Belting is it safe?

Chris & Steve look into the ins and outs of ‘belting’, how it can be done and how to avoid the perils of this extreme technique.

What is belting?

To start with this vocal quality probably features on every singer’s wish list: to sing hard and strong on the high notes. As we already know, we can skin a cat in many ways. There are also lots of ways in which we can sing hard and strong up high. “Belting” is an option here, which is also (arguably) one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood topics in singing. For that reason, we intend to set the facts straight in this article. Belting has the obvious qualities of being piercing, emotive, edgy and loud. Some people have described the sound as “yelling”, “shouting”, and occasionally being out and out “ugly”. However, it also seems to be the sound most audiences will stand and applaud when executed well. Musical directors are constantly on the search for singers who can produce this distinct sound, and singers such as Idina Menzel and Kerry Ellis (who both played Elphaba in Wicked) are two of many who are well known for its use. Even within the pop world, belting is popular. Stick on a bit of Mariah Carey or Jessie J and you’ll know what we’re talking about. Why is this vocal quality so sought after? Is it actually sustainable? Let’s jump into that after we find out what on earth goes on within the throat.The fundamentals

What happens anatomically?

In order to get the right sound quality, a few elements of the vocal tract need shifting into position. This shimmy begins with the larynx being raised. This is extremely important to belting for reasons we’ll discuss later. Next up is the tongue, slightly more forward than usual with the back raised towards the palette. This creates a fanning effect from the back and shapes the mouth cavity like a “trumpet”. Then we have the lips, which can intensify the sound even more by spreading wide. Closely linked is the jaw, which takes a very open, downward position. Belting can also benefit from a proud chin that’s a little up. When all of these vocal elements take their place, the vocal cords can be set in vibration by beginning to sing. But it may not sound one iota like a belt yet, because the vocal cords also need to be in their place. Cord closure (or closed quotient for you nerds out there) must be good and without breathiness, but the rest of the signature sound comes from some required tension in the Thyroarytenoid muscle (TA). This is essentially the body of the vocal cord. This muscle is dominant in our bottom voice and gives us the rich overtones that indicate a “chesty” sound. With this activated in belt, we get those powerful overtones which are then enhanced even more by the vocal tract above. Voila! We have a textbook belting posture. What does it sound like? 

Can belting hurt my voice?

In a word “yes”. Some other words would be “if you’re not careful”. We’ve known some singers who belt their whole careers and still have sparkling vocal cords. Due to the vocal settings required in belting, there are many pitfalls that can scuff you good and proper. Primarily, too much activation of the TA and excessive cord closure grinds the vocal cords together. Singers accidentally do this when trying to create the chesty sound, and overdo it. This can result in vocal injury. Secondly, if the cords grind together, the lung pressure has to raise to keep them vibrating. This is also a scenario for vocal devastation. Singers like Adele have experienced first hand the effects of imbalances in these areas, with several vocal haemorrhages on her medical history list. There’s so much external and internal muscle activation needed to belt that it’s easy for that tension to reside, even when you don’t want it. Some people just can’t stop belting because it’s too rooted in the muscle memory. This is never good. Even if your belt technique is great, you need a check in place for the amount of time spent belting. Just like any other vocal expression, if you overuse it, there’ll inevitably be problems.

Can anyone learn it?

In short: yes. But, this really depends on what we mean by “learn”. Here at The Naked Vocalist, we consider belting to be one of the most advanced areas of voice training. With that in mind, it’s safe to say it’s not something we expect you to master overnight. The synergy (of muscle/vocal cord, air and resonance) required within the vocal tract when we attempt to belt is incredibly complex and requires a great deal of precision. There is no doubt that this precision can be attained from guidance and training, but just how quickly that happens will depend on many factors. Namely, the singer’s starting ability, skill level, and time spent. “But I can already do that yelling thing every now and again”. We are sure you can. Shouting and yelling is actually built within every human being as part of our survival instincts. It’s also why so many non-trained 40-somethings are able to make such a big noise on a Saturday afternoon at the football. But, as singers, we need to be sure this is something we can repeat show after show, night after night. When belting, we are constantly on a very fine tightrope between killing the song (in a good way) and killing our voice (this is bad). We advise that belting, like other areas of advanced singing, should only be attempted by singers who have a good understanding of their voice and know how to return to a safe place when belting is no longer needed. It’s common for singers to end up not being able to switch off belt for notes above their chest range. Burnout ensues in this case. This is why rebalancing techniques, like warm downs, are extremely important when belting regularly.

A few belting misconceptions…

The fundamentals 1Go hard or go home! This gym-related statement couldn’t be any less true when referring to belting. As a matter of fact, replace the “or go” with “and you’ll be going” and it’ll be much closer to the mark. It’s clear to see why many would believe that giving tonnes of support (or air) would help with the process of belting. The sound is intense, as is often the look on the faces of those attempting it. As with every other aspect of singing, balance of muscle and air is fundamental here. Not too much and not too little, which is where the concept of support can open up a world of extra practice for you. That said, this normally means a lot less air than we think in this circumstance. Too deep a breath can draw the larynx down and pull a singer away from the belting posture. It will also set up a scenario of too much breath pressure underneath the vocal cords, resulting in cracking. So keep the breath shallower than usual and rely on the powerful harmonics to provide the juice.

The problem with musical directors

If a musical director reads this, he or she may want to slap us both in the face. BUT, the fact remains that the quintessential belt sound is blurred in the industry. Many musical directors hear a loud sound and call it belting when it’s not. It could easily be a powerful “mix”, where there is a little less cord closure, a lower larynx, and less TA tension. With these three elements being a little less hyper-functional than in true belting, vocal health is likely to be better over long periods of singing and a professional schedule. Musical directors are notorious for demanding more and more belt from singers without considering vocal health and physiological capabilities. This is because the MD’s themselves aren’t always informed or trained singers. If you’re able to belt skilfully, safely, and with maximum impact, then great, the director will love you. But if not, use the MD’s lack of knowledge in your favour and deliver a powerful mix. He or she might be over the moon with the impact of the line, and you may have just saved yourself laser surgery at the ENT in six months time.

No vibrato is surely a bad thing

Not necessarily. In most schools of teaching it is said that there is little or no vibrato present whilst belting. For most this is true, as the high tension in the TA muscle stops the oscillation in the vocal muscles that create vibrato. In fact, when developing a belt sound, vibrato can pull a singer out of belt. So don’t be alarmed if you don’t experience vibrato. As you get more skilled at belting, you’ll be able to apply a little vibrato on top of the belt without losing the sound.

Belting range

Now this is a hot topic. How high can you belt? The answer is, God knows. You can’t belt too low because of the nature of the harmonics and the sound wave interaction in the throat. To sound “belty”, we need to strengthen a certain part of the sound wave, called the 2nd harmonic. This only really comes into its own on the way through the first bridge (from B4 for girls, or F4 for guys). We strengthen it with our throat cavity, which we have to shorten with whatever we can. This is why we spread the mouth, lower the jaw and raise the larynx. As the notes go up, to stay in belt you have to ensure you can keep shortening the length of the throat. This ensures the 2nd harmonic is still being boosted. As you may have spotted already, we can only move those three parts of our voice so far before we can’t move them any more. That, my friends, is what defines our belt range. When you reach that point, the sound wave takes on a slightly different tone. This is because the 2nd harmonic moves over to the mouth to be boosted, meaning the belt quality is lost. This could be anything up to approximately G5 for the ladies, and D5 plus for some of the guys. It’s a very individual thing. If your belt range is only stretching to just above your chest (say around G4 for a guy, or C5 for a girl) then you could extend it further. It’s likely that excess tension and not enough familiarity with bridging registers is getting in the way of that, which can be unhealthy and tiring.

Proceed with caution

We can’t get around it. Everyone loves it. You need it. Let’s live with it. But it does come with a bright yellow warning label. We urge you to not underestimate the difficulty of pulling a safe belt off without damage, which is why you need to be a controlled and trained singer in the first place. You may be already doing this instinctively, and that’s awesome. But because of the edgy nature of this sound, it’s easy to get too close to the edge and fall off. Keep a good teacher close to you and keep up your training y’all.

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Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.