Music Theater Singing.Let's Talk. Part 2: Examining the Debate on Belting

By Spivey, Norman | Journal of Singing, May/June 2008 | Go to article overview

Music Theater Singing.Let's Talk. Part 2: Examining the Debate on Belting


Spivey, Norman, Journal of Singing


[T]he belt voice represents the greatest departure from classical singing, and is the most controversial of the Broadway singing styles.1

INTRODUCTION

So, is it chest voice singing or not? When one surveys the literature on music theater singing, and on belting in particular, this question seems to be at the very center of the discussion. One finds two distinct camps. There is a group that emphatically believes belting to be an abusive behavior that compromises the voice and ultimately leads to its demise. The other cadre promotes belting as an altogether viable voice mode that is nothing more than an organic outgrowth of energized speech. Who is right? Can both groups be addressing the same sounds? The same voice production?

The literature acknowledges that:

Many voice teachers define belting as chest voice singing.2

In musical theatre singing, this part of the voice [chest voice] is often called the "belt" (possibly derived from the fact that singing produced in this register requires more activity in the abdominal region). For years, classically trained singers have been taught that the chest voice is not a legitimate register for artistic singing. It was-and still isfrequently regarded by some teachers as "Broadway" singing.3

Most teachers hear the lower and occasionally heavier sounds produced by belters and understandably equate them with the female chest-register.4

In addition to mentioning this situation and offering some context, the literature also corroborates the dichotomy that exists between teachers in the profession.

The more prevalent opinion is held by classically trained voice teachers who argue that belting is both aesthetically offensive and deleterious to the vocal mechanism. In opposition, a smaller nucleus of voice teachers, and a substantial number of performers, defend belting as an artistically exciting quality that, with proper training, may be relatively risk-free.

Disagreement between these two camps is reflected further in the understanding of both the perception and physiology of each quality. Classicists maintain that belting is a style of forced declamation in which the chest voice mechanism is taken upward, beyond its normal frequency limits, without mixing or changing voice qualities. Those of the opposite camp assume, on the basis of their aural perception and physiologic production, that belting is not chest voice, but a quality unique unto itself.5

By categorizing the stances in the literature, this article-continuing a compilation of primary sources with commentary-hopes to clarify this debate and promote a more unified understanding. Let us see what each group has to say.

GROUP ONE: THUMBS DOWN

Belting typically refers to extending the chest voice register higher in pitch beyond the point one might usually switch to head voice.6

In musical theater the female chest voice is brought all the way up to an octave above middle C, sometimes higher.7

Belters can push chest voice up to about C^sub 5^, including operatic tenors who also sing "C in chest" (do di petto).8

Belting is a term applied to the low husky masculine-sounding tones produced by female vocalists in today's popular music . . . There is a fine line between yelling and belting . . . but the vast majority of female vocalists use a belting-yelling delivery in varying degrees of forcing . . . It is damaging to laryngeal tissue. A belting female vocalist is forcing the larynx to function abnormally . . . A belting female vocalist is forcing the larynx to function as it does in chest register while producing higher pitches . . . There are other technical malfunctions involved in the use of the belting delivery that contribute to tissue damage, but the extension of chest register is of primary concern . . . Female vocalists can render themselves baritones for life in a short period of time as repeated abuse causes irreversible pathological changes in laryngeal tissue. …

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