How to Find Your Vocal Style
Everyone wants to find their unique style.
And as any professional musician will tell you, you need to be able to describe your music concisely and in a way that gets the other person curious about you.
The trouble is, style isn’t something that people can decide for you easily.
It’s not set in stone, which is why musicians hire publicists and managers.
The truth is, style is made up of lots of parts. Your performance, your look, your voice, and your repertoire are all parts of your style.
Style is really just a combination of the unique things that make you an artist.
However, like any style or brand, you do not always get full control of the things people say and think about you as an artist.
This is why it is so important to be able to talk about your music and style in an easy-to-understand and interesting way.
So how do you describe your style?
One way is using the tricks that got you interested in a new artist.
How did you first hear about Adele, Sam Smith, or Ed Sheeran?
It was probably through a friend who said something like this:
“Oh there’s this new great artist! You have to listen to them! They sound just like _____ but with _____.”
Try filling in those blanks for your own style.
Take a hard look at your repertoire, your voice and the people you sound-like.
You want to give the other person a picture of your style and what to expect from your music.
Get creative with this!
“Our music sounds like falling in love for the first time.”
“Our band sounds like a beach party at dawn.”
“Our rhythm section is so tight, it makes people dance within seconds.”
Another way to do this is to read about new music. Circle the artist descriptions that worked on you.
What was it that compelled you to listen to that new band when you could have been listening to the same stuff you normally like?
Odds are there was something in the way the magazine/friend/website described the music that drew you in.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to defining your style. But that is what is great about it.
Really, any one of the above example descriptions could apply to anybody’s music.
The important thing is to get the other person curious about your music while staying true to yourself.
For every singer, there is a unique vocal style.
I don’t mean that in the “everyone is special” kind of way.
I actually mean that scientifically, you are the only one who can sound like you.
That’s why it’s so sad to me when I work with a singer who’s just trying to copy Adele, Sam Smith, or Amy Winehouse.
Don’t get me wrong! I love each and every one of those singers.
And while it can be very tempting as a beginning singer to try to imitate your favorite singers it’s really important that we work with your voice as it is.
That’s because if you spend a lot of time and effort trying to sound like other singers, you’re probably manipulating your voice in some unhealthy ways.
But if you learn to sing without all that baggage of imitating someone else, you’ll experience what your true voice sounds like.
So how do you find your vocal style that sounds great and is healthy for you?
First we’ll talk about what actually makes up vocal style.
Then we’ll talk about how you can find your unique voice.
The Elements of Vocal Style
Since people began singing, there has been vocal style.
From opera to rock, RnB to musical theater (legit and belt) styles, vocal style is a term that distinguishes one singer from another and each style of music from another.
That means that vocal style is unique to each person and each genre of music.
But what really causes someone to have or sing with a vocal style?
There are two parts to this explanation: a genetic and a musical component.
Genetic Components of Vocal Style
Genetics are definitely at play in vocal style and techniques. Last week, we talked about the three systems that make up singing.
With vocal style, we’re talking primarily about the phonation and resonation systems of the voice.
Phonation is the system of singing involved at the vocal fold or cord level. Phonation is the vibration that results from the vocal folds coming together to make sound.
Resonation is the system of singing where we see an interaction of the frequencies produced by the vocal folds and the cavities and spaces within your body (i.e. throat, nasal passages, and cranium, etc).
Both the phonation and resonation systems of singing are genetic.
That means that you’re born with a unique voice because your vocal folds and resonating centers are totally specific to you.
That’s why you can never successfully imitate another singer.
Unless you have the same genetics, chances are your body, vocal cords and resonance chambers will be somewhat different.
This is why it would be totally unfair to expect a 12 year old girl to imitate Janis Joplin.
Janis had a very thick vocal belt sound and a 12-year-old doesn’t have the thickness in her vocal folds to pull that off.
The same is true for David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and even Elvis Presley’s vocal style.
In one of my recent articles, we talked about the 3 Traits All Great Singers Share.
One of the most important traits we discussed was self awareness.
For singers, self awareness means gaining an understand of what your voice is built for.
This is why it would be a poor choice for a high Tenor to sing Tom Waits.
Or if you’re a bass, then Sam Smith might be a stretch.
But genetics aren’t everything.
After all, there are some fantastic singers out there that have an amazingly unique voice or remind us of some other singer.
That brings us to the musical component to vocal style:
Musical Components to Vocal Style
While genetics are hugely important in determining a person’s vocal style, there are singers that are able to find a unique voice in any genre because they are good musicians.
Every genre of music has its own vocal style.
While there are unique voices in every genre, each musical style has a tendency to have a certain kind of singing.
Obviously the vocal style for a metal singer is different from a musical theater singer.
That’s because these genres have evolved to create some standards for what works and what doesn’t.
After all, it’d be pretty weird to hear the vocal effects of a metal singer singing “One Day More” from Les Miz.
I can hear it now: “One…EE-YAAAHHHH…Day…GRRRRRRR…MOOOOOORRRRE.”
The point is that as a singer, you can begin to learn the conventions of each music genre so that your vocal style matches the genre.
The best way to do that is to listen to lots of different music and begin to speak the language of singing.
Are the vocals in rock music more or less aggressive?
In general, rock vocals are more aggressive.
Is the vocal tone clean or dirty? Usually they’re dirty.
Does the lyric or the emotion take priority?
The emotion. Rock n’ Roll is about passion!
Compare this to operatic vocal style where we are looking for very beautiful and full singing with a clean tone and emphasis on a lyric.
You can see just how much your singing style is dictated by the genre.
So if you can’t successfully imitate someone else’s vocal style, but you know the kind of music you’d like to sing and some of the standards for that genre, all you need to do is find your true voice.
But that’s a lot harder than it sounds!
For one thing, we tend to imitate our favorite singers.
And it doesn’t help that many singers hate the sound of their own voice.
But it pays to try to find your true singing voice without all the baggage of trying to sound like someone else.
So here’s one exercise to help you find your own unique voice:
One Daily Exercise to Find Your Unique Vocal Style
I’m going to start with one of my absolute favorite exercises to give to students.
*You may want to record yourself doing this exercise for proof of your progress.
- Pick a phrase from a song that you’ve been working on.
- Next, say the word “Mum” (as in British mother) out loud at a comfortable volume--make sure there’s no strain or breathiness in your voice.
- Next, sing the melody of the phrase on the word “Mum”. So for every change in melody or syllable, sing the word Mum instead
- Continue singing this melody on “Mum” a few times until you have forgotten that you’re singing your favorite song and are just singing the melody on Mum
- Now, using the same relaxed “uh” feeling that you found on the “Mum”, begin to sing the words.
The goal of this exercise is to transfer the relaxed and natural “uh” sound to the melody you’re singing
A Few Things You May Notice
You will notice that the melody sounds more relaxed and feels more natural to you.
Try recording this version and seeing if you notice anything unique about your voice.
The recording should sound like you and no one else.
If at first it’s not clear, repeat this process until you begin to hear your own voice, rather than that of the original singer.
The reason that this “Mum” exercise works so well is because the “Uh” vowel relaxes all the articulators in the resonation system (especially the tongue), forcing you to sing in your own voice.
Remember, you may not like the sound of your natural voice at first.
But having taught more than 500 students, I can promise you this:
There is something unique and beautiful about every voice.
You just may not have found it yet.
This exercise is a great way to get started.
By the way, if you want a complete video singing course that walks you through lots of great exercises for improving your vocal style, check out Master Your Voice.
Master Your Voice has over 60 HD video singing lessons to help you become an amazing singer.