Warm and Cool Voices

One of the intriguing things about the human voice is the sense of “color” that voices can convey. Vocalists, and some instrumentalists as well, talk about warm and cool sounds, or dark and bright sounds. It has to do with the depth and shading of the tones involved. A warm or dark tone sounds richer, with more harmonic shading while still holding a single note. A cool or bright tone tends to be clearer, with fewer overtones or less vibrato shading the pitch. Older singers often have richer, darker voices, but this is not always true [waves paw]. Certain instruments have darker “voices,” and organs can be registered for a bright or dark tone, depending on the stops chosen.*

I was thinking about this as I listened to a recording of a Spiritual that one of my choirs is considering doing. Here’s the recording:

Both the women’s section in general, and the soloist in particular, have a very dark, warm tone, especially for such a young choir. Many Spirituals and Gospel songs require a darker vocal tone, a mature voice that fits the emotions and depths of the song. (This carries over to R&B as well, where older women vocalists are preferred to younger ones. It’s probably the only place in pop music where this is true.)

Renaissance and madrigals, and some Baroque and classical music, demands a purer tone, either to keep the slight pitch variations of vibrato from interfering with the actual notes, or because of the tight harmonics. Or because they were written for boy sopranos or castratos, and so just don’t work with a darker voice. It is hard for someone with a fully developed voice to keep all vibrato and color out of his or her voice, although men in falsetto come close. The easiest way is to tense the vocal cords, which strains the voice and interferes with tone quality. Try doing that for an hour – or better, don’t do that in the first place. Mozart’s choral works, Handel, Hayden, Bach, Scarlatti, Vittoria, they all need clearer voices that blend well, especially in the quieter passages. Solos often do better with a darker voice, but not always.

Some of us have naturally lighter vocal colors. My voice is somewhat warm, but very clear, because I damaged my vocal cords when I was a teenager. (Sopranos should not try to sing tenor at full volume. Bad things happen to the vocal instrument.) My voice remained a “boy choir” voice until I was in my mid-thirties, and even today I have no vibrato to speak of. I can blend with pretty much any other voice. This makes me in high demand for Renaissance music, and as a choral-support singer. I can’t do the great soprano solos, even when they are in my range, because I sound “funny” compared to a woman with a truly developed, darker voice.

MomRed’s voice is like warm cinnamon bread with raisins, or was when she was in her prime. She’d be ideal for the solo in “In the Cool of the Day.” It was a dark, rich voice perfect for lullabys, Spirituals, and other roles. I wanted a voice like that. I’m smaller than Mom (strike one), built more like Dad (a tenor. Strike two), and then had the vocal damage (strike three). So I sing boy-choir solos and Renaissance and folk music.

*Within the constraints of the instrument. A Bach organ, or French Romantic, or Spanish Baroque, will sound very different, and some pieces won’t work as well on each one. Older instruments tend to be brighter and “buzzier,” in pert because of technologies at the time, in part because of sound preferences from different places and cultures.

7 thoughts on “Warm and Cool Voices

  1. Not enough coffee to say anything intelligent or humorous. 😉

  2. This becomes something fun to play with on the recording side. Microphones and preamps with transistors or vacuum tubes will add distortion harmonics and make a voice darker.
    And in a DAW, there are plug-ins that’ll let you turn this up to 11. (Izotope has a good one that’s free.) A light hand is encouraged, but sometimes, it’s fun to crank them to see what you get.

  3. Normally I sing Tenor, and used to range up to the b flat not in falsetto. Falsetto could go to the e up in the soprano range (the one at the top of the g clef). Did some voice training in college. Teacher couldn’t decide if I was some kind of rangy baritone or if I fit into the operatic model of heldentenor (heroic tenor). Oddly full voice I tended to be of very bright tone (annoyingly so in some cases 🙂 ). I can force a darker tone in the lower range (and these days at 60+ that’s most of the time). Made me an excellent choral singer for Baroque/classic/early romantic but the brightness and nasal tendencies meant I was not first choice as a soloist :-). The complexity of the human voice is amazing.

  4. Interesting. Could you suggest a similar recording showcasing cool and clear voices? Thanks

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