What Makes a Great Singer Sound "Great"?
By Annie Bzdawka
Exactly what are the elements involved that makes a great singer sound "great"? This can be totally up to the listener, because this can be a matter of taste. But two key ingredients are being on pitch, and sounding smooth (not sounding stressed, but sounding confident and "smooth like butter"). Sure, there are moments in songs, or even entire songs, where it's appropriate for the vocalist to sound stressed... like when singing a vocal line that is desperate, angry, anxious, etc. But most singers need to be able to sing both ways, and a smooth-sounding voice is one thing that all singers should learn how to master.
Sounding "smooth like butter" is not as hard as you think! It just requires that
(1) the singer's body is "relaxed but ready"; they do not let their nerves or other distractions become their focus
(2) the singer knows how to use & control the flow of air, so they are not struggling; they are using that air properly with correct vowel placement, which can often mean (especially for pop/rock/jazz/blues) that you are using your voice the same way you use it while speaking, and
(3) they have the confidence they need to "put themselves out there"... after all, when you're singing, it's YOUR voice, it's YOUR body, it's ALL YOU.... and singers who are singing at their best are engaging in a very organic and natural activity. Take a look at those singers who some people might think are quirky... Like Bob Dylan, or Macy Gray... I've even heard a friend of mine say they thought Gwen Stefani was a "terrible singer". But the reality is, these "quirky” singers are actually singing with confidence, and using their own natural voices like they are meant to be used. So they have been able to receive critical acclaim, because the confidence they exude makes them sound "great". This is very much related to #1: being "relaxed but ready"... but having confidence and being relaxed are two different things.
This is not to say that any singer who sings with confidence sounds great... especially singers who sing off key or off pitch. Confidence is just ONE of the things that most great singers possess.
There are other things you can do to make your singing sound "smooth like butter". For instance, adding vibrato at the appropriate time in the syllable can really make you sound "smooth and creamy".
The rhythm & phrasing you choose for each vocal line can really make a difference as well. That's why I try my best learning a cover EXACTLY the way the song was sung by the original artist. The phrasing and rhythm of each line was worked out by the original artist and/or the producer, so it sounds smooth and natural... which makes that song "great".
Of course it's awesome when I hear other people's versions of cover songs... I love doing that myself, but I think it's a good idea to first learn the original melodies, phrasing, & rhythms that made the song great in the first place, then build on what’s there, or change it up totally, to make it "your own" version, which could actually be BETTER than the original - if you know what you're doing!
Another trick: “Opening” certain consonants or vowels at the end of a word can make that word sound smoother. Example #1: “Softening” R’s at the end of a word so that “theater” is pronounced “thee-a-tuh” or “dinner” becomes “din-nuh”. Example #2: Softening hard “ee”: “Baby” becomes “Bay-beh”, “Lady” becomes “Lay-deh”.
A technique used by many singers is singing several notes for just one syllable, or vocal “runs”. This technique really adds a richness, and also a smooth flow. To get the desired effect here, you really need to nail each and every one of the notes correctly, and when you’re able to do that, you add a thick and gooey texture.
There’s too many other techniques to include them all in this article, but you’ll find many techniques just by studying your favorite singers! Take a critical listen to one of your favorite songs by a favorite singer, and you’ll discover a lot of little tricks that you can use in your own singing!
About the Author:
Annie Bzdawka is the founder of the Milwaukee Music Academy, located in Milwaukee, WI. She’s been singing professionally for over 25 years, and has gained critical acclaim as a singer and songwriter. She teaches voice, guitar, and piano.