Singing, the use of the human voice to produce music. In singing, the lungs act as an air reservoir and bellows, forcing air between the vocal cords of the larynx and causing them to vibrate, much like the double reed of an oboe. The resulting sound is amplified as it resonates in the cavities of the chest, neck, and head, and it is articulated (given vowels and consonants) by the singer’s lips, teeth, tongue, and palate in the same way as speech. Vocal training allows a singer to develop breath control, to regulate the degree of relaxation or tension in the body, and to resonate and articulate sound. Whether trained or not, singers in every culture exercise choice in their use of the voice. American, Swiss, and African Pygmy yodellers intuitively alternate rapidly between high and low registers, for example, and most men can produce falsetto tones without knowing that these tones depend on the only partial vibration of the vocal cords.


Among the world’s many singing styles, cultural choices are observable in the variations in tone colour, physical tension, and acoustical intensity. Cultural differences also exist in preferences for high- or low-pitched ranges, solo or choral singing, extensive or sparse melodic ornamentation, and the use or avoidance of ululation, yelps, growls, and other colourful voice modifications.

The rich variety of vocal styles found in the West today includes the trained, resonant, well-projected tonne of operatic singers; the relaxed, intimate sound of popular crooners; the tensely sung, high, ornamented melodic style of folk singers; the relaxed, subtly ornamented, rubato singing of jazz and blues musicians, sometimes augmented with rough, guttural effects; and the tense, electronically distorted sound of much rock singing. Where ancient Mediterranean and Asian civilizations once flourished, singing tends to be high-pitched, tense and ornamented, and solo singing predominates; within this broad geographical area, however, sounds vary from the wide-range, highly ornamented style of Indian classical singing to the nasal, extremely high, well-projected tone found in Chinese opera. In sub-Saharan Africa, where an abundance of choral music is found, low voices for women and high, penetrating voices for men are favoured. Many agricultural regions in central Europe also have strong choral traditions, characterized by a straightforward, open vocal tone.


In medieval European church music, high, clear-toned male voices were apparently favoured, resulting in a vocal quality that could help the listener hear the words that were being sung. The highest parts were sung by trebles (boy sopranos) and adult male falsettos, although by the 15th-century composers had begun to explore the bass range. The bel canto (Italian “beautiful song”) style that dominated Western singing from about 1650 to 1850 is thought to have developed in mid-16th century Italy as a result of new musical styles. The madrigals and other secular vocal genres that flowered in Italy required adult female voices to perform expressive, ornamented, often virtuosic melody lines. Inseparable from opera (which developed about 1600, and was based on the musical texture known as monody), the emerging style was also used in church music. Forbidden, however, to use female singers, the Church began to employ eunuchs, or castrati (singular, castrato)—men who could produce full-voiced adult sounds in the soprano and alto ranges. The castrato voice soon entered opera, dominating that form in the 18th century and falling out of use in the 19th.

Singing technique in the bel canto era was grounded in using the breath to regulate the intensity of sound and in the thorough knowledge of the different registers of the voice. In the 19th century larger concert halls and, eventually, new aesthetic goals, led to modifications in bel canto technique. Seeking to produce sounds that would fill large halls and balance the volume of expanded orchestras, teachers such as the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and the Spaniard Manuel García (1805-1906) developed new techniques to increase vocal resonance. In the late 19th century composers such as the German Richard Wagner demanded heavier vocal colours: New vocal categories such as “dramatic soprano” and Heldentenor (German, “heroic tenor”) emerged.


Singers in early 20th-century music-hall revues and operettas drew on operatic singing techniques. The invention of the microphone enabled a soft, intimate vocal tone to be amplified and projected into a large hall, thus making possible the art of crooners such as the American Bing Crosby and torch singers such as Morgana King. By the 1920s and 1930s Afro-American vocal colours had become prominent through blues and jazz singing, but as late as the 1940s and 1950s white popular singers continued to reflect European classical roots. By the 1960s, however, American and British popular singing styles were permeated with Afro-American and Appalachian folk music traits. In concert music, composers experimented with styles such as Sprechstimme (intoned speech with melodic contours), as well as with whispers, shouts, rough sounds, and other vocal colours formerly excluded from Western art singing.