The Best Instrument (Part Two)

The World of Singing Traditions

The fire that spurs us on past our fears and limitations is desire fueled by love.  If you can find a kind of singing you fall in love with, you’ll do whatever you can to be able to imitate it.  You’ll do the impossible. Therefore, in order to give yourself the best chance of success in becoming a good (or at least better) singer, first find the kind of music you can’t live without.  Most people only know what’s played on the radio or on TV.  Some get music from YouTube or satellite radio.  Very few explore music history and anthropology to learn about some of the fascinating singing styles that come from times before we lived, and places few of us know.  This post is about some of those traditions, but also about the people who preserved them and those who cross tribal boundaries and expectations.

You’ve probably heard the term a cappella. It just means singing using only the instrument of voices.  Tribal cultures have done it for far longer than recorded history, and they have developed unique ways to exploit the relationship between the structure of the body and harmonics.  Scientifically speaking, musical pitches have a fundamental frequency.  The frequency of the note that is the baseline for Western music is A at 440Hz.  That frequency is also the first harmonic.  However, voices and all other instruments are also producing OVERTONES at different mathematic partial and whole multiples of the frequency.  You hear them all at the same time, and their combination is what gives voices and instruments their individual tone, also called timbre.  You can alter vocal technique to JUST hear the overtones.  This method has been used in Siberia, Tibet and Mongolia for millennia.  Here’s an example:

The Inuit (Eskimo) people perform a version of this which traditionally involves duets between two women in close contact who are engaged in a stamina contest.  Unlike the Siberian throat singing in which songs are performed, the Inuit version uses nonsense syllables and employs the voice as percussion:

Western music is based upon the Greek modes (scales) adapted for use by the Roman Catholic church in the 9th Century.  Here’s a picture of the scales for the half-dozen of you that do read music.

Everyone else RELAX.  You do NOT have to be able to read music to sing.  Pavarotti read poorly, if at all.  He sang well, I’m told.  Three of four Beatles didn’t read music.  They were notable composers.  The majority of rock and pop artists don’t read.  It does help in certain kinds of singing though, like in church, so somewhere around the 13th Century they began putting little square boxes on different spots of a lined chart.  That’s what evolved into our modern system of notation.  Here’s a Gregorian chant.  You can follow along on the little squares.

Then, as the Renaissance continued, some composers decided to try repeating the melody line in different ranges.  This is called polyphony.  You can follow along as the melody repeats in this version of Sicut Cervus by Palestrina.

But outside of churches, ordinary people sang everywhere.  Rural people have a rich tradition.  Ballads sung by country folk throughout the small towns of the UK crossed the ocean and were preserved in the oral tradition of Appalachian people.  These songs were collected by a musicologist named Francis James Child in 10 volumes between 1882 and 1898.  Modern singers still study these collections, now called the Child Ballads.  Notice how this fine singer, Iris DeMent, projects the mood with only minimal movement.  This illustrates the performance principle of “LESS is MORE”:

Authenticity is essential to good singing.  You need to project commitment in what you sing.  A singer who can project authenticity can get by with less range and a limited vocal tone.  Bob Dylan is one example, but to me the greatest singer with a limited natural instrument was Billie Holiday.  Besides authenticity, Billie also phrased her vocal performances in the style of a cornet instead of a voice.  She had barely an octave of range, but her work is unforgettable.  Notice how few notes she’s actually hitting:

Now let’s return to church styles in America in the Civil War period and after.  The slaves brought a style of vocal performance from Africa termed Call & Response. This style is prevalent in Spirituals, and it’s illustrated by having a soloist propose an idea to which the entire group responds.  It’s an exciting style of singing.  This arrangement was by Jester Hairston, one of the first composers to write down this style:

Call & Response is very visceral and can also be improvised.  It is a key part of relating to audiences for rock musicians.  Freddie Mercury of Queen used it in many concerts:

My point in writing this chapter was just to show that there are more kinds of good singers than you know about.  I want you to consider the possibility that you have something unique to offer as well.  In conclusion I’ll include a clip from a couple of fellows who have spent most of their careers blurring the artificial boundaries that separate us; Johnny Clegg and Peter Gabriel.  They are singing Clegg’s song Asimbonanga, about the great heroes of South Africa, written in English and Zulu language and performed by members of many tribes:


Next Up — The Physiology of Singing


Filed under Communications, Emotions, Music, Travel

5 responses to “The Best Instrument (Part Two)

  1. Pie

    Mikey, this is fantastic!

    I’ve heard of almost all of these singing traditions. It was nice to hear some for the first time and to be reminded of the rest. My favourites were the Inuit throat singers, Iris DeMent, the gospel call and response and of course Billie Holiday. That’s a lot of work you put into this post and I really appreciate it. I now wait for the next part in this singing masterclass.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Pie! The next one’s a real challenge, not because I don’t know about it but because it’s hard to make anatomy-physiology amusing for a general reader. This is just the boost I needed to keep at it.

  3. lifewith4cats

    There is so much here. I liked that polyphony.

    Mind if I tap your brain just a bit? There is a certain kind of song in opera and often in musicals: Its when two or three people sing completely different songs with different melodies at the same time, and it meshes perfectly togther.
    Does that type of song structure have an actual name? (like aria or duet is a name) an example of it would be Man of La Mancha – at the end of the song Im only thinking of him. I would love to find an album dedicated just to that. Does one exist do you think?

    • The general term you are looking for is counterpoint. Polyphony, canons, fugues and descants have simultaneously and/or alternating sung melodies that may differ in range, but are still closely related in rhythm. Counterpoint is when they are quite different melodies, and different rhythmically, but that fit when put together.

      Most albums of duets feature contrapuntal singing.

  4. Thanks I will remember the term. Although the past tense of this word is a doozy. 🙂 hmmm ‘contrapuntal’ would make an excellent scrabble word.

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