Singing and Speech-Intersections

Your voice is your vocal identity in sound’, says neurologic music therapist Allison Davies. And yet the folk who learn Speech say that they can’t sing.

Singing, Speech and Vocal Registration

A vocal register is a series of pitches (musical or otherwise) that have the same tonal quality due to the thickness and vibration of the vocal fold during phonation.

Functional singing recognises 6 types of vocal registrations.

The main two are:

  1. Head voice: produced by thin vocal folds that vibrating at the outer ends. Mostly associated with Western Classical Singing; 
  2. Chest Voice: produced by thick vocal folds that vibrate along the body of the fold. This is the natural speaking voice;
  3. Vocal Fry: produced by vocal cartilages squeezed tightly together with the vocal folds stretched loosely between them, which causes a ‘popping’ sound when air passes between them. This is the lowest vocal register. Often heard in ‘creaky’ speech and in Rock and R&B genres;
  4. Whistle: produced by air ‘whistling’ between vocal folds that are very tightly stretched. This is the highest vocal register. Associated with Hip Hop and R&B genres.

They are two variations of the natural speaking voice which are recognised as vocal registers.

They are:

5.  Mix Voice: this is speaking-quality taken above a person’s usual speaking range;  and

6. Belt Voice: yelling

Speech uses all the vocal registers. Similar to Contemporary Commercial Music, Speech uses mostly Chest, Mix and Belt registers.


Articulator control in Singing and Speech

Articulator control, that is, learning volitional control of the jaw, tongue, lips, teeth, throat and soft palate, remains the same in both Singing and Speech. The difference lies in the goals of learning articulator control.

In Singing, articulator control helps to:

  • Obtain a tone that is suited to the genre of music sung e.g. muffled; clear; ‘light’; ‘dark’; ‘smokey’; nasal etc.;
  • Establish the diction required for various genres e.g. musical theatre (clear diction) vs. mumble rap (less articulated diction).
  • Sing and/or sustain pitched notes e.g. opening the mouth for loud and high notes due to acoustic demands

In Speech, articulator control, along with control of vocal registration may be focused on:

  • Creating a voice for the character; and
  • Mimicking an accent

However as the nature and movement of the articulators remain the same for both Singing and Speech, exercises for Singing may be used in Speech and vice versa, to everyone’s benefit.


Whither Defined Pitch?

Singing on pitch has been the bugbear of many actors that I’ve trained. And rightly so. In order to make and sustain a defined pitch, the vocal folds need to vibrate at a certain length; in a certain manner; fuelled by just the right amount of breath. Any misstep results in the pitch going sharp or flat. With so many factors up in the air, maintaining the pitch is why Singers keep practicing their scales. Pitching is the main element that actors need to learn should they decide to convert their vocal expertise in Speech into song.

However, not all pitch is defined. In using a large vocal range, professional speakers already have the ability to produce high and low pitches. Combined with calibrated use of pace, pause ,punctuation and inflection, the professional speaker can create as dynamic a vocal experience for the listener as the professional singer.

Rap music is one area where the delineation between singing and speech is blurred. In Rap, spoken word is delivered over a steady beat.  The spoken word itself is musical. The music is created by a mixture of rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition and the rhythmic nature of the speech-based delivery. In training rappers, we introduce them to breath management just like singers, with an emphasis on speech-based vocal registration and articulation.



Singing and Speech have many things in common. It is untoward to suggest that ‘actors have a limited pitch range’ or ‘speakers cannot sing’. Speakers already have an excellent control of the voice. If you can speak, you can sing. You just need to put in the time and the effort in practicing your pitch.

(Photo credit: Skitterphoto at Pixabay)