What is a Vocal Onset?

Initiating Vocal Sound

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Image courtesy of Arcadian via Wikimedia commons

The first sound produced during the singing process is the most important. It has little to do with first impressions and everything to do with getting a good start to the phrase. There are three basic ways one can initiate vocal tone: aspirated, glottal, and coordinated. Learning about the different types of vocal onsets is one of the first steps to achieving an easy, free, and engaging vocal quality.

Attack or Vocal Onset: The term, “attack,” which means initial vocal sound, has generally fallen out of favor with voice pedagogists because of the implications of an overly aggressive start to the tone. In scholarly journals, which only publish peer-reviewed articles and are held to a higher standard than other publications, vocal onset is the accepted term for initial vocal sound. Because a glottal onset is hard, on the other hand, the term glottal attack is still common. If your voice teacher or choir director uses the term attack often, it does not automatically mean they are ignorant. It may simply be their preferred terminology. Just be aware the initial vocal sound need not be aggressive like the term implies.

Aspirated, Breathy, or Soft Onset:  Any vowel preceded by a puff of air as in “h” “wh” is considered an aspirated onset. It is created by not closing the vocal cords before initiating vocal sound.

This type of onset encourages a relaxed vocal tone. On the other hand, it can also lead to an overall breathy quality. Choral conductors will often practice an aspirated onset during vocal exercises to avoid any tension during singing that other onsets may cause.

Glottal or Hard Onset: A glottal onset is an aggressive one where the vocal cords are opened after the tone is initiated.

A slight pressure builds up below the cords and when they do open the sound produced is frog-like. A lighter version of the glottal onset is used for understandability when a word begins with a vowel in spoken English and German, as well as less common singing languages. Glottal onsets are not used in Italian, French, or Latin. On rare occasions, a harder onset is heard and accepted by some as an emotive tool in singing. However, a hard onset is almost never appropriate and often leads to a pressed tone that sounds pushed. In addition, overuse of it can cause vocal dysfunction.

Coordinated Onset: The hardest to achieve and most important to develop is the coordinated onset. The vocal cords close with the initial sound producing a quiet onset as in the vowel, “ah.” This onset is somewhere between the glottal attack where the vocal cords close before starting the sound and the breathy onset where the vocal cords close after initiating sound.  The name “coordinated,” appropriately refers to the need to synchronize and prepare all aspects of initial sound in order to achieve the best tone including: breath, vocal cords, and resonant chambers.

What Kind of Onset Am I Using? If a singer’s initial tone is not beautiful, you can bet it is not coordinated.

Sometimes a singer’s tone sounds as if it is winding up. The beginning of the phrase might sound weak, quiet, or flat (too low) and the tone improves as they sing on. This is a prime example of an aspirated onset that leads to a breathy tone. Generally a hard onset that leads to a pressed tone is easy to identify by its nails-on-chalkboard, loud, irritating, and sometimes sharp (too high) quality. With conscious effort, these singers’ phrases may become more relaxed as they go on. Coordinated onsets are clearly identified by a well-supported first note that sounds clear, easy, and engaged.