Tenors and Female Belters

It seems that classically trained tenors and female belters have a lot in common vocally. Many people recognize the similarity of production.

If we discuss function and can agree that the classical tenor is taking some version of his “chest register” or “chest voice” up above the break/passaggio, we could also agree that the female belter does the same thing. Of course, if you don’t “believe” in registers, or all you know about singing is based only on “breath support” and “placement” or “formant tuning” and “resonance strategies,” that discussion could be very difficult.

If, however, you listen to the sound as sound, it is unmistakable that the “edge”, the “ring” or the “carrying power” of both tenors and belters, male and female, is found similarly in both groups.

Generally, the male larynx is larger than that of a female and the vocal folds are thicker and longer. Often the neck is larger or longer as well. That’s the main reason their typical range is about an octave lower than the female. You could have a small framed man (Sonny Bono) singing with a low voiced female (Cher) in the same octave. Her voice was actually lower than his.

The intensity factor is a combination of volume and acoustic efficiency. Somehow or other the vocal tract has to get either smaller or tighter or both, in order to amplify the “highs” where the ring can be found (2800 – 3200 Hz). How that happens, indirectly of course, is up to the individual singer but when it happens it only works if the singer is managing that behavior with as little physical effort in the throat as possible.

It’s interesting to me that many of the men who teach belting are classical tenors and think they understand belting because of that one fact. As a tenor, the bigger the instrument the more “belty” it will sound. If you have a spinto or dramatic tenor, he could come close to belting just by changing his vowels to be more “spread” or “bright”. If he is singing without “holding the larynx down” (that won’t work!) and has decent high notes above A440, he could sound OK enough, especially in a Broadway context.

If, however, you have as a student a light lyric soprano who wants to belt in a rock band and has never developed her “chest register” or speaking voice quality, and has a sweet, pretty instrument, having a hefty tenor for a teacher could be very problematic. This situation is ripe for causing the student to push, get tired and generally misconstrue what she hears as example from her teacher and unless he is very experienced and knowledgable, she could end up as a terrible belter or having severe vocal problems. (And she will probably get blamed for this if it happens.)

Another bumpy situation would be for the same tenor to have a lyric baritone of a young age also seeking to belt, perhaps while also singing classically in a college situation. The gradation of tension on the instrument between a young baritone and a more mature tenor can be significant but the flexibility of the young vocalist’s instrument might allow him to push into the higher notes, again trying to imitate his teacher. A skilled and experienced teacher who can belt or not, as needed, would be the best guide.

What happens with a female who is a good belter but is also comfortable in a classical sound when she has to teach a classically-oriented young tenor, again, perhaps in a college situation. The vocal function might be very similar in the female teacher’s belt, but learning to hear the sound from outside as a student, as a young man, could be quite difficult to do. Students don’t learn to sort out overall sound quality from vocal function for quite some time. They tend to imitate the sound of the teacher (which is why I insist that teachers need to sing decently in order to be good role models) for quite some time.

I think the easiest set up for teaching is voice to voice, at least in beginners. In other words, a lyric coloratura is probably best taught by another lyric coloratura. I think a singer who wants to learn to belt is best taught by someone who has also learned to belt. I think someone with a “big” voice is best off teaching someone else with a “big” voice, preferably within the same SATB category. Of course, this is not always possible and even if it does occur there is no guarantee that good results will emerge based on these factors alone.


The emotional character of belting has to be considered if it is to be a valid musical expression for the singer. We have lost the context of belting due to the stylistic influences in the marketplace.

We associate chest register at a loud volume with authority, power, strength, and passion. It can also be associated with anger, with masculinity, with forcefulness and with pain. We associate head register with all opposite qualities: submission, gentleness, delicacy, and intimacy. We associate it with comfort, purity, sweetness and clarity and with femininity and being soothed. A drill sergeant’s voice barks out marching orders in a loud chesty “hup, two, three, four”. If he did that in a voice like Tiny Tim or Marilyn Monroe, we would laugh. The reverse is true: If Marilyn Monroe shimmied up to a guy and purred out, “hello, big fellow,” in her best drill sergeant rasp and we would also laugh.

Whenever we hear a belt sound it should be associated with excitement, passion, exuberance, declaration, passion, intensity, and expansiveness. If you can’t tell what the emotion in the sound is, and it is loud for loud’s sake, the usefulness of the belt sound is left unharnessed, and the singer has to work twice as hard to be authentic while performing. Music that is written to utilize belting as an emotional expression of something that makes sense works better and is easier to sing and to hear. Finding the sound as function first and then hooking it up to music that suits it is a package. In order to do what’s best for both the music and the singer, all this needs to be in the toolbox.

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3 thoughts on “Tenors and Female Belters”

  1. This post is absolutely absurd. It is, without question, perfectly clear that the writer knows not of what she speaks.

  2. Well, anonymous, you certainly are brave, aren’t you?

    I can see you’ve read the scientific literature and you understand the principles of open/closed quotient, sub-glottic pressure and formant frequency arrangement. You know professional classical singers with classical experience who also belt and who agree with you, of course. You work with the highest level performers and make all these sounds yourself, I’m sure. You are a true expert, that’s why you signed your name!!!!

    In any case, since your comment is only about what you think of me, and since I am the one working with Grammy winners on both coasts, who has done the research, who knows the literature, and who is respected by the profession, I’m not surprised that the only thing you can do is call me names.

    Next time, try signing your name or keep your posts to yourself. It’s your one chance at the big time.

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