Music Theory
Acoustic Composition
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Is there such a thing as a universally “good” tone for vocalists?

Let’s begin this discussion by listening to some examples of Mongolian throat singing:

Kargyraa has a deep, almost growling sound to it and is related to Sardinian bass singing and Tibetan Buddhist chant
Khoomey is traditionally a softer sounding style, with the fundamental (or drone) usually in the low-mid to midrange of the singer’s normal voice.
Sygyt has a midrange fundamental and is characterized by strong, flute-like or rather piercing harmonics, reminiscent of whistling.

For any trained vocalists among us it’s pretty obvious these sounds fall outside of the standard repertoire of vocal techniques. Additionally, most of the singing we’ve encountered in this module would be enough to cause a classical vocal teacher distress, however, as we have learned the European tradition is ultimately a small representation of the music of the world. Let’s take a broad view of this subject and see if we can come up with a few ground rules to help us determine what is a “good” vocal tone.

Function – Lyrics are usually important

We discussed previously the importance of music’s function in a society. In most vocal music there are words being sung that hold significance to the music. If the words are unintelligible to the listener then that would indicate a “bad” vocal tone.

A clear exception to this rule is in much of the music of indigenous Americans which makes widespread use of vocables (vocal sounds that are similar to words but have no direct meaning).

Beauty – a relative, but important, concept

Because of its subjective nature, it’s difficult to define how a vocal tone is or isn’t beautiful. However, generally speaking, vocalists usually try to avoid making sounds that are purposefully grating to the ear.

The exception here could possibly be found in the music of the 20th century like Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, or music that call for screaming and shouting (although it could easily be argued that some do in fact find beauty in this style of performance).

So what’s the verdict?

You could have probably guessed from the beginning that there is no clear answer to this question. Preferences in vocal tone, or timbre in general, are the opinions of the composer/performer/listener. If nothing else, this should be remembered as you listen to unfamiliar music. There are no objective guidelines for aesthetics and timbral expectations are entirely dependent on the culture to which the music belongs.