The Problem with Straight Tone

by Bruce Schoonmaker


With the recent increase in popularity of straight tone choirs, I feel compelled to share with you what I consider to be the problem with straight tone singing. I have years of exposure to straight tone choral singing, including listening to, participating in, and teaching people who participate in straight tone choirs. So I do not make these judgments lightly or without adequate experience.


Straight tone singing is always extremely tiring to the voice, frequently inhibits vocal progress in solo singing, and sometimes damages the voice. It features vocal technique that emphasizes closed throat, high laryngeal position, tension in the larynx, and heavy mechanism-dominant vocalism.


When I hear a choral group singing straight tone, I hear choral blend that constricts the voice, distorts vowels, and produces tone that is not warm, but cold.  I don’t hear an ethereal tone; I hear so many voices yearning to sing freely.


Even with all my experience in teaching voice and performing, in judging vocal and choral competitions, I do not ask that you rely on my opinion alone in judging the worthiness of straight tone singing. Consider James C. McKinney, nationally recognized vocal pedagogue and author, who in his book The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Waveland Press, Long Grove, Illinois, 1994, says the following:


p. 197:

Vibrato is a natural concomitant of beautiful and expressive tone. According to research by the Seashore group, vibrato was present in ninety-five percent of all artistically sung tones. There have been various movements, especially within the choral field, that have decried the use of vibrato in any form and have advocated the straight tone. Fortunately the almost universal presence of vibrato in all types of musical performance has been verified time after time by research; it has been classified not only as necessary for beauty of tone but also for physiological reasons.


McKinney quotes Large [another vocal expert] on vibrato in the same page:


These movements [vibrato] are said to prevent fatigue at the laryngeal level; in other words, the musculature is alternately working and resting in vibrato. In the production of straight tone the musculature is constantly working.


Or consider the dean of American voice teachers, Richard Miller, the most highly-regarded and sought after expert in vocal pedagogy, the most published author on vocal pedagogy, who has years of experience in professional performing and voice training. In his book, Solutions for Singers. Oxford Univ Press, 2004, Oxford, NYC, he states:




p. 126:

By removing all vibrato, inexpedient laryngeal changes happen to breath management and to resonance balancing. If vibrancy is removed, the timbre sounds held and lifeless.



p. 237:

within today’s choral community the questionable concept of nonvibrant and sterile choral sound still has numerous fervent adherents. This philosophy is handed down through workshops and symposia from one choral conductor to another, permeating North American secondary and collegiate choral scenes. It has taken on the nature of cultism. This search for compliance with a preconceived notion is largely responsible for the turning off of serious singer who should be happily participating in what can be the exciting world of ensemble singing.


p. 238-239:

The tonal esthetic of the English choral tradition is based on ideals of tonal “purity” in which vibrato is eliminated from the tone. Because of heavy reliance on excessive breath mixture, the resultant timbre, in point of fact, is acoustically quite impure…High airflow and lack of vibrancy combine to produce sharping and straight tone in treble and female voices, because improper ratios between breath-flow rate and vocal-fold closure yield pitch vagaries.


p. 239:

Vibrancy is an essential ingredient of the professional chiaroscuro timbre. When the vibrato is suppressed, an imbalance among first and third formants occurs, with voice quality reduced to one uniform color. The search for authenticity in Early Music is a driving force among certain academic choral groups. It and other tonal traditions act as conflicting influences on American liturgical and academic choral circles. Some choral conductors consider such timbre to produce ethereal, spiritual, or “Baroque sound.” The objective listener is left longing for centered intonation and for honest timbre, in which the fundamental and its overtones are in balance at all dynamic levels, a goal transcending centuries and literature styles.


p. 239:

A number of chapel and cathedral choirs in England, while performing traditional liturgical literature, are abandoning the vibratoless Church of England sound in favor of vibrant, healthy young voice timbre.


p. 240: 

Vibrato is a relaxant principle essential to vocal freedom. Vibrato is held out of sung phonation only through constrictive controls.


I encourage you to ask all the voice teachers and choral directors you know about the pros and cons of straight tone singing. Ask all the singers you know that participate in straight tone choirs. Draw your own conclusions.



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