors, so sounds that carry outside were necessary and became integrated into the styles over time. Whatever the resonance was, if any, it was.

With the exception of music theater, which is a special style with its own unique parameters, all of the other styles were developed in various parts of the USA after it was settled by whites. The settlers brought with them their own instruments and languages and the music developed differently in different places throughout America. Argument could be made that most styles, with the possible exception of music theater, country and folk music, were heavily influenced by the slaves who were brought here from Africa and the Caribbean. Generally, the use of language is colloquial and can also be regional.

Each style has its own criteria or parameters in terms of musical expression, form and tradition. Music theater and jazz, the two most popular forms of CCM styles taught in school settings in this country, are inter-related but have taken two different paths of development. Jazz is complex and has it’s own highly developed set of principles, but it has also influenced R&B, soul, true blues, rock, pop, and gospel (with gospel being older and deriving from “Negro Spirituals” whose origins lie in the Deep South in the early 1800s).

All CCM styles have been electronically amplified since the late 1920s early 1930s. The use of amplification allowed those who do not sing with a great deal of volume to have professional careers. The names of the styles of singing originated from the usage of the music and the emotional communication of it and the words/lyrics.

Belters were loud shouters who “belted out the song” (to belt means to hit hard and that is what the belt vocalist does) when there was no amplification. The other singers who could be heard without amplification were the opera singers (the real singers or the “legitimate” ones). With the advent of electronic amplification, a new kind of singer who was not loud was born. This kind of singer was called a “crooner”. Classical singers regarded crooners as being inconsequential and belters as loud ugly shouters. Some of this kind of negative opinion persists to this day. It could be argued that this is veiled racism, since the roots of many of these styles go back to the music of the slaves, working in the fields.

Pronunciation of many CCM styles is colloquial but in country music it is often flavored by the accents of the south or southwest. Pronunciation that is too precise is generally considered inappropriate. Pitch values may vary and intonation may also, particularly in styles that use pitch glides as expressive gestures. The vocalist may or may not have vibrato, it may or may not come and go, or change. The sound could be clear, breathy, noisy or nasal, or all of these alternatively, depending on the style and the artist. The rhythms may not remain the same as that of the original notes as written by the composer and, in jazz, all of these components, including the use of words/lyrics can be adjusted in the moment, as improvisation, into new variations of the song.

Rock music relies heavily on the sound equipment and the sound engineer and is physically very demanding. Pop singers are expected to dance anywhere from a little to a lot. Country and folk singers always tell a story. Gospel and R&B/soul singers frequently use very heavily ornamented melismatic lines for expression, and it is not unusual for a gospel artist to be backed up by a full choir.

Various types of accompaniment from simple guitar or piano to a full band or orchestra can be used in CCM styles, and the “arrangements” or “charts” of the instrumental musicians can look quite different from the music scores used by a classical accompanist or orchestra, where the scores are precisely written out and carry clear dynamic, tempo and other musical markings.

At no time does a CCM singer need to think of resonance, breath support, vowel accuracy or vibrato rate or extent, although some artists may be very conscious of these things and understand how to incorporate them into their singing.

Music theater varies quite a bit. Older shows can be very classical (“legit”) in nature and carry many of the values of classical music in them when they are revived for new productions. Rock, jazz, country, rap, and pop musicals have been on Broadway, and they incorporate some of the elements of each of the styles but have an extra “overlay” of Broadway as well. Pronunciation would be clearer, musical values would be more consistent, and the vocal demands laid out in a concise and specific way in terms of vocal quality and pitch range as well as style. All music theater songs are regarded as “acting” songs in that the person singing the song must take on the reality of the character in the show as if it were “real life”. Sometimes, vocalists are also doing vigorous dancing while they are singing or wearing large, heavy elaborate costumes as well. (This type of costume can be found in opera, and sometimes in pop performances also).

CCM vocalists do not learn songs for the sake of knowing them. Generally, they do not worry about range or key, except in a Broadway show, because they can sing any song in whatever key they find comfortable. (In music theater, songs are sung in the written key with the exception of stars or understudies who have more leeway). Jazz artists who step into a band may have to sing in a predetermined key. Music theater performers are amplified but they do not control the sound nor sing as if the amplification changes the vocal production. All other styles use the amplification deliberately and can be greatly effected in their vocal output if the sound system is distorted, weak or poor.

There are other differences but these are enough to quantify things.

If, after reading this, you think the two genres are still both exactly the same, you live in a different universe than I.

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4 thoughts on “CCM and Classical Are NOT The Same”

  1. it hurts when you take the premises of bad classical teaching for all. of course every great classical singer raises the upper Body on Inhalation and mental Limitation is not universally accepted in classical singing.

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