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A Technical approach into Musical Language and Interpretation

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Felipe Carvalho

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Well lets begin talking about what are these ideas and how they differ from the work to control and improve efficiency when singing.

Take for example, Classical Technique and Classical Singing, which is the applied concept.

Besides the full application of the ideas when singing arias, there is a requirement of musical language, an expectation regarding the “style” so to say, that will vary depending on the kind of piece that is being played.

The term “Belcanto” that often comes by around here, refers exactly to this, the resources of interpretation and the language used by these singers when performing arias.

Although most here, including myself, are not classical singers. We must keep in mind that the language that we are going to use exists. Thats why I said a few times around, listen to music, listen to a lot of music. What kind of music? Everything.

Everytime you listen something new, you learn. And if you dare to sing something different, you learn ten times more, even developing technique because it surely will hit your weak spots.

Of course, you should focus on what you want to do, but dont close your mind. Study the music without prejudice.

So what the hell is a “language”?

Its a kind of phrasing, of punctuation. How to attack notes, the overall dynamic level used to sing, use of legatto, use of rhythimc markings. Going off center to achieve a certain detail that may be needed. The dynamic planning used. How vowels are used. The intervals where the melody lives (this requires a special attention, its perfectly possible to sing in tune and change the melody without intending to do so because you are not used to a certain interval).

All that regarding a particular style. THATs what defines a style of music by the way, things in that realm that are shared by songs.

And interpretation?

Its a planned or not use of resources on a song to better convey the meanning.

I know that a lot of people when think of interpretation will think about fancy runs and speed, or just closing your eyes and “feeling” it. I believe in simplicity and planning. The more subtle your approach, the stronger and more “true” it will sound. Less is more.

Also understanding that colors, power and softness come from contrasts and variations, not brute force. To have power, you must deliver something soft too. To have softness, you must deliver something stronger first. Of course the overall way you use your voice matters, but it gets subjective very quickly.

The use of vowels to sing, instead of reproducing pitchs, is so important that some styles break if you dont pay attention to it, no matter how you think your technique is suited to it, no matter how strong your support is.

A simple example. On the same dynamic level, and same note, the word “like”. First sylabe is li, sang as “LAH EE”. First comes the consonant, good practice is to go through it and just make sure its clear, but not highlight it. Now, you have two vowels to choose. Either you will sustain AH, or you will sustain EE, and the vowel that is not sustainned must be diminished but not removed.

If you sustain the AH, you create a dynamic peak. Even if you dont go stronger, an open vowel, AH in particular, is stronger.

If you sustain EE, the perceived dynamics will fall. Even if you dont go softer. Closed vowels make the perceived impact smaller, softer. The EE has a way to be used to do the opposite, but thats not important.

The important thing is that what vowels you choose and when is responsible for a great part of your interpretation.

Timming is another important factor. You can choose what you will do on different phrases, more legatto and a softer attack, or a more rhythmic phrasing with a marked attack on some spots. I am not talking about keeping to the beat, but choosing the way you are going to phrase and using it cleverly.

A pause address all these ideas of vowels, timming and dynamics. And also lets the song (and yourself) breath. A sudden pause after a sustained note can create a tension that you release/resolve with a soft passage afterwards.

I advice the study of the musical concepts of tension and release.

All wonderfull, but this, as with any other part of music, requires study and attention to be used. If you just lay stuff randomly, you will write and sing in your own kind of "esperanto" that nobody will unterstand. A musical language is called language because others can relate to it.

Singing is communication, the interaction between singer and listenner must happen. I am not saying to not be creative and to not do different things. I am simply saying: learn and understand what is around you first. Open up.

More to follow.

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Perhaps we have read different histories but I had just one thing that I wanted clarification on and that is the use of the term "bel canto." From the italian, it means "beautiful singing." So, by the definition, any singing you like is "bel canto." But it is most often assocatiated with opera. And according to some histories I have read, most commonly associated with the lower volume florid singing pre-Wagner. Back then, singing and performance was in smaller halls with smaller orchestras and sometimes, chamber groups (4 - 6 musicians) usually playing string instruments. As opposed to Wagner. Gigantor, loud orchestras in bigger halls with more attention to dialog in lyrics. That is, even with Wagner-like pieces, there might still be some florid trills for a coloratura, but not as much or for as long in the singing of old. And, to boot, It is primarily within the last hundred years that the standard tones were tuned up. A4, which is A 440 as in 440 Hz was not always so. So the singing of old was more florid, heavy emphasis on legato, more important than precise words and diction as might be required in german, later, and about a step down.

So, I guess I am asking which era of "bel canto" we are talking about.

Just a redneck with questions ....

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  • 4 weeks later...

ronws, its specifically the practices of the Italian school regarding reading of pieces and the singer interpretation, taking of course advantage of the technique they had. Legatto was and still is one of the points of emphasis. How and when was developed, I dont know.

Still belcanto is not really the focus, just an example.

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One thing that I find of huge importance is the stance in which you plan and sing.

I have learned right away on the first lesson that, a singer voice, once leaves his/her mouth, does not bellong to the person anymore, but to the audience.

What this mean is that its not your opinion as the singer that matters, but of the listenner. Yeah, so I should ignore my tastes and sing stuff that others like, right?

No! It means that you should make decisions placing yourself as if YOU were the audience. What would YOU like to hear if it was another person singing the song, and you were listenning?

This changes the point of view and places a much more solid way to get quality. Would you be interested in hearing the song to the end? Would you have fun?

Simple questions but that address the whole of the problem. Is it nice to listen? Nice is not tolerable, nice is something that you are drawn to, that makes you want to stick around.

Trying to sing great leads to an exagerated focus on the self, making the singing more of display of skill rather then actually entertainning.

Since nobody really cares about some random dude trying to look like an awesome singer, the later is much more pleasant to listen. AND IT SHOWS. Its actually obvious.

When your focus is on the audience experience, you dont chose songs because they are hard and are a challange (this is absurd), you choose songs that you know that when you sing, people will have a good time listenning. All songs you sing should be very easy, or at most with one or two spots that requires a small effort.

If your focus is on the audience, you dont overlook timing, or wrong melodies.

If your focus is on the audience and you are going to sing a song they know and like, you will have the trouble of learning it properly, and if altering anything, you will do it knowing what was altered.

We are entertainers, we sing to communicate and to give people something they would like to hear.

There is no value AT ALL on picking a hard song and messing it up because its "challenging". First because technique wise, if its hard to do you just dont have enough trainning to deliver. Second because to the audience, skill is on the quality they perceive, not high notes or super long phrases.

This is fundamental to the study of interpretation and to develop musicianship. If you center only in yourself, you will ignore obvious flaws and will overlook important qualities on the work of others that you could, should and need to learn.

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  • 1 month later...

Now the good news.

Pop songs, are all about performance and interpretation.

Once more: Pop songs, are all in the performance and interpretation. And yet again: PERFORMANCE AND INTERPRETATION.

The character is the singer, there is no role, no author view to be held, no requirement of timbre, no requirement of dynamics. All you need is the performance and interpretation. And all you have is the performance and interpretation. The character will be you, always.

This sets two things that are important. One: if you are singing songs of others, its much easier to focus on the song content and capture it, than trying to copy how the original singer panted when he finished breathing, and make no mistake, for the audience, even if you mimic the accent of the original perfectly and its a guy, a girl singing it and using the same interpretation structure WILL capture the result better.

Two: If you are an original artist, FORGET gimmics, tricks, runs, and all the kind of arsenal of "look how good I am", plan your lines, thats how comercial material is treated to begin with, MOST recordings, and by MOST you can understand 90%, get coaching during the recording exactly to take care of this. Thats where the "sound" of comercial grade comes from. Its not a mic, its not studio walls, not the water and in most cases not even the singer, but the interpretation and performance.

Of course, there are styles that call for it, but its an interpretative choice within it, not a technique circus, keep it in mind, use the details on the line you planned.

And this dear fried, is what a musician does, thats what that dude on your band that solves problems on the songs is doing when he says to the drummer "hey, open the hi-hat in there". And it just sounds right. In this case, dynamics at work.

The only problem is that technique can NOT be on the way to approach things like this. If you have to worry with placement, with support, "TA/CT", bla bla, you lost 80% of it on the way already. This requires focus and planning. So plan within your limits, and execute it. Your technical competence will determine what the limits are, and its up to you to decide if these limits are enough for your work or if you want more. But if you exceed them, nothing will make you sound good, maybe a recording coach squeezing the last drop of voice out of you until you spit blood, but I assume this is not a very good choice for most.

Learn from the outside and learn how to apply it, focus on results.

There are many things to be addressed within this. Melody and Rhythim seems like a good head start.

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all great points felipe...

i know you may not agree, but i am from a mentality of challenging myself and the voice, really taking it as far as it will go, (both off stage and on). i'm going to tell my story and connect with the audience, but if i've spent years studying and training to do what i love to do, to do what i can do, because i've worked so hard to be able to do it.....i want to amaze too.

i want to have the money notes, even it means teetering on the edge of my range...i get a thrill out of singing a difficult song, just like a race car driver wants to take the turn at a higher speed.

i truly believe the audience expects a little "daredevil" in your vocal performance.....they identify with your performance when you give it your all, each and every time..i believe.

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Its not that I dont agree Bob, its more like, doing what fits, not just showing off. Maybe showing off isnt the word, more like, not making it so evident that you are using your skill, make it sits nicely on the context, create the mood for it.

Actually its all about what you said in the last part, bringing the "feel". What does the audience expects, what is it that they want?

For example, compare the song Eyes of Love - Talisman, with the song I Wont Give Up - Jason Mraz. Both are quite fun to sing, both have some spots that you and I know that are not the simplest stuff in the world to deliver.

Obviously there is a huge difference on the intensity of the approach both singers use. Now forget that part. What else is different?

Im not saying that the overall intensity is not important, of course it is, but there are other things in there that in my opinion are even more important and that can make or brake the delivery. Do you agree with this? Please Im not saying that one is better than the other! Its just different, and both work ;).

Particulary, I have tons of fun with Eyes of Love, it has more to do with me, but that the song of Jason Mraz is one hell of a thing to study too. And the guy holds the audiency on his hand, the whole time, lots of energy but not so much to do with the power he uses on his voice. And note that Im not saying that what he does is "light" ok? I know its not.

I want to look into those differences, so to say.

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Perfect Owen.

And in special, listen to the "common listenner" because thats what the audience is! Thats what we all are btw, when not busy thinking of what and how...

I remember when I was a kid, listenning to all those vinils my father had, and I still remember how some singers sounded to me as if they were doing something they did not have to, but some singers seemed to just know what I liked :). Its subjective of course, but when you get a glimpse into that, when someone actually put it in words, grab it and at least think well on the subject. Its usually where you will find truth.

I find it worthwhile to forget and put aside all technical mumbo jumbo and try to remember how to listen to music...

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Obrigado, Doutor!

What about the concept of choosing or writing songs that accentuate your best notes? If you've got a great low E, sing "Daddy Sings Bass", if you've got good high notes, be like Roy Orbison and write some songs that climax with a rising melody and a big high note!

(or if you can't sing at all, play bossa nova and be famous!)

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You can write a song with a singing style in mind but once it does get to pruducers and other performers they will change it as they see fit. The best good example is "HURT" sung by NINE INCH NAILS and JOHNNY CASH.

A good song grows and changes with the times.

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MdM, there can be some disadvantages to that approach. I can't quite articulate them, you sort of have to be a songwriter to understand, but to put it simply, IMO, designing a song around a voice and making the limits of that voice the central priority of all your creative output...tends to make for crummy songs. I feel like you'd come up with a better song if you just write a great song and then assign it to the voice that would sing it best.

Then again there's definitely gotta be some great songwriters out there whose work actually benefits from knowing what vocal range they are writing a melody for before they even put the pen to the paper. Theatre writers for instance, knowing the character that will be singing the song probably has a lot to do with it.

So, I guess, good or bad, depending on your songwriting style.

Owen, I can see what you're saying. I do operate on the assumption that people have certain money notes that especially sound good in their voice. Also, I guess because I like Roy, I always think about how he did and how successful (IMO) that approach was for him. There is also a concept in composition that methodically applying limits can actually end up inspiring creativity and better results (examples: form in general, the blues form). I love having a percussionist give me a rhythmic figure when I am improvising on guitar.

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I was re-visiting this thread and liked what Owen had to say about songwriting. I write songs, too. And I write a bit differently than modern writers do.

In some of the recent originals, some write a song without a bridge. The chorus closely follows the verses. There may be an instrumental break where an instrument plays a solo over a repetition to a coda point, then back into the verses.

Whereas, of course, I was influenced by pop and rock from my childhood. Verses in one pattern, chorus in another. Bridge, with a markedly different variation on the melody. And I still tend to write in the AABA format. (Which can be expanded to be A - chorus - A - chorus - bridge/break - A - chorus.) The bridge may be with or without lyrics. A good example of this is "I Don't Believe in Love" by Queensryche, one of the more pop-style songs they wrote. The break is an instrumental one.

"Message in the Bottle" by the Police. The chorus is actually lower in the range than the verses. And a big hit with fans because that puts the chorus in reach of most people with little to no singer training. It's a sing-along song. Cha-ching! Album sales, ticket sales. The audience gets to be Sting for a moment.

So, yes, planning the interpretation should be one of the first things, because it may require changes in the arrangement. Such as how Ronnie James Dio covered "Dream on" by Aerosmith. Not to forget that the arrangement was changed some to suit the phrygian shredding of Yngwie Malmsteen. A different interpretation that made as much sense to the listener as the original did for so many years.

When I write a song, interpretation is paramount. What is it that I am trying to say, what feeling am I trying to convey? It may help decide where the melody line is going to sit. I can sing some high notes but I have written some songs that don't have stratopsheric notes because it would be out of place in the song.

Just as when my brother and I were collaberating on "Heaven on their Minds." Near the end, I did some improvised and not planned supersonic notes. My brother told me they were pitchy and in retrospect, they didn't really fit the song. So, we agreed to cut those notes out and it made for a better interpretation, I think.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Made this video on the subject yesterday:


Two things are addressed. First the mimic thing. And then I got into rhythm. I hope it makes sense.

I will write down a resume of the video here:

Mimicing: Just copying how another singer produces his voice, is not nearly enough to do a decent job when singing a song, it may have value on a comedy show, but not when singing.

Rhythm: On music, rhythm is defined by a pattern that holds through the song or pieces of it, this pattern repeats itself in a very consistant and predicatable way. The pattern can easily be understood from the tempo, duration of notes, the pauses and last but not less important, the dynamics of each note.

On pop music, the snare usually marks a point of attack and strenght. The bass sets the layer of "connection" between the harmodic/melodic content and the rhythm, and its in there where the information you need will usually be. For those who are into singing R&B material, or any other kind of style that relies heavily on the groove, my advice is: know and understand the bass line very well.

Its relatively easy to do and can/will improve quality without you having to "impersonate" other people.

RHCP, MJ, Journey, Bruno Marz, Mr. Big are all examples of cases where this is crucial to make the songs work. And if your original work is supposed to go in such a direction, even more important since you dont have a reference of execution to help you.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thanks ronws, yeah it surely does. And every now and then I remind myself of it, every musician must know what the instruments are doing, even if just instinctively.

Well now something a bit different that goes hand in hand with the subject, anyone that is getting results that disappoints you please read:

Singing, even when doing covers and capturing an interpretation is creative work. Its your voice, your rendition.

On all kinds of creative work you have two things that are determinant, one is the technical skill, the other your artistic capability.

The first is necessary to deliver the later. And even the later has a lot of technicalities that are what Im trying to convey here in this thread. However there is one big part of it that is dependant on your perception and your taste.

It means that you have to be able to accuratly measure and evaluate things that you hear, and the only possible way to do so in order to make the best possible effort is by honestly evaluating if you like the result or not.

Technique, be it the mechanical skill or the musician part, only gives you the options what will determine the end result are your choices.

The point is, for those seeking technical answers to accomplish singing like this or that, or even writing, painting, photographing, there is a gap in this on the first years of work that can not be overcome in ANY other means than actually doing the craft.

In this case, it means that you will have to sing to get results and measure them on the singing itself. This gap will exist while your perception and technique cannot devise choices that satisfy your taste, and make no mistake even your tastes will develop (you will become more critical and thats part of the process).

As your percepetion develops, and you aquire tastes and understandment, you will start to notice in more objective measures what is it that you want, besides "singing like this or that person", and besides your tastes you will have your ambitions.

A new gap will appear and the closer you get to it, the best the quality of your work will be, as long as you keep honest to yourself all the way and dont lock your mind out in a protective bubble, you need exposure.

Ambitions usually are never met, but as the results starts to fit into your tastes more and more satisfied you will be.

Its not about perfection, but having the "malice" to know what kind of mistake compromises a result and what is ok.

Most important of all, until that first gap is closed, you will think of giving up and get quite angry at times. Know that it IS part of the process, persist and do more work, more singing, because its the work on the craft that closes this gap, nothing else.

Also listen to songs, find things that you like and listen even more, and when doing this, let the style prejudices aside, seek points of value in works that are not your cup of tea.

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