In Defense of the Baritone

Griffin Godsick laments the fall in popularity of an iconic vocal part

Image(s): history.com


I’m going to issue you a challenge... Ready? Ok, open your preferred platform for music (Spotify, Youtube, Apple Music, TIDAL if it still exists), and shuffle any sort of Music of Today playlist. When a male singer makes an appearance, what does he sound like? Chances are, your ears were just hit with a stratospheric rocket of a belt or a floating falsetto comparable to a flute. But whatever happened to the buttery-smooth crooning that dominated the charts for over half of the 20th century? Where are the baritones of yesteryear, the Sinatras, the Elvises, the Bowies? Today we embark on an odyssey to uncover the fate of the fallen star known as the baritone voice.


For those of you who don’t identify as music aficionados, you already may be a bit lost. A baritone, according to the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia, is ‘the voice or register between bass and tenor, the most common category of male voice’. The average baritone typically sings in a vocal range of around G4 to G2, with many extending higher or lower, and has a slightly heavier tonal quality than their upstairs tenor neighbors. Vocal parts can often be difficult to quantify, as there are not strict criteria that define where a voice falls. Just a few factors that are considered include range, color, heaviness, and tessitura (vocal comfort zone), and all of these combine to allow your overzealous high school choir teacher to arbitrarily designate you as a baritone, because as earlier noted, statistically, you probably are one. This begs the question then, if baritones are indeed so common, why have they become the recognized vocal minority in modern music?



Image(s): irishtimes.com


To answer this, we have to travel back to the early-mid 20th century. By the post-World War II era, with the rise of radio and the widespread use of record players, music was more easily accessible and more widely consumed than ever before. Bing Crosby dominated the airwaves, popularizing the intimate baritone crooning style that would influence future baritones in the Rat Pack, all the way up to the present day with your mother’s favorite Christmas singer, Michael Buble. At the same time, musical theatre was becoming the artistic juggernaut that it is today during its ‘Golden Age’, where trailblazing composers such as Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin wrote shows with young romantic baritone lead roles. Gene Kelly and Fred Astair were household names, winning America’s heart with their dulcet tones and more-than-adequate dancing. Even in the opera world, with the actual term ‘baritone’ not commonly used until the mid-19th century, the concept of this vocal part was still somewhat of an exciting novelty. Through all of these different mediums, the popularity of the baritone voice communicated the cultural ideals of society at the time, namely the perceived masculinity and strength that accompany a lower-pitched voice.


However, these long-held values began to shift in the 1960’s, with the advent of counterculture and the revolt against societal norms. The brassy swing of big bands were supplanted with the hippy pop-infused tunes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. This shift was also observed on Broadway, where Hair, the psychedelic rock extravaganza, shocked and thrilled audiences nightly, relegating dusty old traditional musicals like My Fair Lady (in my opinion far superior, but that’s beside the point) to collect cobwebs of irrelevancy. The youthful population, who were the dominant force in the purchasing of records and concert tickets, were tired of jazz and classic Broadway, as they were seen as ‘old people’ music, whereas rock and pop truly captured the zeitgeist of adolescent rebellion. With this influx of high-energy, guitar-dominated music, so too did the voices singing it begin to morph. No one would ever confuse the rich, effortless baritone of Nat King Cole with the nasally, almost comical tenor of Bob Dylan. This evident shift was in a large part due to the specific music being performed. With electric-guitar rock and pulsating pop, often the objective of the music is to bring the audience to their feet, easily achievable with soaring high notes above the cacophony of instruments. Very rarely do you hear an uptempo dance number sung by a gravelly baritone. In modern radio pop, the most popular male singers include falsetto-concentrated tenors such as Shawn Mendes and Harry Styles. On Broadway, the same shift has occurred, with pop-rock belters like Jeremy Jordan and Aaron Tveit attaining Teen Idol status to theatre kids everywhere. This is in no small part to the altered modern perceptions of idealized masculinity, where baby-faced boy-bands have dethroned the more mature, rugged baritones of the decades before. Even in opera, perhaps the least widely-known of these mediums and by far the least susceptible to being swept up in society’s shifting values of masculinity, the most ubiquitous figures are the members of “The Three Tenors” (I don’t think I need to explain what vocal part they fall under).


Now, I do have to make some key clarifications here. First, I would like to stress that I don’t, contrary to the tone of this article, detest tenors with the fire of a thousand suns. I simply am pointing out a seismic shift in the landscape of modern music and discussing the relevant causes and effects of said shift. Second, I am aware that there are exceptions to the changes that I am analyzing. That is to be expected, but just because you can think of one or two popular modern baritones does not invalidate the information in this article, because as I mention towards the beginning, vocal classifications are somewhat arbitrary to begin with. So if you disagree, and want to vehemently argue that David Bowie was a tenor, be my guest. Debates like these are what keep these artists relevant and admired, which is never a bad thing.


Anyway, back to the fun stuff. You may now be asking, ‘Alright, we get it, tenors are a big deal. But if there are so many baritones, where are they right now?’ There are many elderly father-figure or comedic relief roles in musical theatre that fall quite nicely in the typical baritone range. However, for those baritones not wanting to don a fake beard or fat suit, stretching the vocal range to attempt tenor roles has become common practice (I am incredibly guilty of this, and for the sake of vocal health, would categorically recommend against it). But it’s not all bad news. Baritones like Josh Groban have been able to carve out immensely successful careers by not attempting to imitate the popular music on the radio, but rather embracing their unique sound. There’s no time like the present for a baritone renaissance. After all, variety is the spice of life, and currently, the radio is sounding pretty plain.


Image(s): wikihow.com