The Danger of Doing Too Much: Intentionality in Singing

There were a few lessons this week that reminded me of the importance of intentionality in vocal arrangement. It’s very easy, as one gains technical facility, to want to do various things with our voice just because we can. And why not! Doing exciting things with our voice is fun. The problem is, with increasing ability, we tend to overdo things – worse still, it can often be less listenable to our audience as a result. Why should this be?

“Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”

And never more is this true, than in jazz.

Jazz is reknowned for (allegedly) being all about ‘breaking the rules‘, playing whatever you like, outside-the-box sounds, etc. The thing is, there are rules and guidelines about how best to do this without confusing or losing the listener, but taking them along for the ride. Jazz musicians are the masters of following these rules. Let me explain.

Jazz standards

As a genre, jazz has what are called ‘standards’. These are collectively agreed upon tunes that are considered to be core songs to the repertoire. These are like the pop band equivalent of doing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition‘ or rock bands doing ‘Mustang Sally‘.

Such songs generally have various sections to them. Sometimes these are more easily recognisable as a verse, chorus, bridge type arrangement, but often they take the form of A A B A.

This means there’s an A section, the A section repeats, a differing B section occurs to break up the pattern, and a further restatement of the A section occurs. The song will then continue through more A and B sections in a natural way, much like verses and choruses repeat in contemporary pop songs. Here’s the steps to taking a listener successfully through an artistic tour of your song, with various melodic excursions along the way.

Step 1: State your original melody clearly, before doing anything else

The beginning of the tune is often referred to as ‘the head’. This is used to state the melodic signature of the song. This is typically the trademark melody of the song and is played clearly and articulately at the start. Note: we DON’T riff our heads off at this point. Precision and restraint is the name of the game. Why?

This clear statement of intent acts like a signpost, and signals to listeners “this is important, we’ll be coming back here later, so pay attention“.

Step 2: State your original melody clearly AGAIN

Once a full cycle of the songs’ sections has been completed, the head is restated. This then signals to listeners that they are back at the beginning. It acts as a “remember this? that’s right, we’re back here“. Now we are really cooking.

The listener has just been respectively taken through a tour of all the relevant parts of the song (whether A A B A, or whether it’s verse verse chorus, etc), before being returned to the signpost they were shown at the start. Maybe some very small inflections could have been introduced, but the melody should have been restated again very clearly.

This is a smart method to convey a listener through the parts of your song. By then they should have a feeling of familiarity about a song, which not only makes the listener feel good and ‘at home’, but it also gives the singer scope to deviate without losing the listener.

Step 3: Now you can start to do more with the melody… but less is more

At this stage, in the second round of AABA, or the second verse in pop examples, deviations can be made without confusing the listener. By having stuck with great restraint to the original melody without little to no deviation during the first portion of the song, the listener can feel secure and at home.

Any changes at this point will start to feel like a release for the listener, and provide great contrast to the original melody – but only if we play under the ‘less is more’ ruleset. The listener will have a solid internal framework of the song in their head, which means deviation have some meaning to them.

By comparing the more ‘played straight’ version of the first few sections to the more ornamented version of those sections, the listeners can appreciate “ohhhh, I see what you’ve done there – very nice!“.

Whereas making deviations from the original melody before you’ve stated it sufficiently clearly a few times, can confuse the listeners (“hey wait, where on earth are we? is this another section?“) especially if they are unfamiliar with the tune.

Rule 4: The more you want to deviate, the more you need to restate your melody

In longer form songs (long improvisations, jazz standards etc), after some digression from the original melody, the lead instrument will typically return to the original melody. This is yet another signpost to the listeners “cool, you’ve followed so far, you remember this right? Let’s cleanse our palates and then we’ll continue“.

The next melodic excursion can become even more extreme, because the listener has received enough repeated confirmation of the original melody that more extreme deviations will not seem so extreme in isolation. This forms something akin to a ‘melodic anchor’. The soloist did not just jump straight into bizarre ideas, but developed from the seed of the original melody.

How to follow these rules in your songs

Most contemporary songs follow a structure along the lines of: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

By stating the melody clearly in the first 2 verses and chorus (as per rules 1 and 2), with little to no deviation, you not only ground your song musically, but you will be given far greater permission to do increasingly exotic musical excursions in later sections (as per rules 3 and 4). This is ONLY if you can show great restraint and control in the first few sections.

As explained above, jazz musicians are masters at getting people to listen to increasingly ‘out-there’ ideas for increasingly long periods of time. The way they do this is stating the critical melody clearly and repeatedly, and slowly building on that melodic idea without going too far, too fast, too early.

Especially so for short 3-4 minute pop songs, if you can master “holding the listener’s hand” through the melodic portions of your song, you’ll not only win them over, you’ll leave them wanting much MUCH more.

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