What is belting, exactly? Why is it misunderstood?
Belting is loud, dramatic, emotional, powerful singing, which tends to be placed higher in your range. That's it. So why all the confusion?
One false belief about belting is that it always means pushing up your chest voice to get that loud, powerful sound. Singing in this way usually leads to straining, and makes it much harder to sing. Yes, singing in chest voice is a frequent way that people belt. Pushing up a chest voice and straining is also a frequent way that people harm their voices, because regular belting in this way amounts to yelling on pitch. As you can imagine, your voice can't sustain that kind of assault repeatedly without showing some kind of wear and tear. So, no, belting does not mean you're always pushing up your chest voice. There are ways to get a loud, emotional, powerful sound that's higher in your range without doing that.
Another misconception is that belting is bad for your voice. Wait, isn't that what I just said? Yes, and no. Whenever you strain you are risking harm to your voice. When you push your voice, there's a lot more impact on your vocal folds as they come together in vibration. When you push, your neck muscles also will tend to tighten, adding further strain to your larynx where your vocal folds are. Your breaths will tend to come out explosively, too, which adds further abuse to your voice. Yes—this all sounds bad for your voice, and it is! So, don't sing this way. It's about learning different techniques to belt in a way that's sustainable, dramatic, effective—and not harmful.
One important solution is using mix voice for the notes that are higher than the top of your comfortable chest range. When done well, belting will blend chest voice and mix, and even flip up into your head tones or falsetto. Mix voice is a topic for another blog, and there are many exercises here where you can work on that. One that works well is the octave siren.
A third misconception is that belting is ugly singing. Whether something is ugly, beautiful, interesting, or moving is all in the eye of the beholder. Traditional formal voice instruction comes from Western European traditions that disapprove of a belted sound, favoring bel canto (beautiful singing) tones instead. However, using the chest voice abounds around the world in many other traditions. American contemporary styles are built upon non-European singing traditions, which is one reason why belting is so part-in-parcel with contemporary singing.
A fourth misconception is that you have to belt to be a good singer. Nope! There's tons of music that isn't loud, dramatic, and emotional. There's such a variety of music, and belting is just one way of singing. I also stress with my students that even the best belters you can think of—from Judy Garland to Pink to Freddy Mercury to Bruno Mars (the list is extremely long)—blend soft singing with the dramatic belt phrases within a song, sometimes even within a single phrase.
Finally, remember it is not necessary to sing a song in the original key as the artist who recorded it. That key works for their voice, and your voice is unique to you. (Furthermore, even the original artist may change the key in performance, and only used that more challenging key to record the song.) The only exception would be when you're in a musical and you can't change the key, or if you're sitting in with a band on a gig and they won't change the key. But whenever you're working on your own stuff, make the key work for you. More on this in another blog.
My final tip: Think of your vocal folds as passive. Your air support is doing the work, and your mouth, lips and sinuses are shaping the tone. The more you can let go of your neck muscles, the less likely you are to strain.
So, if you're inspired to belt by singing in a loud, dramatic way—such as for a contemporary musical theater song, for rock, blues, a power ballad e.g.—work on belting mindfully. Warm up very well first, before you start to belt. Be sure you're grounded, in your legs and with low, calm breaths. Be well hydrated before you begin singing. If you find you are straining, stop. Rest. Sing gentle, clean tones such as singing the 1-3-1 exercise. Be patient, and never, ever force your voice. Also cool down when you're done by singing 5-4-3-2-1 scales working down toward your speaking voice.