In an earlier post, we briefly examined some of the challenges singers face in building a song catalogue for performance, or album or demo recording.

Here we’ll take a more in depth look at how singers might approach the structure of their songs from the outset. In examining this structure, it’s best to start with some basics.

Whether you’re a singer, musician, music aficionado or all the above, you may have wondered as you listened to a song, what was the process in which it comes together and becomes a completed song with a unique sound ?

A singer sings a melody and lyrics- and then that melody and lyrics are supported by the accompaniment music around it. A demo version of song, or the initial music of a song  is typically played on guitar or keyboard while the writer or singer sings the melody- and that’s it- in its raw form.

Demos always sound basic and thin, because they are typically one voice and one instrument. But then the completed song seems to take on a life of its own. All of the individual and collective song elements are created by an arranger.

The arranger could be the composer of the song, or someone else (it’s usually a music producer or a musician with some, or a lot, of music theory background.) Looking back in music history, two famous arrangers are George Martin (The Beatles) and Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra). The Beatles, for example, brought their demo versions of songs to George and then he would finish them, along with input from the Beatles.

A song’s arrangement is everything that goes into the final sound that you hear in the recording or performance; the elements include the instrumentation, to the speed or tempo of the music, to the way in which the singer(s) sings, to the intro and ending of the song.

At the most basic level- the melodies of songs, as well as their accompaniment music , or background music, are derived from a scale. A scale is a series of notes with a unique sound or effect, and writers choose these scales based on the mood that they want for their song.

The scale is to a songwriter is what brushes and oils are to a painter. Many contemporary songs across a multitude of music genres will stay in one scale, but it is possible to have multiple scales in one song.

The Major scale is the original scale in music- dating back to Greek times with classical music- and is still the predominant scale used today in contemporary music- though its certainly not the only one.

So a crucial element in beginning a song arrangement is to look at matching the songs melody with the singer and their vocal range.

In part two, we’ll look at how songs come together with vocal and the rest of the arrangement.

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Often I am asked for clarification on vocal ranges: The classifications that identify the male and female ranges of singers. The chart below outlines the high and low pitches in each vocal range- male and then female.

There exists three “academic” range identifications for males- and three for females.  In ascending order, the Bass is the lowest male voice followed by Baritone and then Tenor.  Alto then begins the lowest female voice followed by Mezzo (middle) Soprano and then Soprano.

You will see from the chart below the deepest bass, Basso Profundo, is included as a category;  it is known historically as the “deep” Bass. Today, Profundo is rolled into Bass as one distinctive category. In similar fashion, Contralto is combined now within Alto  as one category.  These categorical terms below are used most often within a choral setting, but are still very useful overall as vocal terms to help identify ranges.
An important item to remember is that there is crossover from one range to another. For instance, in some singers a male Baritone may cross into the tenor range. This occurs because the overall width of a singers vocal range will vary from one person to the next.

Would love any comments or observations.

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A question often asked by students is: should vocalists write their own songs? In order to cover this great topic in detail, let’s begin with some history.  Looking back we see an interesting chronology of events over the last 80 to 100 years in the evolution of music as it relates to singers and songs.

In the “Golden Era” of music, considered to be the 1930s and 1940s,”Standards” were the rule of the day. Most singers at this point in music history did not write songs. Some of the vocal stars of this era included Helen O’Connell,Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan,  Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Of course, Frank became a legendary performer over five-plus decades, and was an incredible interpreter of song while he surrounded himself with great arrangers and producers. But Frank did not write songs.

The song writing process during this era was so individualized, typically one person wrote music and the other the lyrics and then the singer performed the songs with a band.  Some legendary songwriting teams include Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (Blue Moon, My Romance), Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (All the way, Love and Marriage) and perhaps the most famous songwriting duo of this era: George and Ira Gershwin (Someone to watch over me, I got rhythm).

But by the latter 1950s and early 60’s, the phenomenon known as the singer-songwriter bloomed out of the folk and rock genres by artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Carol King. These artists now wrote music and lyrics and performed their songs as well.

In the case of King, she produced songs for publishing companies which were then performed by other artists. By the late 60s/early 70’s King was performing her songs and in 1971 she created the legendary Tapestry album, a multi-million seller. The country music industry is today perhaps the music genre with largest cadre of songwriters who write songs for other singers.

And so today we now have scores of singer-songwriters. Additionally,  there are many singers performing tunes from a variety of writers.  As a singer you must decide the best direction for you. If a singer has the desire and can write good songs then they should do so. But some singers may choose to leave the writing to songwriting professionals. The goal with your songs should be to assemble the best possible songs to propel your career.

Any music artist wants to be associated with the best possible material. From a commercial view, as music artists we want to be paid for performances and if we are fortunate enough to produce songs that sell then we have the opportunity to receive royalties on those songs that we write. To take things one step further, there is the option to pursue your own publishing company for even greater control of your material and for higher economic gain.

So in the end, it all comes down to the songs, the quality of our songs- regardless of the source.



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