Is It Truly Pop, or Is It Musical Theater? // Laura Donohue

This is a blog about listening.  Specifically, this is a blog about listening very closely to vocal sounds and styles in musical theater and other commercial styles of singing.  But first I want to tell you a story about opera.

There was a moment, early in my undergrad studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, that I remember very clearly.  It was a moment that marked the beginning of my unofficial training as a voice teacher, even though I was a classical piano major.  I didn’t know I was training to be a voice teacher, but I was learning to listen to the voice, over the course of more than 8 years working as an accompanist and collaborative pianist, playing for lessons and rehearsals and recitals and competitions.  

But back to that one moment.  I was accompanying the lesson of a young soprano named Stephanie Dillard (DeJong) in the studio of the late Dr. William McIver (whose teaching still to this day influences my own). Stephanie was working on a Puccini aria, I don’t recall which one, and Dr. McIver was instructing her on different ways of singing the climatic phrase that built to a B5 (or was it a B-flat?). Stephanie sang the phrase several times and they compared and contrasted while I sat at the piano bench, watching and listening, perplexed and fascinated.  I could barely hear a difference.  All of those notes sounded amazing to me!  I was young and new to opera, Stephanie’s voice was beautiful, and I simply could not detect those subtle differences in tongue placement or breath management or vocal tract shape that can “make or break” a healthy, beautiful, operatic high note. Several years and many voice lessons, recordings, and concerts later, I could hear all of those differences, and then some.  And I had learned the importance of listening carefully and deeply and closely.  I had learned that truly understanding operatic singing required that kind of respectful listening over time.

Almost 30 years later, I have spent the bulk of my career working with Commercial vocalists and singing Commercial music professionally, and it is my firm belief that truly understanding pop, rock, country, hip hop, R&B, or any genre of commercial singing requires that same respectful listening.  It is also my belief that, while musical theater singing is typically placed under the CCM umbrella, it utilizes a different singing technique than the other commercial styles I’ve mentioned above (for the sake of ease, I’m going to now refer to all of these styles as simply “pop”).  Not unlike jazz, musical theater singing is really its own animal. Put another way, what is expected and preferred in musical theater singing is not the same as what is expected and preferred in the styles we find within the popular music industry, and vice versa. While it is true that musical theater is greatly influenced by popular music styles and trends, musical theater singing differs in a number of significant ways. If we want to instruct vocalists in singing any of these styles authentically and believably (and, incidentally, in a way in which they can succeed in the market) then we need to bring our most respectful listening to these genres, and learn to quickly recognize the distinctions. If you don’t listen regularly to pop music, you can start exploring the artists mentioned below, and you can also ask your students what they are listening to. I have always loved listening to pop radio, but as radio is less of a “thing” now, following “New Music Friday” on Spotify or another similar curated list from one of the streaming services can be a great way to be aware of emerging pop trends.

Some things to keep in mind as we consider the differences between pop and musical theater: generally speaking, pop singing should not sound “trained;” however, it is perfectly acceptable and common to hear evidence of vocal training in musical theater singing. Additionally, musical theater singing is mic’ed differently than pop, and this difference in miking also informs vocal style. (This is its own fascinating chicken-and-egg subject, and worth exploring to understand the connections between acoustic spaces, vocal technique, and the use of microphone technology.)

While there are very likely more, and there are exceptions to all of these, I have chosen to focus on 5 main differences:

1. Use of Vibrato. Simply put, there tends to be a fair amount of vibrato in musical theater singing but little-to-none in pop.

2. Articulation/Diction. The articulation of consonants in musical theater singing is more energetic and pronounced than those of pop.  Words need to be clearly projected to every audience member and higher levels of emotion communicated (it’s drama, after all!).  Pop diction can be messy, unclear, even mumbled (see Billie Eilish, Frank Ocean, Julia Michaels).

3. Purity of vowel. In keeping with the more “trained” aspect of the musical theater sound, vowels tend to be sustained in their purity over the course of a legato musical theater phrase.  Pop vowels will at times closely resemble speech sounds and at other times follow strange stylistic trends such that the word is unrecognizable.  (For an excellent exploration of the phenomenon of “vowel breaking”, check out Kelly Hoppenjans’s blog on the indie pop voice).

4. Phrasing. There are numerous differences in approach to phrasing.  In general, musical theater phrasing tends to be longer and more legato (leaning towards classical), while pop phrasing tends to be shorter and choppier. Ironically, both often utilize what could be called “conversational” delivery, but they are very different styles. For example, the half-spoken-but-with-energy delivery of the phrase at 1:27 in Cynthis Erivo’s live performance of “Still Hurting” is very common in musical theater but would be stylistically inappropriate in pop. In addition to choppier phrasing, conversational qualities in pop phrasing can include the trailing off of the final word or words of a phrase. The conventional rules of breathing-following-punctuation that we find in classical singing and musical theater don’t apply in pop, where you might hear vocalists breathe in the middle of a sentence (or even a word!).

5. Purity of tone. Generally speaking, a musical theater tone will be predominantly clear and resonant, with a certain degree of brightness, which assists in projecting the voice consistently into the theater.  Pop tones are often textured as opposed to clear, and can range from very light, fragile and breathy to rich and belty, silky smooth, warm and resonant to raspy and throaty. For a sampling of the degree of tone variation found in current pop vocals, compare the different sounds of Phoebe Bridgers, Beyonce, Lennon Stella, Rozzi, Dua Lipa, H.E.R., Kacey Musgraves, Lady Gaga, Lauv, Harry Styles, Frank Ocean, Dan + Shay, Daniel Caesar, JP Saxe, and James Blake, to name just a few.

Because this is a blog about listening, I’m going to close with some songs for you to listen to. I chose several versions of two songs: one iconic pop song from the inimitable Joni Mitchell, and Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeous ballad “Still Hurting,” from The Last Five Years.

There are dozens of covers of “River,” but I am providing you with one version by a predominantly-musical theater singer and two versions by pop artists. Of course, if you aren’t familiar with the original, I highly recommend you take a moment and listen to that first! Ben Platt’s version contains many of the musical theater traits mentioned above, Olivia Rodrigo’s version is a great example of a current pop sound in a young female voice, and Guy Garvey’s live version at Royal Albert Hall presents another type of pop sound, rougher around the edges but deeply soulful and moving.

And finally, three fantastic and very different versions of “Still Hurting”: the Cynthia Erivo version I referenced earlier, a recording of Lea Salonga in rehearsal, and Ariana Grande’s recent virtual performance with Robert Brown. Even though Grande trained in musical theater, she sings this primarily in the breathy, riffy pop voice for which she is famous (that way she throws away the word “you” at 1:28), and it’s a great contrast to Erivo and Salonga, bringing their musical theater best.

About the Author

Laura Donohue is a holistic voice teacher, professional vocalist, and songwriter based in Nashville, TN. She’s also the creator of the Vocal Muse app.

4 thoughts on “Is It Truly Pop, or Is It Musical Theater? // Laura Donohue

  1. What an excellent post Laura. Packed with specific thoughts, examples and stories, and beautifully written.
    I agree with what you’re saying.
    I think in the UK, Musical Theatre phrasing, while more extended that pop, isn’t as close to classical. Even in “legit” musicals like South Pacific, if it’s sung too legato and tonally matched, we lose the meaning in favour of the sound. As a coach I can spot classical training in musical theatre singers just by their style of legato.
    Absolutely agree that MT is its own animal, with specific text and story targets that are then added or imposed onto other imported genres. Love your comparison examples.
    In Gillyanne (Kayes)’s PhD when she compared comfort zones of CCM, MT and classical female singers, she came to the same conclusion, that MT doesn’t fit either classical or CCM.
    I have a similar background to you (classical collaborative pianist, became a voice coach via opera to MT and CCM, and now author).
    Listening is half the battle. Understanding what you’re hearing is the rest of it.
    Thanks for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeremy, thank you for this wonderfully insightful response. I love your thoughts on phrasing. I agree completely that MT doesn’t really fit into classical or CCM; therefore, it feels not only helpful but also appropriate to give it it’s own space. Thank you again for reading and for sharing your perspective. 🙂


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