What is Bright and Warm Singing?

Examples of Bright and Warm Singers

National Medal of Arts Recepient 2012
Renée Fleming is an operatic soprano known as the "people's diva.". Image courtesy of PriceGrabber

Bright and warm singing are two common terms used to describe how singers sound. The terms are synonymous with light and dark. Listening to sounds alone may not explain the difference, unless you know what you are looking for. Here are some examples of what vocal color is, who uses differing colors and when, and a list of words expressing overly bright to overly dark singing.

How Bright and Warm Singing is Created

When a pitch is sung, several tones sound simultaneously giving the sound vocal color or a unique timbre.

The other pitches are called overtones. Each overtone can be amplified by the natural shape of your neck, throat, and face. You may also manipulate the sound by changing your facial expression, opening the back of your throat, lifting the cheekbones, or making other physical changes.

General Examples of Brighter and Warmer Voices

Young children’s voices are overall higher and brighter than adults. Likewise, tenors and sopranos tend to have brighter voices than altos and basses. Popular singers and Broadway stars tend to sing with a brighter tone quality than opera singers, and often choral singers. As compared to popular singers, gospel and jazz singers tend to sing with warmer tones.

Specific Examples of Bright and Warm Singers in Various Genres

Compare the brighter Miley Cyrus to the warmer tones of Beyoncé. Often you will find younger singers lack richness in the voice as compared to their older contemporaries.

The same could be said of the younger Justin Bieber versus the older Johnny Cash when he was popular and in his prime. In the field of opera, Dawn Upshaw has a brighter tone quality than Reneé Fleming, which also affects the roles they play. A brighter bass voice in the world of opera is Robert Weede versus the warmer, darker operatic bass Kurt Moll.

In Broadway, Bernadette Peters has a brighter quality than Marin Mazzie. And Michael Crawford’s take on the Phantom of the Opera is much brighter than the richer tones used by Norm Lewis.

Some Emotions are Generally Brighter and Some Warmer

Sad emotions are generally expressed in warmer tones, while happy and enthusiastic emotions are expressed in brighter ones. Beyoncé sings the gospel inspired lament “Listen” with rich varying tones versus the brighter tones used for her upbeat mocking “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Though both songs are about leaving someone, the first selection has a darker depth that denotes suffering and frustration while the second has a lighter “I’m-over-you” feeling.

Timbres From Overly Bright to Overly Dark

  • Brash– Overly bright sound with a brassy tone quality.
  • Ear-Splitting – Another term for overly bright singing. High overtones are amplified and the voice lacks the lower ones to add warmth and depth.
  • Bright/Light – Higher overtones are created and amplified.
  • Well Balanced – A well balanced voice has both bright and warm qualities. The higher overtones allow the voice to project to the back of the room, and the warm ones add color and contrast making for an overall beautiful tone quality.
  • Warm/Dark – A warm voice has lower overtones.
  • Breathy – Air leaks through the vocal cords and sounds like a sigh. Female singers going through puberty naturally sound breathy. Trying to correct the sound may cause vocal damage. In adults, the remedy is to close the vocal cords more efficiently. In practice that means adding a brighter tone quality to the voice.
  • Swallowed/Woofy – When someone is overly warm, the voice tends to sound stuck in the throat or swallowed and lacks the ping of the higher overtones.

Flat Voices Are Neither Bright or Warm

Those who sing without a variety of overtones lack vocal interest and sound flat. They sing with neither warmth or brightness.