The word ‘Belting’ gets thrown around a lot in the singing world. If you want to sing pop, soul, gospel or - particularly - musical theatre, it’s pretty much bandied around as being THE thing you need to know how to do in order to sound authentic. But what exactly is it?
Well, rather like the word ‘support’ (see my recent article here), there is no universal definition of what belting is: different people use the term to describe different things. For some, it means ‘singing high and loudly’, for others ‘singing with intensity’ and for others still ‘singing high notes in chest voice’. It’s not easy for singers to navigate the terminology and learn how to do it.
As a musical theatre specialist, I’m going to attempt a simple definition, based on my experience and the stylistic conventions of the theatre industry (seeing as the word ‘belting’ originates in musical theatre, this seems a fairly sensible place to start). As this word (just like support) often starts fights in the voice community - particularly when coming into contact with practitioners of certain approaches who seem to feel that they somehow ‘own’ the term - let me say right of the bat that I’m not claiming this is the only true definition of belting (I don’t much care what people call stuff, to be honest - call the different sounds your voice makes ‘monkey’ or ‘ugli fruit’ if it works for you...) I’m just trying to take an oft-used word and give my take on it as a voice coach who teaches it every day.
In the world of musical theatre, belting is used to describe a way of producing notes above the traditional break area without using a head voice type sound. It’s a technique used a lot by women in musicals (some even claim that men can’t do it - I’ll get to that later...) and it is indeed an essential element of any aspiring musical singer’s arsenal of sounds.
The term ‘Belting’ probably comes from the verb ‘to belt’ (in the sense of 'to put a strap around something' or 'to hit something hard'). In the 20s, some female singers produced a bold, brassy sound that was very different from the classical voice people were used to, but that could carry to the back of the room. People started to say that they were 'belting out' the song, probably to suggest that they were somehow hitting each note firmly so it would carry. Belting was, then, originally a projection strategy at a time when electronic amplification was only just getting started and certain roles required voices that could carry, without sounding classical. Nowadays, of course, all good quality productions use amplification as a matter of course (unless the producer is tighter than a gnat's arse), but belting has not disappeared: it has simply changed purpose. Instead of being a way to ensure that the unamplified voice carries to the back of the room, it’s now used as an extra tonal colour in the singer’s palette.
I’d summarise it like this :
"Modern belting is a technique used to sing notes above the break point (above F4) with a voice that sounds speech-like or call-like. The vowels are open and the volume is generally moderately to very loud."
(That's not going on a t-shirt any time soon, but it does the job).
It's usually reserved for the climactic moments of a song and definitely should not be used as a way to sing all high notes (unless you're actively trying to get the audience to poke through their own eardrums with chopsticks).
Here are two good examples, taken from musical theatre repertoire:
Caissie Levy, All I need. (Jonathan Reid Gealt). In the phrase "I don't want" at 2m53s, the word ‘I’ (C5) is a good example of belting.
Laura Osnes, Dyin’ aint so bad. (Bonnie and Clyde). In the phrase "I'd rather breathe in life than dusty air" at 29s, the word ‘air’ (D5) is pretty much a masterclass in how to belt like a boss! (I'm fairly sure if you were to look up 'how to belt the arse out of a note whilst acting your face off' in the dictionary, you'd just see a picture of Laura Osnes singing that one note).
You really can’t mistake it for anything else. The sound is powerful, call-like, almost heroic in nature and is about as far from head voice as one could conceivably get.
So, is it just singing in very high chest voice. No. It isn’t. The muscular set-up in the larynx is not the same as chest voice in the low part of the range and the harmonic spectrum is also very different. It would be a mistake to try to stay in pure chest voice so high. It would be more correct to say that it’s a way to produce a chest-like sound higher up in the range.
Is it only used by women?
Some people claim that men can’t belt, but I disagree. This technique is used by men and women alike in the musical theatre world. Here’s an example of a guy belting:
Jeremy Jordan, Santa Fe. (Newsies). In the phrase "I aint got nothing if I aint got Santa Fe" at 3m15s, the word ‘Fe’ (A4) is clearly belted.
Is it dangerous for the voice?
If you listen to some voice teachers, even attempting to belt will ruin your voice for ever. I believe that this (erroneous) opinion is based on the (frequent) misunderstanding that belting is just using chest voice too high. The fact remains, however, that musical theatre actors use this technique several times a night, night after night, most nights of the year and do not have more vocal problems than singers of other styles. We must therefore conclude that there are healthy ways to produce this type of sound.
How can I learn how to do it healthily?
My next article will offer up a few suggestions taken from research into belting that will help you try it out. In the meantime, have a listen to the artists I’ve listed and similar ones (down the YouTube rabbit-hole we go!) and get your ear used to the sound. Be sure to come back next week for the next part of the article.