• Steve Childs

Understanding Vocal Tone

Tone is probably the most important attribute for any serious singer to develop. There are many singers out there who can do some amazing things. I’ve heard many singers who can sing very high and whip up and down scales as if they were Mozart on steroids. But, if the actual tone of the voice is not good, the singer is not good.

Tone is a very difficult word to define, like the words life or love. What exactly is a singer’s tone? Many people answer this question the following ways:

· Tone is the note

· Tone is the attitude

· Tone is how deep the voice is

· Tone is how clear we are

· Tone is the sound of the voice

The truth is, tone is all these things but not any one of them. Webster’s Dictionary defines tone “the quality or character of sound”. This is also the definition I give to my students, except I believe tone to be the quality andcharacter of sound, because it is impossible to have one without the other. To prove this, let’s take a look at the first half of what tone is.

The Character of Tone

If I hear a car horn blow behind me at a red light, what character does that sound portray? To me it evokes emotions of disapproval, anger and alertness, all of which are somewhat negative. Interestingly, when that tone is held as the driver is laying in on the horn, the tone is now perceived to be more intense as the longer sound becomes irritating. On the other hand, a quick two or three beeps can be perceived to be a goodbye to a friend or ‘thank you’ for letting me in to traffic. The same sound, when performed differently, has a different character.

Here is another example. I like to spend time near moving water such as steams or rivers. We have a little stream behind our studio and I find the sound of the running water to be soothing and relaxing. Now here we have sounds with a much different character than the car horn mentioned above. This is a peaceful character. However, if the stream or river intensified either through a storm or dam collapse, the once peaceful tone is now evoking emotions of fear. Again, the performance of the same tone can alter its perceived emotion. But the main point to learn here is that it is impossible to hear sound without it displaying some kind of emotion. That is why music itself can bring us back to a past experience, good or bad. It can remind us of the past and almost make us feel like we were there once again. You simply cannot have sound without it having the ability to evoke emotion.

The character of tone is much more difficult to describe in absolute, less broad terms, as this is the side of tone that is subjective. I can say someone has a soft, stage whispered tone, whereas, someone else will say that it is a weak, wimpy tone. Both are describing the same thing but with different terminologies and even different beliefs of the likeability of that tone. So many operatic singers look with disdain at even the best of contemporary singer’s tone’s, and I have to say most of us probably look at their tones the same.

You see, the character of the singer’s tone can come down to stylistic choices. A hard rock or heavy metal singer may want to have a more gutteral or raspy tone, in an attempt to evoke emotions anger, whereas and ‘Emo’ singer may want a more whinny tone which portrays desperation or longing. Country singers use stylistic choices in their tones such as exaggerated accents to sound more down to earth and old fashioned. Musical theater singers often have very dark tones and extreme power to evoke the feeling of drama and intensity.

The Quality of Tone

The quality of vocal tone can be described as the blend of two acoustical factors. These are treble and bass. Most of us have sat in our cars and played with our radio or CD player EQ (or equalizer). In the old days it was simply two dials as a part of or around the volume and tuning knobs. These days you may will likely see a three band equalizer on the display menu. If you increase the treble you will hear a drastic change in the tone of the music. It becomes more brighter and piercing. This is exactly what treble is. It is the higher frequencies being made louder. Similalry, when you turn up the bass, the volume of the lower frequencies is increased.

As you probably know, you would never want to turn the bass all the way up and the treble all the way down. They music would become muddy sounding. On the other hand, turning the treble up all the way and the bass down completely would be very shrill and thin sounding. What we do with our home sound systems and car stereos is ‘EQ’ the sound. We attempt to blend the right amounts of bass and treble (and midrange if it is there) until we are satisfied with the overall tonal sound of the music. This is also what a recording engineer must do during the mixing of a recording session. It must be done with every instrument, including the vocals.

So in response to all the different descriptions that so many use to describe a singers tone I would like to say most of them are right because they ultimately fall into two categories: 1) The quality of sound, and 2) The character of sound. In other words,

· Tone is the note (characteristic). You cannot have tone without sound and you cannot have sound without it being a note

· Tone is the attitude (characteristic). You cannot have tone without it displaying an emotion or attitude. Even a fire siren, car horn or whistling wind has attitudes such as fear, panic, calm, anger, etc.

· Tone is how deep the voice is (quality)

· Tone is how clear we are(quality)

· Tone is the sound of the voice (quality). This is when the tone of the singer is well rounded and is complete. The singer has his “own sound”, and it won’t be their sound if it shifted constantly. It wouldn’t be memorable.


Tone has a character aspect, which portrays or incites an emotion and tone has a quality aspect which is the color of the tone (whether its dark or bright or any one of a million variations of mixing the two).

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