Lee Sunhee’s Vocal Analysis

Vocal Range

D3 ~ A5 (2 Octaves, 3 notes and 1 semitone)

Supported Range

G#3/A3 ~ C5/C#5

G#3/A3 ~ F#5 (with head voice)

Voice Type

Light Lyric Soprano

Strengths/Achievements

  • Support is established in her singing
  • Rarely if ever has issues with nasality
  • Able to produce resonance as high as C#5
  • Able to control the balance of her mix within her supported range
  • When mixing with less chest voice has shown occasional support up to D5
  • Lower range is connected and supported down to A3/G#3
  • Able to transition into her head voice well
  • Able to produce a consistent head voice
  • Support in head voice is present up to F#5
  • Shown some improvement in vowel shapes/diction over the years
  • tone present in lower range despite lack of support
  • Generally sings within a narrow range where support is present, so strain isn’t obvious

Weaknesses

  • Pushes her voice a lot
  • Tends to use a very shouty chesty mixed voice
  • Often places her sound a bit too low for her voice type
  • Sings with a shrill and forced laryngeal vibrato
  • Lower range becomes muffled with a low larynx below G#3
  • Tends to only sing with a shrill and shouty approach above C#5
  • Has issues with pitch precision when pushing
  • At times may lose the placement of her voice when transitioning into head voice
  • Head voice can be thinner and shrill above F#5
  • Runs tend to be very sloppy when she attempts to make them more complex

Registers

  • Lower register: Generally more used than her head voice, but not necessarily better developed. Mostly sings in this register with breathiness for effect. Support is present down to G#3, but loses proper stretch of the vocal cords below that.
  • Mixed register: Able to maintain resonance and sing with a supported and well balanced mix up to C#5, occasionally D5. Tends to prefer a shoutier mix most of the time with more chestiness, which limits both her range and her support, stopping her at C5/C#5.
  • Upper register: Head voice is well connected. Rarely uses falsetto. At times loses the placement of her voice when transitioning into her head voice, but not her pitch. May become shrill when singing above F#5.

Agility

Lee Sunhee’s main musical influences are a lot more traditional than most current contemporary vocalists. Having debuted in the 80’s, she has very little western influence to her singing. As such, she does not often sing with vocal ornamentations. Due to not using vocal runs in her vocal performances often, it is possible to hear that her more complex runs are often pitchy, but when singing simpler trills, she is able to sing the notes relatively well, as heard in “그중에 그대를 만나” and “나 항상 그대를.” However whenever they become even slightly more complex, she starts to lose the control of pitch and start to slide through the notes without being able to direct her vocal cords through each individual pitch quickly enough. The result is usually sloppy and pitchy vocal runs without a clear sense of direction or aim pitch wise, as heard in “그중에 그대를 만나,” and “살아가다 보면.”

Overall analysis

Lee Sunhee debuted in 1984 and has remained one of the most successful and influential vocalists in the current Korean music industry. Her songs have been covered by a number of artists, ranging from idols such as Super Junior’s Kyuhyun and f(x)’s Luna, to soloists such as Ailee and Ben, to even veteran vocalists such as Sohyang. Her music has been transcendent and is still very popular nowadays. Her legacy has earned her the name of 국민디바 or “The Nation’s Diva.” Thus she is one of the most respected female artists in Korea.

Although a lot less widespread, there seems to be some sort of confusion when it comes to Lee Sunhee’s voice type, just like in Park Hyoshin‘s case where he is believed to have a lower voice type than his actual fach. The misconception seems to come from her singing approach. It is often believed that when a vocalist has a larger volume output within a relatively lower belting range that their voice is lower than it actually is. However since contemporary singing is not as precise as classical singing, vocalists often sing with different tone qualities. Different balances of mixed voices, breathiness, manipulation of placements and the larynx position can all affect the overall quality of someone’s voice.

In Lee Sunhee’s case, it seems that some people believe that she’s a mezzo-soprano instead of a soprano. Since her singing technique is quite chest-dominant most of the time, she sounds very full below C#5, which for sopranos is less common since their voices are supposed to be placed higher. However when looking at the bigger picture, a mezzo-soprano’s mixed voice starts lower than a soprano’s and so their belting range is placed slightly lower than a soprano’s. If she were to be a mezzo-soprano, the amount of chestiness she carries up in her mix would make it so that she wouldn’t even be able to mix up to F#5 as naturally as she does. She would sound much thicker and darker if she were a mezzo. Even comparing her to well trained mezzos such as veteran singer Ann, whose mixed voice is quite well balanced, her voice is fairly lighter and brighter. Not only that, but it sits in a naturally higher range than Ann’s would.

Even compared to less well trained mezzos who sing quite lightly in the fifth octave, their lower belting range around G4 is much thicker and a lot more belt-like than Lee Sunhee’s, such as Kim Boa. If Lee Sunhee were as chesty as she is but were a mezzo, she would sing songs in a lower placed range than she currently does. However because she sings below D5 a lot more than she does higher, while placing her sound lower in her chest, it can confuse people into thinking she has a lower voice type than she actually does. Even when listening to her lower range, her voice sounds quite uncomfortable and misplaced when singing below A3/Bb3, despite maintaining some tone. A mezzo would be much closer to their mid-low range around that range, instead of dropping to the bottom of their range with little to no volume output. Of course technique also plays in a part in her lack of lower range development, but even a less developed mezzos like EXID’s Hani or Girl’s Day’s Sojin seem to have more presence in the third octave than her. Her voice type is a lot more obvious when she sings softly without as much chestiness in her mix, as heard in “별 보며 달 보며” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

Her lower range is decently well developed considering her voice type. Despite possessing tone below G#3, her support generally drops around that range. When singing in her lower range, she often chooses to place her sound more in her mask and be slightly breathy to create a softer delivery. Due to stylistic choices, she doesn’t often try harder to project in her lower range. As such, as soon as she sings below G#3, she may keep tone quality but the support in her voice is generally lost. Her vocal cords become more loose in connection, without a tight enough stretch to balance out the air pressure from her diaphragm. The result is a sound that’s quiet, present but unsupported. There also instances in which she tries to project by lowering her larynx. This can be heard in multiple examples of the G#3’s in “Maria” and “섬집아기,” G3’s in “아! 옛날이여,” “당신만을 사랑해” and “오월의 햇살,” F#3’s in “인연,” F#3’s and F3’s in “이 노래를 빌려서,” as well as in “백우,” F#3’s and E3’s in “Dancing Queen,” E3’s in “광야에서,” and Eb3’s in “그중에 그대를 만나.” Above G#3 however she has shown many moments of a clean connection between her vocal cords where they seem to be well developed and support is present, as heard in “안녕,” “백우” and “알고 싶어요.”

Her mixed voice is the most peculiar aspect of her voice, to the point where it even causes confusion about her voice type. Although instances of her singing with a brighter mix are rarer than her singing with a chestier mix she has shown great control in her mixed voice up to D5 when she intentionally lightens up her mixed voice. This has allowed her to sing with great support and openness even as high as C5, as heard in “별 보며 달 보며” or occasionally D5, as heard in “소녀의 기도.” However most of the time her mixed voice is quite chest-dominant, which causes her to have a very large sound output in the fourth octave but quickly becomes shouty and thin as she sings in the fifth octave.

When singing around B4 and lower she is able to produce resonance with the most freedom when singing with a chestier mix because it’s a more natural range for her to be closer to her chest voice. Many examples of her producing a chest-resonant quality in her mixed voice include “아! 옛날이여!,” “J에게,” “추억의 책장을 넘기면” and “알고 싶어요.” However carrying too much chestiness in one’s mix is quite tricky because it requires a lot more control to stay relaxed when being heavy. Generally speaking it’s easier to sing higher when pushing more air into the vocal cords because then one does not need to worry about supporting, as overcompensating with pushed air pressure creates a shouty quality and shouting is an easy unhealthy alternative to supported singing, as it doesn’t require actual training. So instead a vocalist must first learn to mix lightly with proper support before attempting to mix with a chestier approach because being heavier will usually cause them to push and strain their vocal cords.

After learning to mix lightly with support, then a vocalist can start to add more chest up into their mix to balance it out and choose when to be headier, balanced or chestier at will in many parts of their range. However if a vocalist can only choose to be balanced within a relatively narrow range and resort to pushed chesty shouty singing above a certain note, it can cause them to strain their voices a lot. This is the case with Lee Sunhee, who has a strong established sense of support throughout the fourth octave but often carries too much weight up in her mix without enough support to balance it out. The result is a sound that’s resonant around C5 and C#5 but often quite pushed  to the point of almost straining, as heard in “인연,” “시간을 달려서,” “아름다운 강산,” “한송이 국화” and “What’s Up.” However as soon as the vocalist has to sing higher, they start to lose the support and let it be taken over by throat tension, causing them to sound shrill, tense and thin. This can be heard in many occasions, even at times around C5 where her voice lacks openness and freedom as heard in “그중에 그대를 만나,” as well as her C#5’s in “안녕” and “이별,” D5’s in “아침이슬,” “네 꿈을 펼쳐라” and “Unnamed Song,” Eb5’s in “나 항상 그대를,” “그중에 그대를 만나,” “웃음으로” and “이 노래를 빌려서,” E5’s in “해야” and “What’s Up,” F5’s in “그중에 그대를 만나” and “나 항상 그대를,” and F#5’s in “살아다가 보면.”

Her upper register is mostly made up of a well connected and often supported head voice. Stylistically she rarely chooses to sing in falsetto and seems to prefer using head voice. Oftentimes she seems to have issues with the placement of her head voice when transitioning into more opened vowels, where she lets the sound fall a bit into the back of her throat, not quite in the head nor quite in the mask, as heard in “나 항상 그대를.” However many times when singing with a more comfortable Ooh (우) vowel, she’s able to place her sound very well in her head and along with proper support carries her head voice well up to F#5, as heard in “아! 옛날이여,” “I Will Always Love You” and “나 항상 그대를.” At times she also plays with her placement and has shown instances of a more mask-placed head voice in her lower head range closer to C5, as heard in “백우” and “나 항상 그대를.” Her transitions are generally very clean, as heard in “추억의 책장을 넘기면” Above F#5, she may still choose between head and mask placement but seems to be unable to balance support thus becoming more shrill and shouty, as heard in “이 노래를 빌려서” as well as in Healing Camp. The full extent of her range is still unknown as she hasn’t gone above A5 throughout her career.

Intonation wise, no vocalist is ever going to be pitch perfect. However pitch issues to can be attributed to a number of reasons. At times a vocalist may have trained their vocal cords to slide more so than hitting a note at the center of pitch, so they find it hard to stay at the center of each note. At other times, it can come from lack of support or other technical issues. In Lee Sunhee’s case, her pitch issues aren’t too common but when they happen, it’s often either due to lack of vocal flexibility in her runs or due to poor vocal placement. Since she pushes with such a heavy approach in her mix, it can cause her pitch to fall flat and for her to sing off key. Examples can be heard in “Wizard of Oz,” or “나 항상 그대를” as well as “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “백우” and “아름다운 강산,” where she goes flat on certain notes either because of a slight drop of support, strain or pulling the sound from a resonator that’s too low, limiting the space in which her voice can move more freely.

Since she is more a traditional Korean vocalist, lower placement in the chest was fairly common back then. However that can be limiting to any vocalist, as it can bring issues with throat tension, strain and also limiting the development of one’s vocal range. Another aspect of her singing that seems to be influenced by more traditional folk singing is her vibrato, which often seems to be too fast and forced with a laryngeal movement. This causes her to sound very edgy and tends to cut off her resonance. Thankfully because of her more traditional roots, she often limits the range of songs she sings in and thus does not often sing in a range that is damaging to her vocal cords, even if little regression can be noticed on the freedom of her C5’s in more recent releases. Her sense of dynamics being so sensitive to the music when her support is clean allows her to really delivery the message of songs effectively when within her supported range.

As a vocalist, Lee Sunhee has a legendary reputation for her legacy, artistry and her singing technique that compared to many of her peers at the time of her debut was quite exceptional. However with the advancement of singing technique, many younger peers can be heard singing with technique that’s less damaging to the vocal cords. Nonetheless she has been able to take care of her voice in multiple ways and little regression seems to have happened to her throughout her career. If she were to ever learn to sing with a different approach, it could be tricky due to her having been used to these bad habits for so long. Her current singing technique is sufficient for her repertoire, but can at times be damaging when she sings songs that are higher and more challenging. Nonetheless she deserves respect and is also a very respectful artist who encourages and supports many younger vocalists who take inspiration from her.

Musicianship

Lee Sunhee’s musical abilities don’t often extend to musical changes to songs. She generally keeps her vocal performances of her classic songs the same, rhythmically and melodically. It is rare to hear a change in the melody of a song, which usually happens when she quickly adapts to singing with a duet partner. She is able to harmonize and blend her voice well with duet partners, but musically she focuses her efforts on dynamics a lot more than she would on altering her own vocal performances.

Rating

Above Average Vocalist

Best Vocal Performance(s)

Analyzed by Ahmin (Kitsunemale)

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About ahmin3

kitsunemale from YouTube, AhMin33 from Twitter and Ahmin from OneHallyu! https://www.youtube.com/user/KitsuneMale

23 thoughts on “Lee Sunhee’s Vocal Analysis

      1. Did someone summon me? LOL Some of this is pretty accurate, actually. Everybody thought I’d be comin’ here stirrin’ up trouble, but I ain’t. Of course, I don’t agree with all of it, but I’d rather discuss that in private. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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      2. LOL “summon” like you’re a demon lol Sorry I’ve been watching Charmed so this tickles the funny bone.

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  1. “Due to not using vocal runs in her vocal performances often, it is possible to hear when singing simpler trills, she is able to sing the notes relatively well” uhh… isn’t there a logical error here? Isn’t her singing runs not so often supposed to be followed with “hinders even her ability to sing simple trills” instead of “doing relatively well”?

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    1. I can see how I phrased it weirdly. I did mean simpler trills are sung well, but perhaps I should’ve done it in a different way. Let me fix that.

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  2. YES! I’ve been looking forward to this analysis! I really loved that you compared her to other mezzos to clarify her vocal fach – it helped a lot, at least for me. Keep up the good work (:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Omg!!! I thought Lee seun hee was a mezzo soprano all this time. I always wondered why she sounded so much lighter in her lower range compared to her mix range. I also for the longest time thought she was as good as Lena park or better, I guess I had mistaken loudness for resonance. Thanks Ahmin for this analysis.

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  4. omg first Baek Ji Young now Lee Seon Hee, you’re on a roll Ahmin! thanks for the hardwork as always 🙂 🙂 fighting ^__^

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  5. I’m glad to finally see this analysis, though I think it’s very limiting and doesn’t paint the full picture. I wrote a response to it and tried to send it over YouTube, but I guess you aren’t accepting messages there now? I don’t want to put it here because I don’t like public debacles. Is there a way I can send it to you through email or some other way?

    Thanks! 🙂 And I enjoyed seeing your perspective, though I wholeheartedly disagree, and I suspect other vocal students who aren’t so limited in their perspectives will feel the same.

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    1. You call it not limiting, I call it not being able to hear vocal strain but that’s fine. Actually funnily enough I don’t know how I could even turn off messages on Youtube so there should be no reason I couldn’t receive your message. I went to check and indeed I didn’t receive anything. I am surprised you think a 2.5k word essay/analysis is limiting and doesn’t paint the full picture but yknow I did ask for you to send me as many videos as you could and since you didn’t, I based it off of what I could find which was a lot from your channel. I don’t know if there’s anything you could show me that would be any different than what I already heard but like I always say, you’re welcome to write your own analysis if you’d like. But yeah my e-mail if you want is on my youtube channel under business inquiries. Although I am not sure I want to discuss anything because from what I’ve noticed from our discussions, we just don’t hear the same things so if that’s the case, it won’t lead anywhere.

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      1. No, no, don’t misunderstand. I hear what you mean about strain completely. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say limiting. You say we don’t hear the same things, but I don’t think that’s true, so just bear me out. lol Like I said, I agree with some of this. My response isn’t about Lee Sun Hee specifically. I don’t have a problem with your ranking of her because I understand how you got there, though I don’t agree with it.

        And I don’t mean the analysis is limiting because you didn’t take the time to flesh out your ideas. I meant that it’s limiting in the sense that it’s coming from one perspective on what proper vocals are considered to be. I really think you wrote a good analysis, so I wasn’t putting it down in any way! Thank you again, and I enjoyed reading it.

        And yeah, I noticed my videos were getting more views. lol I was confused at first, but then I saw this. lol I’m glad you linked to my videos, by the way. I gained some subscribers. And I will email it to you soon! I don’t know why YouTube won’t let me send it. Maybe it’s a problem with the site? Anyway, thanks for letting me know how to contact you. I’ll email you shortly.

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