When you start voice lessons, one of the first things you will notice is that there are a ton of little things involved in the singing process to listen for and to think about. Singing is very much an activity that requires multi-tasking, and just like any other physical exercise, it takes time, repetition, and concerted effort to develop a muscle memory for those different singing tasks and in creating a healthful singing sound.
Fortunately, one of the fun things about getting started is that you can quickly recognize the audible differences between “good” and “bad” techniques once they’ve been brought to your attention. Once you know what to listen for, your singing can improve rapidly.
Here, I’d like to look closely at one of those techniques. That technique is called “onset.” How we begin the singing sound makes a tremendous difference in our ability to maintain a strong, clear sound. In this article, I will go over the two basic ways we create sound with our voices, and discuss how to listen for them in your own singing. Once you can hear the technique in your own voice, you can train yourself to do it consistently for meaningful, effective practice.
The Creation of Sound
Like many musical instruments, we create sound with our voices by vibrating air as it passes through our natural instruments – our throats. The action of vibrating the sound occurs at a place in our throats called the glottis. At the glottis, there is a pair of lips called the vocal cords, or vocal folds. Just like the lips of our mouths, the vocal folds can be opened to let air pass through, or closed to keep it held back. It is the opening and closing of these vocal folds that makes the vibration in the air, like rapid tiny clapping, which creates the speaking and singing sounds.
When we think about the onset of speech or singing, we are thinking about how that clapping action gets started. It can begin through two different processes, and they make considerably different kinds of sounds. The determining feature of those processes has to do with whether or not the vocal folds are open or closed when the air starts moving.
So, How You Can You Do This With Your Own Voice?
Although the science behind these two phonation processes is, in my opinion, quite fascinating, I would rather offer a simple way to try them out with your own voice. To begin a sound with the vocal folds open, all you need to do is say or sing the word “hey.” That “H” sound comes from air passing through the open vocal folds before the air pressure from your breath brings them together (through a physical behavior called the “Bernoulli Effect”). Once the vocal folds are together, they start vibrating the air with that clapping motion, which creates the “-ey” part of the sound. This type of onset is called an “aspirated” onset.
To begin a sound with the vocal folds closed, try speaking and then singing the word “eight.” In the English language, any time we begin a word that starts with a vowel, we use the muscles of the glottis to close the vocal folds (another physical behavior called “adduction”). In other words, there is no “H” sound that proceeds the word. We call this process a “glottal stop.” When we use a glottal stop closes the vocal folds, the air from the lungs can’t pass through, and air pressure begins to build below the glottis. After enough pressure builds, the air pushes through the closed vocal, creating an initial burst of sound.
Effects On Singing
Listen carefully as you compare the two types of vocal onset. Sing a series of sounds on the word “hey,” and then repeat the process with the word “eight.” You will find that there are significant differences in the sound. With the aspirated onset, there is breath that escapes before you actually the singing sound. Breath is, of course, a precious resource in singing, and when you begin with the glottal stop technique, that extra air doesn’t get wasted.
You may also notice that there is a higher likelihood of a clear, rather than breathy, singing sound. If so, that means that the glottis muscles are holding firm, which results in using your breath more efficiently. Lastly, notice that there is a sort of revving up that occurs with the aspirated onset. In contrast, the glottal stop approach creates a clean, immediate presence of voice, which encourages accurate singing.
There are many benefits to singing with the glottal stop type of onset. For more information about it, you can look up an iconic figure in vocal teaching named Manuel Garcia II, who was one of the first to argue for this “Coup de la glotte” singing technique using strong scientific and physiological evidence. However, if you try to muscle the vocal folds together too tightly, the sound becomes strained and the beginning of the sound gets croaky. It is important to keep the onset light and crisp when you use it for singing, just as you would when you are speaking. Balance is everything when it comes to singing.