Music Theater Voice: Production, Physiology and Pedagogy

By Bourne, Tracy; Garnier, Maeva et al. | Journal of Singing, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview
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Music Theater Voice: Production, Physiology and Pedagogy

Bourne, Tracy, Garnier, Maeva, Kenny, Diana, Journal of Singing

[Associate Editor's note: This article is actually a chapter from the newly published book, Perspectives on Teaching Singing (Brisbane: Australian Academic Press, 2010), and appears with permission. It is an excellent summation of recent CCM discussions in Journal of Singing.]


MUSIC THEATER VOICE IS A STYLE within the broader field of Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM), previously described as "non-classical" music,1 and includes vocal qualities described in the professional industry as "belt" and "legit."

The belt sound may have originated in the early twentieth century vaudeville, with performers such as May Irwin, Stella Mayhew, Ethel Levey, and Sophie Tucker who sang in a style parodying African American women.2 In 1930, Ethel Merman made belt famous when she sang the final C^sub 5^ (C above middle C) of "I've Got Rhythm" for sixteen bars in a loud chest voice without amplification over a band of brass, reeds, and drums.3 Her performance earned her multiple encores, prompting George Gershwin to visit her during the interval and advise her never to take a singing lesson.4

The growing importance of plot in the American musical of the 1940s and 50s led composers to write melodies that were lower in pitch and more restricted in vocal range, so that the text could be more easily understood. At the same time, composer/writer teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote more realistic characters, often requiring performers to place vocal expressivity before beauty. Celeste Holm, who first created the role of Ado Annie in Oklahoma (1943), sang Schubert's "An die Musik" for her audition, but was asked if she could also sing in a more "untrained voice." She produced what she described as her "hog call" and got the role.5

Music theater sound changed radically with the introduction of the rock musical in the 1960s and 70s. Lead roles in musicals such as Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and Rent (1994) required strong contemporary singers that had the stamina for eight shows a week. More recently, the musical Wicked (2003) extended the technical requirements of the female belt sound, requiring an F^sub 5^ in the song "Defying Gravity."

Legit vocal quality is grounded in classical tradition, arising out of the popularity of operetta in the early twentieth century.6 Early music theater singing from the beginning of the twentieth century was almost all classical, although the tessitura was generally lower and the range more restricted than for operatic repertoire. The music theater legit sound was most popular in the musicals of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, but has generally declined in use since then. It is still a required sound for some roles in music theater productions, such as Johanna in Sweeney Todd (1979) or Fabrizio in Light in the Piazza (2003).

This article will report on responses from a survey of experienced music theater pedagogues from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Asia about current industry definitions and methods of training. Current knowledge on the vocal health risks for music theater voice will be discussed and a review of scientific literature on the physiology and acoustic characteristics of music theater vocal qualities will be presented. A summary of research on vocal registers and laryngeal mechanisms will be followed by a discussion of registers in the music theater voice, and the implications for vocal health and training. Finally, the article will offer specific recommendations, including an evaluation of the appropriateness of classical methods for teaching the music theater singing voice.


In the past decade, the demand for training in music theater singing has grown and singing teachers are now seeking specific training methods for this style. In 2001, the president of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) reported that a workshop in that year on the music theater and belt voice attracted over 300 members from eight countries and forty-six states from the USA.

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