What is a Vocalist?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

A vocalist is an individual who sings. This person usually has an appealing singing voice and an appreciation for performing. He or she may sing in a band, music group, play, musical, film, and for recorded musical pieces. While anyone may sing as a hobby, the vocalist title is typically reserved for those who make singing a career.

A vocalist can sing solo, in a band, music group, play, musical, film, and for recorded musical pieces.
A vocalist can sing solo, in a band, music group, play, musical, film, and for recorded musical pieces.

Some vocalists sing by themselves, performing solos, while others sing along with other professionals. In many cases, a singer’s performances are accompanied by instruments, though some people sing unaccompanied. When a person sings without the accompaniment of instruments or recorded music, he is said to sing a cappella.

A vocalist may increase their chances of singing professionally by learning to read sheet music.
A vocalist may increase their chances of singing professionally by learning to read sheet music.

Many people think of a vocalist as the lead singer in a band or group; others think of soloists when they hear the term. The fact is, any type of professional singer may fit this title. Lead singers can include main singers in a group or performance, and some professionals sing backup, accompanying the lead singer. A lead singer sings the melody of a song and the backup singers sing harmony.

A vocalist may sing unaccompanied.
A vocalist may sing unaccompanied.

There are also session vocalists who work on contract, lending their voices to performances or temporary musical projects. Understudies substitute for singers who are unable to perform, such as in cases when a main singer becomes ill or loses his voice.

Vocalists should have a good stage presence.
Vocalists should have a good stage presence.

College isn’t required for those who want to become professional singers. Instead, an aspiring performer is often advised to get professional singing lessons. He or she may also improve his or her chances of success by learning to read music. It is also helpful to develop an appreciation for different styles of music and to gain practice singing in these varied styles. Learning to sing different styles of music may help a singer secure more opportunities to perform.

Ludacris is an American rapper.
Ludacris is an American rapper.

Besides having a good singing voice and taking voice lessons, there are other qualities that may help a vocalist succeed. A successful singer typically has a love of performing and a good stage presence. He or she is normally confident on stage and while working on singing projects. This doesn’t mean a successful singer is never nervous, but that he or she has enough confidence to do a good job, even when nervous.

Many think of a vocalist as the lead singer of a group or band.
Many think of a vocalist as the lead singer of a group or band.

Successful vocalists also have the ability to sing along with music, with precise timing. They can usually speak with proper diction yet vary their pronunciation when necessary. They often inject their songs with emotion, helping their audiences to feel the emotions the song is intended to convey. They also have good memories, as they have to memorize many songs and perform them without reading the lyrics off a piece of paper.

Vocalists might record tracks in a studio for a demo tape.
Vocalists might record tracks in a studio for a demo tape.
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments


@Pharoah - I agree that voice lessons can really help someone who wants to be a vocalist. They're probably especially helpful for someone who wants to be a classical vocalist and sing opera or something like that.

However, it's pretty clear to me that a lot of vocalists that perform in rock bands don't have training. They all seem to have their own sound, and that sounds might not necessarily mean they have a "good" voice.


One thing I've always found interesting about being a vocalist is that you have to have some raw talent, but you also really need training. Most people aren't born knowing how to read music or project their voices. Voice lessons can help someone that has a little bit of talent become an extremely skilled vocalist!


@SZapper - I can understand wanting to pursue something musical that you have a chance to be good at. I'm not a great singer either, so I've never been any kind of vocalist.

I don't feel like it's a big loss though, because there just aren't that many job opportunities for vocalists (unless you become a famous recording artist, but that's very unlikely for most people.) I had a few friends in college who majored in music with a vocal concentration, and they ended up becoming music teachers instead of career vocalists.


I enjoyed singing in the chorus when I was in elementary school, but I didn't continue on as a music vocalist after that. My voice isn't that great, and I was much better at playing instruments. So when I was in middle school and high school, I played in the band. I enjoyed it, and I was good at it.

I still sing now, but only in the privacy of my car or shower.


I sing background vocals for people as needed. I've never been one to bask in the spotlight, so singing backup is perfect for me.

I have a knack for picking out harmonies. I can either sing high or low harmony as needed.

I have done live performances, where I stood behind the other musicians at a microphone, and I have done studio work. I actually prefer the studio to the stage, because there, I can be completely invisible to the public.


@cloudel – I have trouble with singing loud enough to fit in with a band. My voice has always been rather gentle, and when I push too hard, it takes away from the appeal of it.

I had been running an ad in the college newspaper's classifieds that read, “Vocalist available.” I had one of those soft voices that can soothe a person to sleep, and this didn't work with most of the bands I tried out for, because they wanted to play loud music that would drown me out.

I ended up just picking up a guitar and playing shows on my own. That way, I could set the volume of the music and determine exactly how loudly I would sing. I think that I sound much better solo than with a group.


My uncle's band wanted a vocalist to fill in for my aunt, who had been the lead singer of the band. She had decided that she no longer wanted to perform on stage because of health issues, so I stepped up to audition for her place.

They had told me that they wanted a vocalist who could sing everything from hard rock to country. I was a pretty good impersonator of voices, so I fit the bill perfectly.

I had never sung with a band before, so having to sing loud enough to be heard over the instruments was a challenge for me. The fact that they turned up my microphone helped, but I really did have to put forth extra air and force.


I think it is important for a vocalist not to fake emotion, because this can come across as silly and unauthentic. I can always tell if a vocalist is really feeling a song or if he is simply being overly dramatic.

Often, people who have studied theater tend to put too much drama behind their singing performances. This is fine if they are acting out a play, but if they are just singing somewhere without having to act out scenes between songs, this is uncalled for and a little distasteful.

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