Belting: About the possibly most confusing term in vocal pedagogy

As a contemporary singer (and possibly even as a classical one), you will sooner or later come across the term “Belting” – but what does it mean, and why is there so much confusion about it?
Should or shouldn’t you do it, and if so: How? And if not: Why is it supposedly unhealthy?

First of all: If you talk to 10 vocal coaches, you will probably get 10 different answers what Belting exactly is. If you are lucky enough and they demonstrate a sound, you will also notice that it might sound completely different from what someone else showed you before; that it sounds different from your favourite singer, or that they cannot demonstrate it at all (which should make you run if you want to learn it), or even tell you not do it because it will cause harm.

So why are there so many opinions, and quite frankly also so much misinformation, surrounding the subject?

The answer is simple and yet complicated: because the term Belting as such has no concrete meaning, apart from “to belt out”, as in “to sing very loudly”. To some, this has a completely different meaning than to others, and this is the origin of misunderstandings. We can sing very loudly in a healthy way, but we can also wreck our vocal cords if we don’t know what we are doing. So the ones who say “Belting is dangerous” may have a right idea about unhealthy voice production, but it would be the wiser thing to say: “Listen to this sound example: that’s bad technique”, instead of saying “Belting is harmful”. There are perfectly safe techniques out there to create a certain sound.

But wait: What sound?

There is only one way to use the term “Belting” in a way that cannot be misunderstood: If you use it in the sense of Estill (EVTS), where it refers to a very specific physiological set-up, which results in a very specific sound. This doesn’t mean however that this is the sound the student wishes to use, or the one an agent or musical director deems right for a part. They might still call this other sound they have in mind “Belting” though.

So what can we do to solve the dilemma? Again, the answer is simple: We need to understand how different sounds are produced, and then refer to them. Whether we call them “Belting” or “Chicken Noodle Soup” actually doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, although random terminology, and a new vocal pedagogy hype around every corner, doesn’t particularly help to make communication easier, especially between voice teachers.

Belting in vocal pedagogy terms is a rather new invention (as in under 100 years old) – it basically got established with the first Musical Theatre shows that didn’t just require a “legitimate” (= more or less classical) sound.
The concept of Belting as such is much older though – much older even than western classical music. That’s why some classical voice teachers should really stop turning up their noses and stop labelling it “unhealthy” per se – they might not like the sound, that’s legitimate, but bad classical singing is as harmful to the voice as bad Belting.
What is commonly called Belting is very firmly established in e.g. traditional African, as well as Near, Middle and Far Eastern singing, and has been for centuries. So it is not unhealthy per se – it can become an issue if it is done too often with bad technique, but so does classical singing. It can also become an issue with increasingly packed schedules and no recuperation periods – again, so does classical singing (Rolando Villazón springs to mind). It is true however that certain types of Belting bear a higher risk of vocal fold trauma if one does not do it technically right. Done correctly however, it isn’t any more dangerous than any other type of singing.

So to give you an idea what different people (and I also refer to professionals now) commonly refer to as “Belting”, I will give you some examples with sound. It makes it much clearer than using a lot of jargon. I picked only female singers for the mere reason that the differences are usually a bit clearer, and easier to hear. Please also note that not all the songs are belted through from start to end (you might want to scroll forward here and there) – Belting, whatever quality one has in mind, is usually a sound for “money notes”. It also doesn’t mean that the singers I am referring to exclusively use this one type of Belt, or that I endorse their particular way of singing. Wherever available, I tried to find versions of the same song, which makes the different approaches very audible.

Screenshot of Ethel Merman from the trailer fo...
Screenshot of Ethel Merman from the trailer for the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1. The Classic Broadway Belt

A loud, brassy sound that often reminds a bit of calling/shouting. Usually not taken up too high (for women, usually not higher than roundabout d2 Helmholtz)

Ethel Merman, “Everything’s coming up roses” , pretty much all the way through in the louder, more energetic parts, but you can especially listen to the last “you” (2:38) – she even changes the vowel sound to a more “Belting friendly” one.
Patti LuPone, “Don’t rain on my parade” , all throughout the song, but especially listen to 1:46 to 1:58 and the last “my parade” (2:20) – the latter also a prime example for back anchoring done the very obvious way 😉

2. The Contemporary Broadway Belt

A sound that is not just used on Broadway, but also in a lot of pop music. Usually bright sounding, twangy, and also used in the higher female range above c2/d2.

Idina Menzel, “Defying Gravity” , this contains lots of vocal qualities and bits of Belt throughout, but listen to the last part, especially 3.40 onwards. Good example for vowel modification from EE to EH. Over all, certainly not her best performance though.
“Don’t rain on my parade” , e.g. the last “parade” (2:35) – a lot brighter than Patti LuPone.
Celine Dion, “It’s all coming back to me” , e.g. 2:28 – 2:34.

3. The Mix(Belt)

A strange choice of words – it means is a slightly darker/”rounder” sounding Belt with slightly less vocal fold mass than a “full on” Belt like 1. or 2. To add to the confusion, the word “Mix” is also very often used for a much thinner sound in both Pop and classical singing, which is a completely different thing altogether (think the difference between what some call “chestmix” and “headmix”).

Ruthie Henshall, “Maybe this time” , e.g. 3:04 until the end, apart from the “-pen” in “happen”.
“Don’t rain on my parade” , compare the last “parade” (2:10) with the other two (not entirely possible since it is a different key, but you should still be able to hear the overall different quality
Lea Salonga “I dreamed a dream” , e.g. 3:16 to 3:29, except for the “not”.

4. Extreme Twang/Rock Belt 

This is a very powerful Belt, used in Rock, R’n’B and Gospel (among others). It is extremely piercing and can be taken up very high (for some women as high as a2 Helmholtz, or even beyond in very rare cases). The basic set-up for this sound sometimes reminds of this, and can actually also be found mimicking one 😉

Aretha Franklin, “Respect”, a lot throughout, but listen e.g. to 0:36 “I ain’t gonna do you wrong”.
Chaka Khan, “I’m every woman” , e.g. the ad-libbing from 2:32 to 2:52.
Patti Labelle “Lady Marmalade” , again throughout, e.g. the repeated “more” from 1:52 to 1:57.
Jennifer Holliday: “And I am telling you” , throughout, e.g. the “there” at 1:50, or 2:28 onwards (a lot of distortion effects in it as well).

5. The Pop Belt

This is a sound that can still sound very piercing, is much less physically demanding though and feels quite “light” compared to the other types of Belt since it is a mix. It can be done with both a darker or brighter quality. Mainly used in, the name suggests it, Pop, but also in modern “Jukebox” Musicals. One could argue it is actually not Belting at all, but still it is called such by many people.

Amy Lee (Evanescence), “Lithium” , e.g. 0:55, or 1:45 to 2:00.
Beyoncé, “Halo” , e.g. 1:53 “I swore I’d never fall again”, and some of the “Halo”s.
Agneta Fältskog (ABBA), “The Winner takes it all” , e.g. 4:03 to 4:10.

Confused yet?

This is exactly the thing – all these very different sounds are called “Belt” by different people. Not one of them is generally better or worse than the other, but they are all produced very differently physiologically.

So when a student tells you they want to learn to belt the next time, the most important thing is to get an idea of what they actually mean with “Belt”. It might be something you personally don’t perceive as Belting at all. So ask them if they can name an artist/song with the sound they wish to achieve. Whether you consider it “Belting” or not is probably not that important (unless you prepare them for a very specific role in a Musical Theatre production) – it is far more important that the students learn to produce the sound THEY like in a healthy way …

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© Petra Raspel 2011

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