Master Class: Singability

“Your songs are just too difficult. No one would be able to sing them.”

It was a critique that the two songwriters heard time and again in the early 1960s. The ambitious composer and lyricist had already spent several years trying to make the big time. They had done a campy horror movie theme and sold a few good songs to bigger stars of the day: Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers, Marty Robbins, Patti Page, Perry Como. Still, bigger market success was elusive for the two writers. Every time they had a critique session with a record label or publisher, one consistent complaint kept popping up: their songs were simply too hard to sing. The lyrics were fresh, sophisticated and expressive, but the composer liked to use uncommon chords, gigantic leaps between notes, unusual phrasing, and other flourishes. This gave their music real distinctiveness but made it difficult for anyone to actually sing their songs.

Finally, the two men happened across a bright young woman who was just beginning her singing career with the Gospelaires. While her voice was a little husky and plain, not a classically beautiful sound, she was seriously interested in what they had to offer. More importantly, the young artist was able to sing their songs very well, despite all the big intervals, strange progressions and other quirks that had led the industry to blow them off. The combination of her unique voice and their unique material proved to be a winning one, and they went on to attain a large number of major hits.

The singer was none other than Dionne Warwick, who became one of the biggest stars of the era. And the songwriters? Burt Bacharach and Hal David, now ranked among the most groundbreaking and influential writers of all time. Bacharach, in particular, helped to shift the whole paradigm of songwriting so that composers no longer felt confined to an octave or so of musical range. Likewise, Warwick inspired countless singers to reach beyond their comfort zones, expand their ranges, and pursue more difficult material.

Bacharach and David were extremely fortunate to have found, in Warwick, a person who could successfully interpret the music that they heard in their heads. To this day, there are any number of singers who avoid songs like “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Walk On By” because of all the leaps, turns and unusual note choices in their melodies.

The above scenario is a case study in singability, one of the primary considerations of the songwriter who wants to have other artists perform his/her work. Since most of us will never find a Dionne Warwick to be the prime interpreter of our songs, it’s essential that they be functional enough to appeal to many people.

Singability means that a vocalist should be able to clearly, comfortably sing the words at a suitable tempo and in line with the melody. Even in a novelty song that might rely on different textures and stylistic elements for effect, the end product must be understood by the audience and deliverable by the singer. This master class will address some of the most common singability issues.

1) Hard Sounds

One frequent singability error is the misplacement of hard sounds: “ch”, “k”, “g”, “th”. A hard sound at the end of a line doesn’t give the singer anything to hold onto; the line just drops until the next word comes up. You might be able to extend the vowel sound that comes before the hard sound – “You are my kiiiiiiiing” (“Amazing Love” by Billy James Foote) – but the cutoff will still be a rough one.

It is also essential that the sound immediately following a hard sound not be hard itself, unless there is sufficient space between the two sounds. The pairing “King Jesus” has been used in several songs, but it is difficult to articulate properly because of the sonic clash between “-ng” and “J-“. Most singers soften it to something like “Keen Jesus” to avoid singing “Keen-guh Jesus”.

The phrase” chasing me away” has a nice flow, and good assonance in those long “a” sounds. But if you’re writing about an “ache that’s chasing me away,” the singer is likely to stumble over some of that quick series of hard sounds. A better choice might be “This pain is chasing me away”, which adds another long “a” to the chain of assonance while dumping the rapid succession of “ch”, “th” and “t’s”. Recently I encouraged a songwriter to consider changing the phrase “could have just sent” in a tune. It presented a series of hard stumbling blocks for the singer unless it was mushed up into “coulda jus’ sent”, which could work in some styles but wasn’t the best choice for that particular song.

2) Breathing Room

Another key consideration is to give the singers plenty of spaces to breathe. If your tune will have harmonies or even a choir, allow room for staggered breathing so that the entire mass of singers don’t all have to suck in their breath at the same spot. Nothing sounds worse than a huge collective gasp for air. And don’t string your phrases so close together that a singer can’t breathe without dropping a syllable.

We can take a lesson from Jules Shear, the writer of Alison Moyet’s “Whispering Your Name”, The Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants”, ‘Til Tuesday’s “(Believed You Were) Lucky”, and Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night”. Back in the 1970s Jules wrote a song called “Got No Breeding” for his band, the Polar Bears. The phrases were so close together that when it was recorded, he couldn’t take his first breath until twelve measures into the song. Chances are that “Got No Breeding” hasn’t seen very many performances since then. It’s better to allow some space between words than risk dropping a word or syllable in order to survive.

3) Note Intervals and Range

Next to consider are the intervals, or distances between notes. Make sure that both the lowest and highest notes in your melody can be comfortably sung by the vocalist, because it sounds terrible when a singer strains to hit a note. This is the one notorious flaw with “The Star-Spangled Banner”, our national anthem. Plenty of singers can do very well until they arrive at “the land of the freeeeeeee”, which separates the hacks from the pros. Never mind that the same note was already sung at “the rockets’ red glare”; at least that one wasn’t held for more than a passing second. One can think of many other songs that have big leaps. The chorus of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” another career-killer, jumps a full octave between its first and second syllables. Everyone knows that song, but how many different people have you actually heard sing it well?

Keep in mind that, especially with a volunteer worship team at church, you probably won’t be working with singers who are trained enough to handle these major jumps on a regular basis. This is one reason that most pop songs have a fairly narrow range: the folks who write them don’t expect themselves or other singers to be able to make such leaps. This runs an opposite risk: making the melody too boring and predictable in order to make it more singable. It takes some additional writing skills to keep a tight-ranged song from sounding monotonous. Do you remember “Only Wanna Be With You”, the 1994 hit from Hootie and the Blowfish? If you listen to the song structure, it barely has a full octave between its highest and lowest notes. That’s because singer/songwriter Darius Rucker knew his limitations as a vocalist, but also knew how to compensate for those deficiences with a very catchy song. A more glaring example is a current radio staple, “Sequestered in Memphis” by The Hold Steady. With probably a single exception, the entire melody – verses, chorus and bridge – is built entirely upon four notes. Again, the song is redeemed by a unique, compelling story in the lyric and an absolute killer arrangement.

4) Pacing

I recently sat through a Christmas choir performance where one of the leaders apparently wasn’t too familiar with “The First Noel”. He did fine on the first verse, but on the second he raced through the line “They looked up and saw a star” so quickly that it threw him off for several more lines. Again, everyone should probably know that song, but it is full of strange syllable stretches that spread words out over two, three or four notes. How many other times in your life would you put two syllables in “looked”, anyway? Then, of course, there are the eighteen notes crammed into the “Gloria” of “Angels We Have Heard On High”. That kind of florid writing, along with the Yoda-speak lyric structure of traditional hymns, has become more scarce but still rears its head in some contemporary music. The name of Jesus gets stretched across many measures in newer and older songs, and not always comfortably.

You never want to give the impression that the singer is close to yodeling in order to cram in every note of the song, and you must make sure the words are still discernible to the listener. The more vocal acrobatics the singer has to perform, the less likely he or she will be to deliver the song successfully. And, by extension, the less likely the listener will be to process and appreciate the message you are sending.

Following these few principles will help ensure that your songs will be singable by most people who might want to tackle them. You don’t have to dumb something down to three chords and quarter notes in order to hook people on your music; just use a little judgment and analyze your songs before you consider them finished products. It also helps to have other singers try the songs out before you commit to using them in a performance. It’s always wise to seek the input of other experienced people to help polish your works to their best luster. Especially in the Christian music genre, where the lyrics should be more important than the music itself, particular care should be taken to ensure that the lyrics are singable and clear. In other words, don’t muddle your message with messy music!

For December's Master Class about getting beyond cliched art, click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These are some great ides for making better songs that people can really sing.You must have put a lot ot time and thought into this list!!