Édith Piaf singing in front of a microphone (1962).

Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the voice and augments regular speech by the use of sustained tonality, rhythm, and a variety of vocal techniques. A person who sings is called a singer or vocalist (in jazz and popular music).[1][2] Singers perform music (arias, recitatives, songs, etc.) that can be sung with or without accompaniment by musical instruments. Singing is often done in an ensemble of musicians, such as a choir of singers or a band of instrumentalists. Singers may perform as soloists or accompanied by anything from a single instrument (as in art song or some jazz styles) up to a symphony orchestra or big band. Different singing styles include art music such as opera and Chinese opera, Indian music and religious music styles such as gospel, traditional music styles, world music, jazz, blues, gazal and popular music styles such as pop, rock, electronic dance music and filmi (film songs).

Singing can be formal or informal, arranged or improvised. It may be done as a form of religious devotion, as a hobby, as a source of pleasure, comfort or ritual, as part of music education or as a profession. Excellence in singing requires time, dedication, instruction and regular practice. If practice is done on a regular basis then the sounds can become more clear and strong.[3] Professional singers usually build their careers around one specific musical genre, such as classical or rock, although there are singers with crossover success (singing in more than one genre). They usually take voice training provided by voice teachers or vocal coaches throughout their careers.


A labeled anatomical diagram of the vocal folds or cords

In its physical aspect, singing has a well-defined technique that depends on the use of the lungs, which act as an air supply or bellows; on the larynx, which acts as a reed or vibrator; on the chest, head cavities and skeleton, which have the function of an amplifier, as the tube in a wind instrument; and on the tongue, which together with the palate, teeth, and lips articulate and impose consonants and vowels on the amplified sound. Though these four mechanisms function independently, they are nevertheless coordinated in the establishment of a vocal technique and are made to interact upon one another.[4] During passive breathing, air is inhaled with the diaphragm while exhalation occurs without any effort. Exhalation may be aided by the abdominal, internal intercostal and lower pelvis/pelvic muscles. Inhalation is aided by use of external intercostals, scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid muscles. The pitch is altered with the vocal cords. With the lips closed, this is called humming.

The sound of each individual's singing voice is entirely unique not only because of the actual shape and size of an individual's vocal cords but also due to the size and shape of the rest of that person's body. Humans have vocal folds which can loosen, tighten, or change their thickness, and over which breath can be transferred at varying pressures. The shape of the chest and neck, the position of the tongue, and the tightness of otherwise unrelated muscles can be altered. Any one of these actions results in a change in pitch, volume (loudness), timbre, or tone of the sound produced. Sound also resonates within different parts of the body and an individual's size and bone structure can affect the sound produced by an individual.

Singers can also learn to project sound in certain ways so that it resonates better within their vocal tract. This is known as vocal resonation. Another major influence on vocal sound and production is the function of the larynx which people can manipulate in different ways to produce different sounds. These different kinds of laryngeal function are described as different kinds of vocal registers.[5] The primary method for singers to accomplish this is through the use of the Singer's Formant; which has been shown to match particularly well to the most sensitive part of the ear's frequency range.[6][7]

It has also been shown that a more powerful voice may be achieved with a fatter and fluid-like vocal fold mucosa.[8][9] The more pliable the mucosa, the more efficient the transfer of energy from the airflow to the vocal folds.[10]

Vocal registration

Vocal registration refers to the system of vocal registers within the voice. A register in the voice is a particular series of tones, produced in the same vibratory pattern of the vocal folds, and possessing the same quality. Registers originate in laryngeal function. They occur because the vocal folds are capable of producing several different vibratory patterns.[11] Each of these vibratory patterns appears within a particular range of pitches and produces certain characteristic sounds.[12] The occurrence of registers has also been attributed to effects of the acoustic interaction between the vocal fold oscillation and the vocal tract.[13] The term "register" can be somewhat confusing as it encompasses several aspects of the voice. The term register can be used to refer to any of the following:[14]

  • A particular part of the vocal range such as the upper, middle, or lower registers.
  • A resonance area such as chest voice or head voice.
  • A phonatory process (phonation is the process of producing vocal sound by the vibration of the vocal folds that is in turn modified by the resonance of the vocal tract)
  • A certain vocal timbre or vocal "color"
  • A region of the voice which is defined or delimited by vocal breaks.

In linguistics, a register language is a language which combines tone and vowel phonation into a single phonological system. Within speech pathology, the term vocal register has three constituent elements: a certain vibratory pattern of the vocal folds, a certain series of pitches, and a certain type of sound. Speech pathologists identify four vocal registers based on the physiology of laryngeal function: the vocal fry register, the modal register, the falsetto register, and the whistle register. This view is also adopted by many vocal pedagogues.[14]

Vocal resonation

Cross-section of the head and neck

Vocal resonation is the process by which the basic product of phonation is enhanced in timbre and/or intensity by the air-filled cavities through which it passes on its way to the outside air. Various terms related to the resonation process include amplification, enrichment, enlargement, improvement, intensification, and prolongation, although in strictly scientific usage acoustic authorities would question most of them. The main point to be drawn from these terms by a singer or speaker is that the end result of resonation is, or should be, to make a better sound.[14] There are seven areas that may be listed as possible vocal resonators. In sequence from the lowest within the body to the highest, these areas are the chest, the tracheal tree, the larynx itself, the pharynx, the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, and the sinuses.[15]

Chest voice and head voice

Chest voice and head voice are terms used within vocal music. The use of these terms varies widely within vocal pedagogical circles and there is currently no one consistent opinion among vocal music professionals in regards to these terms. Chest voice can be used in relation to a particular part of the vocal range or type of vocal register; a vocal resonance area; or a specific vocal timbre.[14] Head voice can be used in relation to a particular part of the vocal range or type of vocal register or a vocal resonance area.[14] In Men, the head voice is commonly referred to as the falsetto.

History and development

The first recorded mention of the terms chest voice and head voice was around the 13th century, when it was distinguished from the "throat voice" (pectoris, guttoris, capitis—at this time it is likely that head voice referred to the falsetto register) by the writers Johannes de Garlandia and Jerome of Moravia.[16] The terms were later adopted within bel canto, the Italian opera singing method, where chest voice was identified as the lowest and head voice the highest of three vocal registers: the chest, passagio, and head registers.[17] This approach is still taught by some vocal pedagogists today. Another current popular approach that is based on the bel canto model is to divide both men and women's voices into three registers. Men's voices are divided into "chest register", "head register", and "falsetto register" and woman's voices into "chest register", "middle register", and "head register". Such pedagogists teach that the head register is a vocal technique used in singing to describe the resonance felt in the singer's head.[18]

However, as knowledge of physiology has increased over the past two hundred years, so has the understanding of the physical process of singing and vocal production. As a result, many vocal pedagogists, such as Ralph Appelman at Indiana University and William Vennard at the University of Southern California, have redefined or even abandoned the use of the terms chest voice and head voice.[17] In particular, the use of the terms chest register and head register have become controversial since vocal registration is more commonly seen today as a product of laryngeal function that is unrelated to the physiology of the chest, lungs, and head. For this reason, many vocal pedagogists argue that it is meaningless to speak of registers being produced in the chest or head. They argue that the vibratory sensations which are felt in these areas are resonance phenomena and should be described in terms related to vocal resonance, not to registers. These vocal pedagogists prefer the terms chest voice and head voice over the term register. This view believes that the problems which people identify as register problems are really problems of resonance adjustment. This view is also in alignment with the views of other academic fields that study vocal registration including speech pathology, phonetics, and linguistics. Although both methods are still in use, current vocal pedagogical practice tends to adopt the newer more scientific view. Also, some vocal pedagogists take ideas from both viewpoints.[14]

The contemporary use of the term chest voice often refers to a specific kind of vocal coloration or vocal timbre. In classical singing, its use is limited entirely to the lower part of the modal register or normal voice. Within other forms of singing, chest voice is often applied throughout the modal register. Chest timbre can add a wonderful array of sounds to a singer's vocal interpretive palette.[19] However, the use of overly strong chest voice in the higher registers in an attempt to hit higher notes in the chest can lead to forcing. Forcing can lead consequently to vocal deterioration.[20]

Classifying singing voices

In European classical music and opera, voices are treated like musical instruments. Composers who write vocal music must have an understanding of the skills, talents, and vocal properties of singers. Voice classification is the process by which human singing voices are evaluated and are thereby designated into voice types. These qualities include but are not limited to vocal range, vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal timbre, and vocal transition points such as breaks and lifts within the voice. Other considerations are physical characteristics, speech level, scientific testing, and vocal registration.[21] The science behind voice classification developed within European classical music has been slow in adapting to more modern forms of singing. Voice classification is often used within opera to associate possible roles with potential voices. There are currently several different systems in use within classical music including the German Fach system and the choral music system among many others. No system is universally applied or accepted.[17]

However, most classical music systems acknowledge seven different major voice categories. Women are typically divided into three groups: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. Men are usually divided into four groups: countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. When considering voices of pre-pubescent children an eighth term, treble, can be applied. Within each of these major categories, there are several sub-categories that identify specific vocal qualities like coloratura facility and vocal weight to differentiate between voices.[14]

Within choral music, singers' voices are divided solely on the basis of vocal range. Choral music most commonly divides vocal parts into high and low voices within each sex (SATB, or soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). As a result, the typical choral situation gives many opportunities for misclassification to occur.[14] Since most people have medium voices, they must be assigned to a part that is either too high or too low for them; the mezzo-soprano must sing soprano or alto and the baritone must sing tenor or bass. Either option can present problems for the singer, but for most singers, there are fewer dangers in singing too low than in singing too high.[22]

Within contemporary forms of music (sometimes referred to as contemporary commercial music), singers are classified by the style of music they sing, such as jazz, pop, blues, soul, country, folk, and rock styles. There is currently no authoritative voice classification system within non-classical music. Attempts have been made to adopt classical voice type terms to other forms of singing but such attempts have been met with controversy.[23] The development of voice categorizations were made with the understanding that the singer would be using classical vocal technique within a specified range using unamplified (no microphones) vocal production. Since contemporary musicians use different vocal techniques, microphones, and are not forced to fit into a specific vocal role, applying such terms as soprano, tenor, baritone, etc. can be misleading or even inaccurate.[24]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Sangkuns
Alemannisch: Gesang
Ænglisc: Sangcræft
العربية: غناء
aragonés: Cante
ܐܪܡܝܐ: ܙܡܪܐ
Avañe'ẽ: Purahéi
বাংলা: গাওয়া
Bân-lâm-gú: Chhiùⁿ-koa
беларуская: Спеў
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Сьпеў
भोजपुरी: गायकी
български: Пеене
Boarisch: Gsang
བོད་ཡིག: གཞས་གཏོང་བ།
bosanski: Pjevanje
brezhoneg: Kanañ
català: Cant
Чӑвашла: Юрлани
čeština: Zpěv
davvisámegiella: Lávlun
Deutsch: Gesang
eesti: Laulmine
español: Canto
Esperanto: Kantado
euskara: Kantu
فارسی: خوانندگی
français: Chant
Frysk: Sjongen
galego: Canto
贛語: 唱歌
한국어: 가창
हिन्दी: गायन
hrvatski: Pjevanje
íslenska: Söngvari
italiano: Canto
עברית: זמרה
ಕನ್ನಡ: ಗಾಯನ
ქართული: ვოკალისტი
Kreyòl ayisyen: Chantè
Кыргызча: Ырдоо
Latina: Cantus
latviešu: Dziedāšana
Limburgs: Zank
Livvinkarjala: Pajo
la .lojban.: sanga
magyar: Éneklés
मैथिली: गायन
македонски: Пеење
മലയാളം: ഗാനാലാപനം
მარგალური: ვოკალისტი
Bahasa Melayu: Nyanyian
Nederlands: Zangkunst
Nedersaksies: Zangkeunst
नेपाली: गाउनु
नेपाल भाषा: गायक
日本語: 歌唱
occitan: Cant
ଓଡ଼ିଆ: ଗାୟନ
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਗਾਇਕੀ
Papiamentu: Canta
Patois: Singin
Picard: Cant
polski: Śpiew
português: Canto (música)
română: Cântare
Runa Simi: Taki
русский: Пение
Scots: Singin
sicilianu: Cantu
සිංහල: ගායකයා
Simple English: Singing
ślůnski: Śpjyw
српски / srpski: Pevanje
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Pjevanje
suomi: Laulu
Tagalog: Pag-awit
தமிழ்: பாடுதல்
తెలుగు: గానం
українська: Спів
اردو: گلوکاری
Tiếng Việt: Hát
吴语: 唱歌
ייִדיש: געזאנג
粵語: 唱歌
中文: 歌唱