Bel Canto: the unbroken tradition

Robert Toft

In transforming songs into effective musical discourse, singers draw upon the sorts of vocal techniques and interpretive strategies that have been available for centuries and strive to tell their stories convincingly by utilizing the tools of expression at their disposal.1 The ways in which devices, such as, emphasis, accent, tone of voice, pauses, legato, staccato, portamento, messa di voce, rhythmic rubato, vibrato, and ornamentation, are realized and the degree to which singers favour or disfavour a single component or cluster of components determines performance style, and artists of popular music tend to prize many of the elements of expression that formed the basis of singing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so much so that the differences setting apart the performance of pop songs from the lineages of European art music are much fewer than commonly thought.2 Over the past hundred years, the bel canto style, as practiced by many in the world of art music, has evolved to centre almost exclusively on the production of ‘beautiful’ tone and the exhibition of that tone through the uninterrupted delivery of long, heavily vibrated lines. But historically, the manner of singing embodied in the words bel canto embraced much more than bel suono (beautiful sound), for the old Italian singers, just like modern pop performers, valued the entire range of techniques listed above.3 An examination of recordings made between the 1960s and the present reveals the extent to which pop artists embrace bel canto techniques, and in this paper I will limit my discussion to a small number of practices.

Singers normally insert stops or pauses in sentences to articulate the sense of the text for listeners, and in doing so, they create short melodic fragments that might sound disjointed if they were not entered and exited gracefully.4 In the bel canto era, performers allowed the voice to rise and fall with the idea expressed, and in 1833, John Turner remarked: ‘the greatest force and expression should be given to the middle of the phrase; the notes at the beginning and end being sung in a softer strain, and those at the end, in particular, never quitted abruptly, but gradually sunk, as it were, into silence’ (p. 95). Domenico Corri, writing in 1810, recommended that singers ‘die the Voice’ on the last notes of passages within larger musical periods, and in the final phrase, they should accent the ultimate note with a gentle swell and ‘immediately die it away’ (pp. 52, 65). The technique of ‘dying the voice’ was the equivalent of cadence in speaking (that is, the equivalent of speakers letting their voices fall at the stops indicated by punctuation), and singers avoided abrupt phrase endings not only by gradually sinking notes into silence but also by lightly quitting the final note of the passage. Manuel García suggested in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, that the ultimate notes of final periods should be held long, because they mark the completion of a thought or discourse. 5

These principles form the basis of phrasing in popular singing, as well, and many performers let their dynamic shading rise and fall with the idea expressed, particularly when a melodic line traces an arc, such as occurs in the first line of the late 1960s’ song ‘Time of the Season’ by The Zombies (0:08 to 0:11).6 In other types of melodic structures, singers taper the phrase towards the end, thus creating the equivalent of the speaker’s cadence, and they regularly conclude passages either with short notes or a dying voice. Tom Jones, for example, often phrases in a cadential manner (see ‘It’s Not Unusual’, 0:45 to 0:50), and other singers routinely taper the final notes of sub-phrases (see, for instance, the first two lines of The Backstreet Boys’, ‘I Want It That Way’, 0:09 to 0:28, particularly the words ‘are’, ‘fire’, ‘one’, ‘believe’, and ‘say’).  Some performers even adhere to the principle of holding the last note of a larger section longer than all the other final notes. In his recording of ‘Positively 4th Street’, Bob Dylan ends internal phrases with short notes and uses extended values to mark the completion of thoughts (as an example of this practice, see the verse located between 1:54 and 2:10, where the final syllables of the first three lines are abbreviated while the last word is lengthened). Similarly, Karen Carpenter reserves the longest note in ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ for the ultimate word, and in addition to extending the note, she incorporates a swell vibrated at its peak, one of the common applications of both messa di voce and vibrato (see the final line of the text, 2:49 to 2:59).7

A number of early nineteenth-century authors considered the swell to be the principal source of expression, and the technique of commencing a note softly, gradually augmenting its loudness to the middle, and then diminishing it insensibly to the end originated, according to Thomas Philipps in 1826, in the spoken word, for if sustained syllables, whether vowels or liquid consonants, were given with equal strength, a speaker’s delivery would prove dissonant to the ear (p. 5). Although commonly applied to individual notes, messa di voce could also be spread over several notes, particularly when they fall by step (see Ex. 1), and popular singers exemplify this procedure. Ani DiFranco, for instance, applies messa di voce flexibly across the phrases of ‘Both Hands’ to produce an undulating effect, the swells being as sudden or as protracted as she desires (see, for example, the passage running from 0:49 to 1:20), and Jimi Hendrix accents the ends of sub-phrases in ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ with short swells when the final musical gesture involves two falling notes, especially on the words ‘clowns’, ‘all’, and ‘bed’ in the line located between 0:19 and 0:24.

Ex. 1.  Messa di voce in Handel’s, ‘Holy Lord God Almighty’ (Nathan 1836, 187).

Ex. 1.  Messa di voce in Handel’s, ‘Holy Lord God Almighty’ (Nathan 1836, 187). 

Musical accents of this sort save performers from singing monotonously, and normally singers align these stresses with the prosodic implications of the text. Accent refers to the stress laid on syllables and emphasis to the force placed on important words so they are distinguished above the rest. Pop singers generally deliver their texts prosodically, organizing their accents and emphases in the proper places to achieve a union of sense and sound, and in his recording of ‘Magic Moments’, Perry Como derives his accentuation for each of the first two words of the song from speech (strong, weak) and provides contrast to this prosodic opening by equally stressing the words/syllables that follow. He then draws the thought to a close with a cadence that parallels the normal accentuation speakers would give the word ‘caring’ (strong, weak; see 0:09 to 0:18). Como repeats this prosodic delivery in the next segment of the text (0:19 to 0:28), a phrase that parallels the structure of the first line, but he lengthens the final syllable to signal the close of the entire period.

In this last example, the application of the principles of prosody required Como to deliver certain syllables through staccato, a technique regularly employed beyond prosody to articulate the text in a natural manner. Staccato refers to a detached style of delivery which encompasses various degrees of brevity ranging from notes struck short in a pointed way to those made distinct through minimal detachment. In the early nineteenth century, singers executed the latter with gentle impulses of the lungs so that a certain amount of stress is placed on each note in order to differentiate it more by emphasis than by detachment, a technique Manuel García called martellato.8 Herb Alpert incorporates various gradations of staccato in ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’, particularly in the passage which begins at 0:58 and ends at 1:54, both pulsing on notes without abbreviating them, in a manner akin to García’s martellato, and detaching notes with differing amounts of separation (especially between 0:58 and 1:25). Some of these short notes are displaced rhythmically from their positions in Burt Bacharach’s carefully notated score,9 and this aligns Alpert with the old bel canto practice of altering notated rhythm through the application of tempo rubato, a performance technique which enables singers to correct false accentuation and improperly set syllabic quantity (Bacon 1824, 84–85). Tempo rubato literally means stolen time, and writers from the early nineteenth century refer to borrowing time from or adding it to a note.10 The rhythms Bacharach had prescribed for ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’ would have given the text, to borrow Manuel García’s words, too regular and too stiff a character (1857, 50), and Alpert’s prosodic style of delivery gracefully liberated the music from its inexpressive notation. Specifically, he remedied an inappropriately emphasized article by shortening the note concerned from a dotted crotchet to a crotchet (the word ‘the’ in the phrase occupying 1:25 to 1:43) and approximated spoken discourse by both abbreviating and displacing the notes Bacharach had written for several words in the passage (‘to’, ‘are’, ‘don’t’, and ‘my’).

Other performance techniques heightened the gracefulness of the bel canto style, as well, and early nineteenth-century singers regularly delivered individual words with appoggiaturas that progress to the main notes so quickly that they are scarcely discernible. Harriet Wainewright, writing in 1836, described this type of ornamental note as an imperceptible one that may proceed by step or leap (pp. 30–32). These quick appoggiaturas abound in the modern world of pop singing and can easily be regarded as a foundational component of the style. Singers often intermingle them with other forms of appoggiaturas, Michael Bublé, for instance, not only mixing rising and falling imperceptible graces with lengthier single and double appoggiaturas in his recording of ‘Home’ (see, in particular, 0:44 to 1:44)11 but also slightly extending a lower leaning note to help mark the completion of the thought in the sixth line of the passage (see the word ‘that’ at the end of 1:10 to 1:15).

The techniques described here have formed the basis of expressive singing since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and yet without an appropriate tonal quality of voice to carry these devices to the ears of listeners, performers were thought to have been incapable of delivering texts convincingly. In fact, singers in the first half of the nineteenth century were advised to match the colour of their voices to the sentiments of the text, Mary Novello recommending in 1856 that young singers avoid monotony by gaining complete mastery over different and opposite qualities of tone (p. 15). The range of colours singers employed extended from those that were sweet and clear to those that were harsh and rough, and pop singers regularly exploit strongly opposing tonal qualities to contrast soft, almost breathy, sounds with harder more metallic colours. In the first chorus of ‘Georgia Rain’, for example (0:49 to 1:09), Trisha Yearwood employs both delicate high notes, reminiscent of the ‘silken sort of under-voice’ singers in the nineteenth century used in the ‘higher part of the scale’,12 and harder full-bodied lower tones. This type of contrast is, perhaps, the most pronounced in male singers, such as, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, who gracefully slip in and out of falsetto without feeling the need to present a uniform tone colour (see, for instance, The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, 1:00 to 1:41).

Uniformity of expression is, of course, antithetical to bel canto, for it robs singers of the opportunity to adapt their voices to the stories they tell. The principles of this expressive, re-creative style of singing have remained relatively constant for the past 200 years, and this unbroken tradition offers a means of bridging the gap between two seemingly disparate musical cultures. In fact, at least in certain regards, popular artists provide a fascinating model for performing late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century art music in a way that seems to correspond more closely with historical documents than the approach taken by many of today’s ‘classically’ trained singers.


  • Bacon, Richard M. 1824. Elements of Vocal Science (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy), ed. Edward Foreman. Champaign, Ill.: Pro Musica Press, 1966.
  • Corri, Domenico. 1810. The Singer’s Preceptor. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme.
  • Egestorf, G.H. ?1815. A Practical Dissertation on the Science of Singing. London: By the Author.
  • García, Manuel. 1857. New Treatise on the Art of Singing. London: Cramer, Beale, and Chappell.
  • García, Manuel. 1847. Traité complet de l’art du chant, Paris: Chez l’auteur, Rue Chabanais, No. 6. Reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1985. Trans. Donald V. Paschke, A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing. New York: Da Capo, 1975 [part 2] and 1984 [part 1].
  • Lanza, Gesualdo. ?1820. Elements of Singing. London: Chappell.
  • Middleton, Richard. 1993. ‘Popular Music Analysis and Musicology: Bridging the Gap’. Popular Music 12: 177–90.
  • Nathan, Isaac. 1836. Musurgia Vocalis. London: Fentum.
  • New Monthly Magazine 24 (May 1828).
  • Novello, Mary. 1856. Voice and Vocal Art, 2nd ed. London: J. Alfred Novello.
  • Philipps, Thomas. 1826. Elementary Principles and Practices for Singing. Dublin: J. Willis.
  • Toft, Robert. 2000. Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England 1780–1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Toft, Robert. 2004. ‘Rendering the Sense More Conspicuous: Grammatical and Rhetorical Principles of Vocal Phrasing in Art and Popular/Jazz Music’. Music & Letters 85: 368–87.
  • Toft, Robert. 2010. Hits and Misses: Crafting Top 40 Singles, 1963–1971. New York: Continuum.
  • Turner, John. 1833. A Manual of Instruction in Vocal Music. London: John W. Parker. Reprint Kilkenny: Boethius Press, 1983.
  • Wainewright, Harriett. 1836. Critical Remarks on the Art of Singing. London: T. and J. Hoitt.


  • Alpert, Herb and the Tijuana Brass. 1968. ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’, The Look of Love, The Burt Bacharach Collection. Warner Music Canada, WTVD 88384, 2001.
  • The Backstreet Boys. 1999. ‘I Want It That Way’, Millennium. Jive Records, 01241-41672-2R.
  • The Beach Boys. 1964. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, The Very Best of the Beach Boys, Sounds of Summer. Capitol/EMI, 72435-82710-2-7, 2003.
  • Bublé, Michael. 2005. ‘Home’, It’s Time. 143 Records/Reprise, CDW 48946.
  • The Carpenters. 1970. ‘Close to You’, Carpenters: The Singles. A&M, CD-3601, n.d.
  • Como, Perry. 1958. ‘Magic Moments’, The Look of Love, The Burt Bacharach Collection. Warner Music Canada, WTVD 88384, 2001.
  • DiFranco, Ani. 1990. ‘Both Hands’, Ani DiFranco. Righteous Babe Records, RBR001-D.
  • Dylan, Bob. 1965. ‘Positively 4th Street’, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Columbia, CK 65975, 1999.
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience. 1967. ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, Are You Experienced. MCA Records, MCASD-11602, 1997.
  • Jones, Tom. 1965. ‘It’s Not Unusual’, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdinck, Their Greatest Hits. Universal Music, 314 520 243-2, 2001.
  • Yearwood, Trisha. 2006. ‘Georgia Rain’, Jasper County. MCA Nashville, B000620202.
  • The Zombies. 1968. ‘Time of the Season’, Odessey & Oracle. Repertoire Records, REP 5089, 2008.


Robert Toft

Robert Toft holds a PhD from King’s College, University of London and has taught at universities in Canada, England, Ireland, and Australia. He first came to Western in 1989 and over the years has pursued interests in both ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music. He took the lead role in developing the Faculty’s undergraduate programs in Popular Music Studies and Music Administrative Studies, and since 2000 he has devoted much of his time to popular music. His research always takes a positivistic approach, and he has been keen to break down the barriers that exist between the worlds of ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music. He has published several articles that demonstrate specific ways in which these two rich traditions are closely related, and his book on top-40 singles from the 1960s (Hits and Misses: Crafting Top-40 Singles, 1963–1971) was published in 2010.

Robert also studies the performance practices of singing in vogue between the 16th and 19th centuries, and he has written extensively on various aspects of the topic in a number of articles and in three books, Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century (1992), Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597–1622 (1993), and Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England 1780–1830 (2000). In addition, he has given lectures and workshops on historical principles of interpretation in Canada and Europe, and through his undergraduate course in bel canto, he coaches singers who wish to become immersed in the style of singing practiced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Other interests include pop singing and recording practices, and beyond the bel canto course, he teaches songwriting and analytical approaches to studying recordings, as well as graduate seminars in popular music.


  1. I have reconstructed many of the older practices in Toft 2000, and this book provides the basis for the discussion of the vocal techniques treated in this paper. However, without recordings to document the precise ways in which singers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries applied the principles of bel canto to specific works, all reconstructions of performance practices pre-dating the advent of sound recording must remain speculative.
  2. Richard Middleton (1993, 187) first pointed this out.
  3. Toft 2000 explodes many of the myths surrounding bel canto, and I have explored one aspect of the similarities between bel canto and modern popular/jazz singing, that is, grammatical and rhetorical phrasing, in Toft 2004.
  4. On the use of pauses in singing, see Toft 2000, 37–58.
  5. The comments cited here conflate García 1857, 56 and García 1847, 2: 35–6 (trans. 2:103).
  6. When referring to a specific passage in a recording, I will indicate the location of the excerpt in minutes and seconds, and if readers are to benefit fully from the discussions, they may wish to listen to the recordings listed in the discography at the appropriate time.
  7. For a discussion of the historical roots of this practice, see Toft 2000, 35, n.20.
  8. See, in particular, Egestorf ?1815, 8; Lanza ?1820, iii, 151; and García 1857, 11.
  9. On Bacharach’s penchant for notational precision and his insistence that the singers he produced perform exactly what he had written, see Toft (2010), 127–8.
  10. See Toft 2000, 80.
  11. Bublé’s double appoggiaturas consist of two notes sliding down to the main note; see the words ‘know’ (1:22), ‘far’ (1:39), and ‘are’ (1:41).
  12. On this female ‘falsetto stop’, see the comments on Giuditta Pasta and Henriette Sontag in New Monthly Magazine 1828, 203.