Singers and their songs- Part 2

Posted on Jul 11, 2017

In part one of Singers and their Songs we looked at how songs come together- from a songs origin in a scale and then to the arrangement as a means to complete the song.

As singers assemble their songs (known as their “repertoire” of songs), whether it may be a writer creating the full arrangement of their song, or a vocalist doing a cover version, the first step for the singer is to choose “the Key” of the song.

We said earlier that a scale is chosen by the songwriter based in part, on the type of mood, or effect they want to achieve with the melody and accompaniment. The “key” of a song is known to be the first note through to the last note of the scale. If the song includes a melody with vocal, then the key of the song will be chosen with the singer’s vocal range in mind.

The notes of a scale can be structured within 26 keys, 12 are major scales, and 12 are minor scales and each has a letter designation that indicates the first and last note of the Key, such as C or E, or A Flat, or C Sharp.

Major and minor scales each create a different sound or mood; the singer then chooses a key, in part, so that the song melody can be sung unique to that singer’s vocal range (of low and high notes), and the key, sometimes on its own, then has a unique “feel” or sound; thus there are no “good or bad” keys (except maybe to musicians who can at times favor playing songs in certain keys).

Over time, singers become accustomed to singing songs in a variety of keys, and this is so because songs will vary greatly, especially in complexity, depending on the genre of music, e.g., pop, Jazz, country, and then by the tempo or speed, such as a ballad (slow song), mid tempo or up tempo (such as a dance song).

So these variables change the song dynamics, and if the writer has chosen a simple melody, or a complex melody, then these variables will impact the key that a singer ultimately chooses for the song.

If a song becomes a challenge due to melody leaps, high or low, the singer may first consider alterations to the melody to deal with those changes, rather than shift the key. When the melody has a lot of leaps high and low, it may make key choice a challenge at times, but a key choice must eventually be decided upon by the singer. Then the arrangement process continues and the unique version of the song gradually comes to life.

It’s important for all singers to be open to change the key of a song away from the original artist. This is done as a step toward creating the most “original” sound for the song. And the song can still greatly resemble the original. This is where a skilled arranger can come in with expertise to help. Beyond originality, this is also a step towards brand development and image for the singer as well.

If the singer works with a band, then the band must adapt the songs to the key dictated by the singer. Yes, the band should adapt to the singer (not the other way around- as some think).

In some isolated situations a bandleader may demand that a classic song stay in the original key, and then the singer needs to adapt to that key. Of course, this is often worked out ahead of time, and hopefully the musicians and singers rehearse so that there are no surprises.

But wherever possible, the singer should dictate the key of the song, and if the band cannot adapt to that key demand by the singer, then the singer needs to find a band with a level of musicianship and proper attitude that can accommodate the singer.

As the scale and key are established for the singer, arrangement touches are added and may include any special effects of the voice (which we will look at in depth in a future topic), as well as any other arrangement choices that are made in terms of instrumentation, intro’s and endings and other considerations.



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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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I was delighted to sit down some weeks back with siblings Alexus and Eugene Arthur, as well as their mom, Judy Wideman, to discuss the kids experience at “Rock to the Future, an after-school music program. The school provides both music training as well as academic tutoring for kids living in underserved neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

The resulting profile article that resulted was published last month by WHYY Newsworks.
These kids are another great example of dedication and hard work, as they take full advantage of their opportunity to learn and grow as people and as musicians.


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Legendary Jazz artists give back

Posted on Dec 15, 2016

In this season of giving- I thought this piece may be timely.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock recently found themselves involved in a different form of collaboration; a simple twist of fate you might say, if I may borrow from Bob Dylan with my analogy.

Here the jazz legends have “composed” an open letter to artists to press on and pursue their crafts despite turbulent times, and they speak specifically out of terrorism with examples of tragedies that occurred over the last year to 18 months. This piece is all about perseverance and a must read; an innovative and proactive approach from two standout representatives of the Jazz genre. Read on!

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There have been a number of articles and papers written over the years on the topic of how music involvement, and more so, music study, has positively affected humans; some of these I have posted here at the blog. This piece takes a more scientific view, which in and of itself is even more assuring to me.

Though this compelling piece puts the primary focus on children and youth, it makes the case later in the article that an active involvement with music benefits a person throughout life.

The title is: The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people.
The white paper was written by Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education, University of London. Enjoy!

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In past posts I had shared here some perspectives from professionals on what music study has meant to their lives as they look back- well on in the careers- having achieved great success in careers outside of music. Still. music was a key part of the learning process for them in their youth.

In this piece the focus is youth development and how music training can help positively effect social skills, IQ development, academic skills, spatial-temporal skills and making the brain work harder. Very fascinating study here.


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