What makes a great vocal? Well, it used to be two elements: Melody & Performance. However, as I’m sure you already know, nowadays most vocal recordings are edited using Auto-Tune or Melodyne, which corrects the pitch and rhythm of the performance. Pretty much every song you’ve heard in the last ten years (at least) contains tuned vocals. Even if it’s not noticeable, I can assure you the vocals have been tuned. And yes, occasionally you’ll find a rare singer who may not be tuned, but honestly, many singers don’t even know they’ve been tuned, as it happens after they’ve left the studio.
On top of all this, a lot of vocals in popular music have been so severely tuned that they sound like a robot voice. This can be an awesome effect if it’s used sparingly, but when the whole song appears to have been vocalised by a robot, it actually sounds rather silly and people tend to laugh because it’s so ridiculously unrealistic. Kate and myself used some robot-voice tuning recently on an incredible young singer we were producing called Sarah Serene. The intro of her song Choose Between Your I’s was begging for some artificial sounding vocals, as it was perfectly aligned with the lyrics’ message in that section. But that’s it, about 20 seconds of robot voice, then the rest of the song is her real natural voice, with almost no tuning.
Technology is allowing us to create sounds we could never create before, which is great, but the problem is that tuning is being abused. The result of this abuse is that all the unique characteristics of every singer’s voice (i.e. timbre) are being lost, so all singers are now sounding the same on record. For example, you know when your friend calls you up and says “Hey!”, and just from that one word you know who it is. That’s because of their voice’s timbre, which you instantly recognise. Everyone is born with a unique sounding voice, it’s sad that popular music (and popular culture) is so uncompromising on its relentless removal of all individual uniqueness. This all hints to a future where everyone sounds the same, dresses the same, and has all the same ambitions, namely fame and fortune. Will you join me in running the opposite direction? Fast!
So, in this new Auto-Tuned world we’re living in, a great vocal is almost exclusively down to the melody now, as most of the performance nuances and timbre will be ironed out. Before we move on to melody, just a quick comment on vocal tuning. I am absolutely not dissing it, because it has empowered amateur singers who write their own vocal melodies and lyrics, to also sing them. This is amazing! For example, before vocal tuning was possible, songwriters and producers who didn’t sing would have to hire a sessions vocalist to sing their melodies and lyrics. The problem with this is that the vocalist didn’t write what they’re singing, so they can’t really sing it from the heart. Only you can sing your melodies and lyrics from the heart, as you wrote them. It’s awesome how vocal tuning has opened up this opportunity for non-singing musicians.
Now, if you thought the performance side of vocals had problems, I’m afraid it’s even worse on the melody side. Here’s the problem. Most vocal melodies are being made by ear, whether it’s by a singer, songwriter or top-liner, almost everyone is simply singing what comes to them. Why’s that a problem? Well, contrary to what most musicians think, our ears are our worst enemies when it comes to making melodies. This is because our ear will always guide us to using harmonic notes, notes that are in the chord (i.e. 1 3 5), as they sound stronger and are much easier to sing. This is why most vocal melodies sound so predictable. Our ear will do everything it can do steer us away from singing non-harmonic notes, notes that are not in the chord, (i.e. 2 4 6 7) as they create tension and are difficult to sing. But, a story with no tension also has no captivation, and results in a predictable and disposable melody; the same predictable and disposable melody that most other musicians would have come up with, too.
Here’s something I call the great vocal experiment. If you take 1,000 singers and play one chord for them, then ask them to sing a note over that chord, 999 of them will sing a harmonic note, and one will sing a non-harmonic note. This is the person we want to be! As this is the person who’s truly expressing what they want, and not just being forced into the safe choice by the ear.
And that sums up popular music; everyone is making vocal melodies by ear, which means they all sound the same. Every Friday when I flick through the new releases on Spotify, it’s shocking how few (if any) songs I hear that are balancing harmonic and non-harmonic notes.
To write a great vocal melody, it’s vital that you rebel against your ear and use music theory to create a balance of harmonic and non-harmonic notes, and that’s exactly what I’m going to teach you next. Until then, start listening to the music around you and try find a singer who’s actually singing something unpredictable, then please email me and give me their name, cos I wanna listen too! Okay I’ll start our trade by giving you a name, go listen to the brand new album Regina (out today) from the inspirational Becca Stevens.
Also, if you want to go deeper into writing great vocal melodies right now, please check out my Hack Music Theory for Songwriting & Producing PDF. Until next time, happy songwriting!
Victoria BC, Canada
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