Four Essential Aspects for Styling a Contemporary Popular Song: Rhythm, Tone, Dynamics, and Vibrato (Part 1) // Jeannie Gagné

There are many aspects to teaching Contemporary Popular (Commercial) Music (CCM) singing styles. Besides healthy production—a huge topic to be sure, and not that different from traditional Western training—contemporary popular styles vary from traditional training in placement, registers, and tonal qualities. We also focus on stylistic aspects of the many popular genres including jazz, rock, pop, R&B, gospel, blues, country, and latin styles, to name a few. These aspects include rhythmic phrasing, relaxed diction, articulation, attention to lyrics, and more.

Many of our younger students come from a background of singing in high school musicals and choruses, while idolizing popular singers from a wide variety of styles. When they take lessons in traditional Western classical vocal techniques, they don’t know how to utilize this production for singing the songs they’re listening to and really want to sing. Many students are also songwriters, and because some self-accompany on guitar, they may be singing while seated, or holding an instrument in front of a microphone. For both performing and recording they also need to learn effective mic technique, how to utilize a PA system, and best practices for singing with a band.

Sometimes, classically trained students and teachers are unclear about how to sing contemporary styles in a healthy way that is also authentic and stylistically appropriate. They may worry about sounding bad, or straining. They may be unsure about which register or placement they should use for a song. Often they want to learn how to belt, but have misconceptions about how to do that. Different methods are offered as the “correct” way to sing popular styles, but the fact is that there is not one method that is the correct one—that is a myth. Furthermore, a student can receive conflicting information about how to sing popular styles from different teachers.

The good news is there are common aspects to learning how to sing popular styles that are consistent throughout different methods. While there is way too much on the topic to cover in one article, I’ve found throughout the years that besides overall healthy production and breath support, four pedagogy topics in particular are really helpful to focus on for our students:

  • Rhythm and rhythmic articulation
  • Mix voice, tone, and forward placement, especially when belting
  • Dynamic and tonal changes within a phrase or verse
  • Vibrato and legato

Because vocal anatomy is the same regardless of the musical genre, shifting singing approaches between styles is more like changing your outfit, rather than changing your voice. By focusing on these four topics, and by being aware of unconscious vocal habits as one does so, it’s less difficult than one might believe to sing contemporary styles well. It just takes practice, listening to many songs to embody styles (like learning a new language, you have to hear it), and of course—patience. We’ll also take a look at some false myths at the end of the article.

Who is the singer?

Ultimately, what’s most important is what the singer is expressing, and who they are as an artist. Personalization. Story telling. What moves her fans when they hear Beyoncé? Why do they flock to her? Or Billie Ellish? Or Stevie Wonder? Or Ella Fitzgerald? Or Bruno Mars? Or Adele? Or Justin Timberlake? Why is pop so huge, with its growls and grunts and belting, the opposite of bel canto? The reason is a combination of factors from image, to performance skills, to the songs themselves, to emotional expression, and of course it’s the quality of the artist’s voice. These artists are originals. Their voices are often unique sounding, but so are their personas on stage. It’s about so much more than the tone of their voice. It’s about the person, the story, and communicating directly with an audience.

When teaching popular styles, we need to encourage the singer to bring out something authentic about themselves. There is no fourth wall—they are themselves. The song is a vehicle: it is not the end game. Audiences want an experience: to be moved. Popular songs touch people by telling stories about how they’re living, now, today. Songs of love, love lost, being angry, being hopeful…passionate singing and songs that make one say, “I know that feeling; it’s like she’s singing my story!” This is why.

Let’s dig deeper now into the four specific topics we’ll cover here. In part one, we’ll start with Rhythm.

Rhythm—perhaps the most overlooked detail in contemporary popular styling

Originating in polyrhythmic musical traditions primarily from Africa, rhythmic articulation is a foundational element in popular styles. American popular styles such as jazz, rock, and blues originated from a blend of African music, European music, and also Native American music; therefore, studying the rhythmic groove of a song is an essential way to understand how to sing it well.

Listen to the instrumentation of a song, from the bottom up. Listen to the drummer, to the bass. How are they synchronizing? What is the beat pattern? What is the smallest rhythmic value they need to lock-in on together to be well synchronized? When they are, we call that “tight” playing. Then, the keyboard and/or guitar add harmonies, melody, and sonic quality and rhythms. Other instruments add texture and melody. Let’s look at some examples.

In Ariana Grande’s song Dangerous Woman, the groove is sparse with even and steady downbeats in the 6/8 time signature, while her phrasing contains faster rhythms that contrast with this simplicity. She plays with timing in her soulful delivery, weaving around the downbeats. The electric bass playing is also sparse; there is an electric guitar pattern that is as well, while adding a rhythmic subdivision to the downbeats. The song has plenty of harmonies, distinctive reverb added to the vocals, and strong drum sounds. It’s powerful; it is anthemic. Yet Ariana Grande is a soprano with a high-timbre tone. She works her instrument in pop songs by combining soft speech-like singing lower in her range, then at 2:42 she comes back belting high G5s in the background while her lead vocal stays low. She sings the verses very staccato and deliberately. Her diction is urban, yet very clear. This song was a huge hit for her and continues to be a song my students want to learn how to sing.

Bruno Mars’ pop ballad When I Was Your Man is also very rhythmic. He sings with a swing 16th pulse that overlays his slow, simple, piano-only accompaniment at 74bpm. What makes this song a huge hit, and another favorite for young singers to learn, is his phrasing, emotion, and story telling. Mars has a gravely tone at times, and passion that comes through strongly. You can almost hear him dancing as he sings (he’s a wonderful dancer) and his understanding of subtle rhythmic subdivisions is clear in his phrasing. To learn to do this song well, one would start by learning Mars’ timing, and tone. Where does he speed up, where does he slow down? Where does he sound like he’s about to cry, where does he seem to yell in his belt, yet he’s singing? You believe him. He is singing your story.

If you were to sing this song, you could start by learning Bruno Mars’ phrasing, but ultimately you would make it your own. You would be telling the story now. We already have heard Bruno Mars’ famous performance of this song. What can you bring to it to make it new? Don’t imitate his voice, you have your own. Don’t imitate his phrasing exactly; instead, let us hear the melody but find your own way of phrasing it. How does the song make you feel as you sing it? Show us. Go there. Be emotional. Be real.

And, be sure you change the key to fit your voice.

Diction

We communicate through speech. When we talk, our voices rise and fall constantly. We add breath, and pauses, and speak with sharp words or long, languorous ones. We may speak lazily, not finishing the “d” or “t” at the end of a word; or, such as in anger, we may articulate our words with exaggerated punctuation. A vowel shape may sound flattened, such as the “@” (ah) sound in “cat,” and we’ll use that pronunciation in a song without changing it to make a beautiful tone. Languages have rhythms, and these rhythms are written into a well-crafted melody to sound more like speaking on pitch than “singing.”

Contemporary popular styles are somewhat lazy in diction, while sung with very accurate rhythms that often weave in and around the tempo.

When I sing “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess) as a jazz standard, for example—which I sing down the octave—if I pronounce the words “summertime and the living is easy” with a crisp “t,” exaggerated “m,” long “l” and an “e” quality “I” vowel, I will sound ridiculous. It will sound false, pretentious. Instead, I’ll sing the words as I would speak them, letting the vowels ring while softening the consonants ending each word.  I’ll sing “e-zay” instead of “eee-zee.” I might even sing “summer-tahm” instead of “summer-ty-eem.” That is more authentic to the popularized jazz style for this song.

Bonus: Myth Busters

Myth Buster 1: There is a “correct” way to sing contemporary popular styles

Each person’s voice is unique and this fact is highlighted in popular singing styles. It’s about the singer’s personality, emotional expression, and message, not about singing in a particular way. This is true even though there are common stylistic traits within a particular style or genre, that tend to evolve with each decade. Style and attitude are also important factors that draw fans toward one artist or another. Where students have issues is producing unique and interesting singing (depending on genre of course) while maintaining healthy technique. For this reason, they should always begin their singing practice with simple, focused warm ups and exercises, in the same way they should for any singing practice. One beginning exercise, for example, is sustaining a single, clean note on a medium-low pitch (such as C) at a moderate volume, then doing slow glides from 1-3-1, then 1-5-1 on an open vowel.

Myth Buster 2: Contemporary popular singers should not use all parts of their voices with different tones and qualities , especially within one phrase

From a growl to a howl to a crystal pure soprano tone to a low rumbling chest note, the human voice is capable of a wide variety of tones and colors. In popular styles, depending on the genre and song, you can hear several of these tones and colors sung even within one phrase or riff. This is one of the aspects that makes contemporary styles so unique from artist to artist. It’s no longer about “perfect” production, but rather about excellence. (Who decides what is “perfect,” anyway?) It’s about what is interesting. Is the artist communicating directly with the audience, heart to heart? And, is this all done in a vocally sustainable way? That is the focus. While a performance can also be quite simple or beautiful—and one doesn’t need to throw every spice into the pot—the point is that variety is the spice of life. It’s no longer about “wrong” or “right” vocal sounds. Assuming the singer knows what they’re doing and is not harming their voice, anything goes. It’s about creativity, inspiration, and improvisation, too.

Myth Buster 3: You can’t sing these styles without hurting your voice

We are used to seeing popular singers—even superstars—straining their constrictor muscles, yanking up the larynx and jutting out their chins. This is of course harmful. Students may model this way of singing because it looks impressive, but know they’re wearing out their voices and don’t know what else to do to get the sound they want. And, a teacher may believe there is simply no healthy way to sing in contemporary styles: they may believe this kind of singing is always tense, too tight with too much constriction, and sounds harsh, or even “bad.” Wrong! Yes, there are many singers who strain their voices and over-constrict their constrictor muscles in the pharynx. There are opera singers who harm their voices, too. While one may not like the sound of popular music, that doesn’t mean it’s done poorly. We know this caveat holds true with any style of singing.

What’s important then is focusing on releasing tension, while using muscles and placement for popular styles. Train your students to explore all of their registers, including chest voice, mix voice, falsetto, and blended “head” voice for men. Let them know that they don’t have switches between registers—rather, the voice is one big elastic system with gears and pulleys and an endless variety of tones and sounds. In the end, it comes down to making appropriate artistic choices while maintaining a healthy body and vocal instrument to last a lifetime.

Coming in the next installment of this article:

  • Mix voice, tone and forward placement, especially when belting
  • Dynamic and tonal changes within a phrase or verse
  • Vibrato and legato

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