Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tempo, Key, Articulation & Why They Matter For Singing a Gazillion Lyrics

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These days the song lyric count per bar norm is - more often than not - as many as one can possibly fit in. You'd think songwriters were being paid by the word! (not.) And that's cool; some of these lyrical tomes are skillfully crafted and are great fun. However, ALL lyrics need to be singable and understandable to grab the heart's attention. Three cornerstone factors that matter to singing word-count-intensive songs are:
  • tempo 
  • key
  • and articulation 


For this cornerstone, here's a refrigerator magnet I'd like to give out:
Never sing faster than your words can fly - or slower than your breath can control!
When you sing too fast, you sabotage...
  • your breath (you don't have time to take one and your ribs don't expand enough to control one),
  • your throat (your jaw and tongue will tighten, your eye language will freeze, your neck will stiffen and head probably will drift forward) 
  • your performance (the lines will form run-on sentences with few dynamic and communicative nuances)
When you sing too slow, you sabotage...
  • your breath (you run out of it, your ribs can't maintain width enough to control it),
  • your throat (you can open it but then find it hard to keep it from collapsing), 
  • your performance (you are too concerned with your uncontrolled voice to be present with the message, and can't pump up enough energy to create magic).
Recognize our three stranded cord of Power, Path and Performance? Sing too fast or too slow and it will be difficult to do vocal licks, high and low notes, not to mention actually articulate the lyrics!


The key you choose for any song will determine your ability to sing it richly without your throat strain or their ear strain. For rapid-fire lyric songs, the sweet spot of best key simply must be found. More on finding your keys at this blogpost


This cornerstone should really be considered at the songwriting session. One great reason songwriters need to know how to sing is to test-drive lyrics! There are certain vowel sounds that are harder than others to form and hold out. Ee's & oo's can be especially pesky: If a word such as 'Weeeeeeeee...' or 'Youuuuuuu....' are formed with tight jaw and lips, tension will set in that feels and sounds terrible.

Voiced consonants, especially 'n', ng', 'r' tend to tighten the base of the tongue, resulting in the strangled feeling/sound. If a singer knows how, they can use a slight chewing circle to keep these vowels open in the back and consonants formed more forward in the mouth.

Also, some words don't butt up against other words well. Save the 'tongue tanglers' for vocal exercises! Dear songwriters: If the words don't feel good coming out of your (or your singer's) mouth on the melody, there's almost always singable ones you can substitute that are just as strong!


Sometimes, especially if the singer is the songwriter, during the creation of melody and lyric you write the song slower than you eventually need to sing it. And sometimes you are accommodating a musician or track, which is not necessarily moving at the speed your voice works best for that song.


To keep up with the track/guitar/piano player - or the click track someone else set! OK so anyone see the ridiculousness of this? YES you want energy in this uptempo word art. BUT two clicks of difference in beats-per-minute (bpm) can spell the difference between 'wow' and 'ouch' !  And... different people have different inner tempo comfort levels. Just because one person sings a song at a particular tempo doesn't mean it's the best tempo for YOUR voice. 


Experiment! Try singing a song at one tempo. Then change it... try it slowed down, then speeded up. Ask yourself: what tempo does it feel the easiest to articulate with energy? After you learn it well, try changing the tempo again. Get a qualified outside ear to give you a second opinion. 

If you record new tracks to this song, figure out a best guess at tempo in pre-production before the session. Then be prepared to change the tempo according to how the new track makes you want to sing. Sometimes the sheer energy of different instrumentation will create an energy in you that makes you want to sing faster. OR NOT: don't hesitate to ask that it be slowed down if you're having trouble with articulation, vocal licks or high notes.


And one last VERY important tip: If you play guitar or piano and sing acoustically, PRACTICE WITH A STEADY BEAT via metronome, click track or instrumental track with drums! Far too often, I hear people playing at the tempo their fingers want to, speeding up through choruses and making it just about impossible to sing the lyrics clearly and passionately. And playing with a drummer? Forget about it. Take my advice: Choose the right tempo, and practice to a steady beat at that tempo.


... at singing a lot of lyrics, you might use the irony of the difficulty to create an awesome live-show stunner such as this gem from Liz Callaway :

Your thoughts are most welcome!

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