Pedagogical Definitions

A list of definitions in vocal pedagogy that are used on the site.

For more, read our Vocal Classifications & Fachs page.

Appogio – Derived from the Italian verb appoggiare, meaning “to lean.” Refers to the coordination and balance of respiration, phonation, and resonance in singing.[1]Blades, Elizabeth L.. A Spectrum of Voices (p. 241). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Breath Support – Breath functions as a complex but fundamental part of both vocal pedagogy and wind instrumental playing. Widely diverging approaches have been endorsed by reputable pedagogists. As defined in A Spectrum of Voices:

  1. “Good singing posture is prerequisute to good breath (see below)
  2. Breath is air flow energy, which becomes utilized sound.
  3. Through expansion of the ribcage and the contraction of the diaphragm, a partial vacuum is created in the lungs. Air will then rush into the vacuum.
  4. Breath management is a dynamic balance using air flow and a low base of ‘support.’
  5. Breath management requires pacing the breath to the demands of the phrase.
  6. Breathing involves a ‘release,’ breath renewal should be incorporated into the ‘release’ of the sound; the ‘release’ is the replenishment of breath.”

Chest Voice – The primary vocal register for Contemporary Commercial Music and speech. It is the lowest and heaviest vocal register. Synonymous with modal voice (see below).

Coloratura – Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody by use of motifs like melisma and trills.

Diaphragm – The partition of muscles and tendons between the thoracic (chest) cavity and the abdominal cavity. Functions as a partition between the two regions and is an important muscle for respiration.[2]Supra, note 1.

Diction – The articulation, pronunciation, and style of speaking a language according to defined criteria. As set forth in A Spectrum of Voices (p. 62):

  1. “Good diction should not compromise the voice, but is the result of freedom within the voice.
  2. Good diction results from the balance of certain critical factors, including distinguishable vowels; clear initial and ending consonants; firm, flexible articulation; and relaxed tongue muscles.
  3. Poor diction can be a diagnostic tool: it often indicates problems elsewhere in the instrument.
  4. Diction and articulation result from acoustical factors which rely on proper shaping in the resonator tract.”

Evenness – Describes the uniformity of sound between and across different vocal registers. As defined in A Spectrum of Voices:[3]Supra, note 1, p. 55.

  1. “Unification of sound results from equilibrium among such factors as the balance of breath pressure with intensity, laryngeal stability, and resonance adjustment.
  2. A unified vocal sound seeks a blend or even “mix” throughout the range of the voice.
  3. Voice teachers use a variety of methods to help students achieve such evenness through the vocal range.”

Falsetto – Historically considered a vocal register only in the male voice, imitative of the female voice, but this dichotomy has come under scrutiny recently. Lying above one’s modal voice, it’s produced by applying only medial vocal fold compression, creating a sound that is light, porous, and slightly metallic.[4]Supra, note 1.

Flageolet – The highest register of the voice, it’s a historical operatic term now (generally) considered synonymous with the whistle register, although some consider it a separate extension of falsetto. Regardless, the sound produced in this register is of high pitch and of thin, porous quality. Lying above one’s falsetto or head voice beginning around D6, knowledge of this register is more limited due to its difficulty to access and relative rarity, but it is generally considered disconnected and not possible to “mix” with the modal voice.

Head Voice – Laryngeal adjustment related to upper vocal register; often accompanied by vibratory sensations in the head.[5]Supra, note 1, p. 242. One can easily access it by pretending to “who” like an owl.

Melisma – Singing of a single syllable that transitions through multiple notes in succession. Today it is often referred to as a “riff” or “run.”

Mixed Voice – A register that blends both the head and chest registers to create one unique and sustainable sound. By blending the two registers, the sound produced is brighter and lighter than the chest voice and heavier than the head voice.

Modal Voice – The primary vocal register for Contemporary Commercial Music and speech. It is the lowest and heaviest vocal register. Synonymous with chest voice (see above).

Larynx – The structure of muscle and cartilage at the upper end of the trachea, containing the vocal folds; it serves as the human organ of vocal sound. While it is often a source of tension for vocalists,[6]Supra, note 1, p. 242. its structure and function is critical in the range and timbre of one’s voice.[7]Training Soprano Voices, R. Miller, p. 15 While individual muscles in the larynx control different qualities of the voice, because a singer cannot consciously control individual muscles in the larynx, “singing techniques that attempt to manage separate muscles of the larynx are not productive.”[8]Miller, p. 19

Onset – The beginning of vocal sound (also called an “attack”).[9]Supra, note 1, p. 242.

Passagio (Pl. passagi) – Also referred to as a “bridge,” “passagio” is an Italian term for register transition at the level of the larynx; literally means “passageway.”[10]Supra, note 1, p. 242. “Identifiable physical and acoustic factors determine the location of register [passagi] events.”[11]Miller, p. 14 For males, the major passagio is Eb4 – G4 depending on the classification and is around the same for women (approximately Eb4).[12]A Spectrum of Voices, p. 53. Quote from Joan Wall. For women, their secondary passagio is around F5 (see below).

“The passaggi of the singing voice are not necessarily related to keyboard pitches,” and can occur on either the flat or sharp side of a pitch.[13]Miller, p. 23

Pharynx – The throat, specifically the vocal tract from the mouth to the top of the larynx; includes the nasal cavities (nasopharynx).[14]Supra, note 1, p. 242.

Phonation/Phonate – The production of sound, in vocalists by laryngeal (specifically) vocal fold action,[15]Supra, note 1, p. 242. in other instruments, for instance, by means of lips in a mouthpiece or bows across strings.

Posture – “Good posture” as defined in A Spectrum of Voices:

  1. “A stance that is bouyant and elastic.
  2. The body feels tall and enlongated.
  3. The body feels centered and solidly rooted.
  4. The torso is not slumped or collapsed.
  5. The rib cage feels open and expanded.
  6. The body alignment involves the spine, neck and shoulders, with weight distributed to the feet.
  7. The stance has nobility.”

Registers/Registration – A part of musical range where the notes produced are of similar quality.[16]Supra, note 1, p. 242.Difficult to separate from “tone,” it is its own distinct element. While transitions or “passagi” between registers helps to identify one’s vocal category, it is the goal of pedagogists and vocalists to unite the different registers of the voice. Some registers identified by western pedagogists include (from low to high) chest, mix, head, and whistle. As defined in A Spectrum of Voices:

  1. “Opinions vary regarding how many registers of the voice exist [measures most often range from 2 to 4.]
  2. Sensations of “placement” change as the singer goes through changes of registration.
  3. Teachers work for freedom through registration change.
  4. Resonance and registration are linked.
  5. Certain conidtions can be utilized to help a singer negotiate passagi and changes of register.
  6. Vowel work is an important key to registration adjustment.
  7. Smooth changes of registration involve subtle adjustments of breath, phonation, and vowel resonance. Coordination of these elements is a fundamental part of vocal training.”

Resonance – “Acoustical amplification and reinforcement of sound vibrations.”[17]Supra, note 1, p. 242.

Size – “A subjective aural measurement of the ability of a voice to project over other instruments and in various settings.” Cannot and is not measured by amplitude or decibels. Size “can refer to many factors, such as the sheer amount of sound a singer can produce, or the voice’s dramatic effect. A singer must often use a large voice in order to sing with heavy orchestrations, or a light voice to sustain high, soft lines. Other elements add to the impression of size, such as breath control, the ability to sustain the sound characteristic of the voice over extended periods, and the timbre of the voice.”[18]The Opera Singer’s Career Guide: Understanding the European Fach System, Pearl Yeadon McGinnis. P. 6.

Tension – A pulling force that prevents a voice from being technically sound. It has a detrimental effect on the voice – it is most commonly found in the tongue, lips, throat, jaw, neck, shoulders, hands, the lower back, and the solar plexus.[19]Supra, note 1, p. 77.

Tessitura – Area within a singer’s vocal range with the least strain, and consequentially sounds its best or healthiest.[20]Supra, note 1, p. 242.

Timbre – “The characteristic quality of sound, determined by the harmonics, that distinguishes one voice or instrument from another,”[21]Supra, note 1, p. 242. as well as one note of the same amplitude and frequency from another. Elements in timbre of a voice are “harmonics, partials, overtones, and harmonic spectrum, all of which refer to the resonance of the voice, which produces its characteristic color.”[22]McGinnis, p. 7.

Tone – Ideal tone is subjective.[23]Supra, note 1, p. 31. As defined in A Spectrum of Voices:

  1. “Vocal sound cosnsits of two qualities:
    1. Projection (also called “ring” or “ping”)
    2. Resonance (amplification, warmth, color)
  2. Tone is sensation based.
  3. Tonal “core” (sometimes called “focus”) gives uniformity of sound and projection throughout the range.
  4. Tone results from good coordination of breath management, vibration, and resonance. Breath is utilized in tone, and resonance responds to a balance of breath and phonation.
  5. Beautiful tone results from the proper adjustment between the vibrators (sound source, i.e., vocal folds) and vowels (the resonance adjustment).
  6. Vocal pedagogues teach to certain tonal preferences.”

Vibrato – “A pulse produced by alternating perceptible variation in pitch.,[24]Supra, note 1, p. 242. typically less than a semitone. In vocalists, this occurs as a natural muscular function to prevent damage,[25] and should sound like a “shimmer” on the voice.[26]Complete Vocal Technique, Catherine Sadolin. In instrumentalists, it is often deployed to mimic vocalists and warm the sound.

Vocal Folds – Part of the larynx, comprised of the vocalis muscle, the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages, and the vocal ligament.[27]Supra, note 1, p. 244.

Vocal Tract – “The resonator tube that extends from the laryngeal lips to the external lips and includes the buccal, pharyngeal, and nasal cavities; the latter are involved only in nasal continuants and foreign-language nasal vowels.”[28]Miller, p. 15

Meribeth Bunch, Dynamics of the Singing Voice

Vowels – Speech sound made by the vocal folds. As set forth in A Spectrum of Voices, (p. 73):

  1. “Finding ideal vowel formation gives projection and freedom to the instrument.
  2. Because of acoustical considerations, vowels must adjust to increases in pitch. There is an ideal resonance adjustment for every pitch and every vowel; tonal sensations respond to these changes.
  3. Sung vowels require treatment different than spoken vowels.
  4. Beautiful vowels depend on a number of factors and will have certain characteristics.
  5. Vowels are available to expressive impulses and expressive choices.”

Whistle Register – See flageolet.


1 Blades, Elizabeth L.. A Spectrum of Voices (p. 241). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2, 4 Supra, note 1.
3 Supra, note 1, p. 55.
5, 6, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 24 Supra, note 1, p. 242.
7 Training Soprano Voices, R. Miller, p. 15
8 Miller, p. 19
11 Miller, p. 14
12 A Spectrum of Voices, p. 53. Quote from Joan Wall.
13 Miller, p. 23
18 The Opera Singer’s Career Guide: Understanding the European Fach System, Pearl Yeadon McGinnis. P. 6.
19 Supra, note 1, p. 77.
22 McGinnis, p. 7.
23 Supra, note 1, p. 31.
26 Complete Vocal Technique, Catherine Sadolin.
27 Supra, note 1, p. 244.
28 Miller, p. 15