It took a lot of history and developments for the style of modern singing to emerge. From our ancestral roots of a ‘nasal’ type of singing to the ‘angelic’ castrati sound in the 17th to 18th centuries, all these contributed to what we now know as ‘modern singing’.
Starting from the Middle Ages, historical records suggest that our ancestors have a ‘nasal’ type way of singing. It is said that our ancient ancestors sang this way to match the tones and sounds of their woodwind and string instruments.
Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, the ‘angelic’ singing style became popular largely thanks to the European castrati singers. The powerful yet extremely high voices of these castrati men were preserved as they were castrated as children to avoid the voice-deepening effects of puberty. Hence, these castrati singers were able to fill up grand concerts, churches, and palaces with their ‘angelic’ voices.
However, the practice has long since been viewed as unethical which led to the ‘angelic’ castrati singing style to its downfall. Be that as it seems, the Castrati singing style was one to be studied. “They had such extraordinary voices, being a large male body just with a tiny childlike larynx, they had incredible vocal facility”, says John Potter, a singer, and author.
Not long after, conservatories and music schools emerged and singing became a valued technique worth studying. It was then and there the idea of singers with clear and dramatic voices became the standard for the best performers. However, a professor of American studies at DePaul University and author, Allison McCracken, says “We do see a major shift during the period. Often the qualifications were that they would be able to project, that they would be able to enunciate in certain ways, and that they would have what we would consider a trained voice.”.
Such was the case with Lilli Lehmann. A German soprano who is one of the most venerated singers of the late 19th century.
Regardless of the taste, style, and standards, all singers back then needed to project a loud singing style. With the modern microphone still yet to be invented, having a loud singing voice was the only way professional singers can be heard.
This all changed when the carbon microphone and its technology were invented in the 1870s. Although the carbon microphone still had a lot to improve, it helped transform radio and telephone technology and became the basis for what later on was used in the 1920s. The new microphone helped boom the popularity of broadcast-quality audio, radio, and eventually the singing style of professional singers.
“The big advantage was that you didn’t have to project your voice in the back of a hall. So you could just sing in a much more natural way and you get the colors of your personality coming through”, says Potter. Hence, the emergence of the first crooners.
Opposite from the European male castrati singers are the crooners. These mostly male singers made the soft but seductive singing style popular, especially among young women. Typically, crooners would sing romantic songs and would look as if they were directly whispering sweet sentiments to their listeners — all with the help of a microphone that would make their voices sound sincere yet full enough for them to project and hit high notes.
The microphone helped crooners sway and enthrall listeners, and we owe this modern singing style to Rudy Vallée. While he was criticized for his less-than-appealing looks based on standards back then, his singing style was anything but. Vallée is credited to be one of the first singers to “croon” and helped pave the way for modern singing.
Looking at today, there are varying singing types. We can credit the changes to preferences, cultural shifts, and new techniques but we must not overlook how the microphone plays a major role, too. Different types of microphones allow you to alter your voice, highlight tones, and create distinct colors and personalities.