What’s in a voice?
degas.singer-glove.jpgYou could make a good case that popular music is all about the voice, since for some listeners a likable or even lovable voice is all it takes to make or break a song. But, as with most things musical, what can be stated simply – “I love that voice!” – turns out to be practically unfathomable upon further reflection; and so it appears to be with the human voice.
To start, there are some purely technical dimensions to any vocal performance: things like dynamics, pitch, and rhythm. Obviously, these determine to some extent a voice’s effectiveness and power in music (though I might argue that they are really only noticed to the extent in which they are missing and thereby reduce the believability of the vocal). Be that as it may, surely we’d all agree that the various technical aspects of singing can and sometimes do provide the basis for an effective vocal performance.
But of course we all also know that there’s much more to our experience of any vocal beyond the simple technical facilities of the singer. For example, while timbre (the texture and sound of the voice) has a musical dimension, it also engenders a kind of basic, animal sense of attraction or aversion. Just as we find some people to be beautiful and others not to be, the same is true of voices. This consideration is not technical, but it is certainly a primary determinant of our reaction to a voice, right?
OK. So far so good. We’ve established that technical and timbral qualities affect our reactions to voices (no surprise there). Now we can get to the good part.
We human beings are so deeply attuned to the nuances of other human voices that a whole bunch of other information comes sneaking in along with that pleasing or grating timbre, that good pitch, or that laconic phrasing. There is something fundamental and deep that is suggested simply by the way the voice is used in the song; and this ‘ethos’ (or ‘vibe’, if you prefer) is very influential in our determination of whether we like something or not.

For example, in big, mainstream pop music, it is not always the music or even the lyrics that are at the core of a listener’s aversion. The thing that turns some people off is actually just the way the singers sing. There can be excessive grandiosity, embarrassing melodramatics around fairly commonplace emotions, earnestness, over-embellishment of the basic music (aka showing off), or just an imbalance between the content of the lyrics and they way they are expressed. Any or all of these can combine to create a smarmy kind of “largeness” to the persona that the voice projects. There can be a deep sense of self-satisfaction in some pop singers’ voices, to which many people not only can’t relate, but against which their very souls rebel. It’s a kind of singing that literally offends some people’s principles.
On the other hand, it may precisely be the lack of these kinds of grand vocal gestures that repels some listeners from the voices in other genres, like punk or metal music. The very nakedness and even ugliness of the voice might go so far as to imply a decadent or unseemly culture, a tendency to violence, anti-social behavior, nihilism, and so on.
In the plain vocals of some folk or vintage country music, or in the sophisticated vocals of some jazz pieces, there may be a great deal of meaning for older listeners, but nothing for certain young listeners to latch on to. In this case, the plainness or elegance simultaneously point to and express fully developed world-views to those who hold them, while having basically no meaning to those who don’t (obviously it is not only the vocal that communicates such things, but for those vocal-centric listeners, it might as well be).
If you ask me, every competent vocal performance expresses nothing less than a set of beliefs (part of the problem with incompetent vocals is that they can’t choose what they do or don’t want to express, but that’s another subject). Maybe understanding this dimension of the voice can help us to expand our range of beliefs, or maybe it will just make it easier to understand exactly why a piece of music hits us in a certain way.


  1. Roman
    June 10, 2008 at 11:20pm
    In modern mainstream pop music the voice matters just as little. What's is most important is the amount of clothing on the performer and the trajectory of its derriere. As for the voice, there is Yma Sumac, and there're others...
  2. aufheben
    June 11, 2008 at 2:57am
    Vocals in metal aren't grand? News to me. Then again, I'd call them epic.
  3. Mocha
    June 11, 2008 at 4:17am
    Good Morning, I have a request. I reside in the Atlanta Georgia area and with the economy the way it is I use a Metro PCS cell phone, is there a way to get pandora on the Metro? This would be so cool. I'll keep waiting and Listening, Thank you for such a cool station, I've told so many people the station is great for any party, resturant, etc. just continual music of your choice. so kool, Better than regular radio, yeah is there a way to pick this station up on a regular radio. Hmmm
  4. Ember
    June 11, 2008 at 11:03am
    So the vocals that we like say something about who we are, is it the same way when we find ourselves singing a certain way? Are we born with a voice that is meant to communicate in one way specifically? If that's true then singing could help one figure out who they are and what their purpose is, just by listening to the way they hit those high notes. ^_^ and that would make things a whole lot easier... "In modern mainstream pop music the voice matters just as little. What's is most important is the amount of clothing on the performer and the trajectory of its derriere." I I've been listening to my local pop station though. Its pop/rap by day and techno by night very cool. In my opinion alot of the mainstream stuff just doesnt seem as real and down to earth as the underground local stuff. Maybe I can relate to it more because they live a similar lifestyle as I do because of our location... I dunno. What I do know is that people who are making millions of dollars a day shouldnt be talking about their "life on the streets" with their gangster palls. Thats what I call a poser. "Vocals in metal aren't grand? News to me." Alot of the time when I think of metal I think of the growly kind. Where they seem to be trying to sound like a demon or monster of some sort. And that type of singing doesn't take much practice or training at all. I often find it unimpressive and lazy. I have heard the type of metal where they go all over the place with their voice though. ^_^ I especially like the kind where they add a sensitivity to their lyrics, and then a sort of violent anger in other parts...very epic.
  5. Roland
    June 11, 2008 at 12:50pm
    There have been several vocalist in this life time that have sent chills up and down my spine, and no matter how many times the song is remade. No one ever comes close to that magical moment when that singer or singers made you sigh.
  6. Roman
    June 11, 2008 at 11:26pm
    I daresay that one who positions him/herself as vocal-centric listener without significant literature background, especially (but not mandatory) in poetry, is severely handicapped in his or her musical perception. That, regarding the problem of "young listeners with nothing to latch on".
  7. Tony
    June 12, 2008 at 8:39am
    I think that you've simplified things by stating that popular music is all about the voice. I'd agree that it's usually the case, but there have definitely been popular (it top 40) songs that don't fit the standard vocal model yet still succeed. They are few and far between, but they do exist. Vocals are definitely a make or break component for the music I like. There are countless songs I've started to listen to on that had me desperately moving my mouse to click the thumbs down button to end the painful sound hitting my ears. Well, that is generally overstated, but there have been some instances which have been to that extreme. I have heard many songs (or at least the first bits of songs) on that appealed to me musically but the vocals killed all interest for me. I'll often think I'd like that if the vocalist was a woman or a vocalist I liked was singing the song. You talked about the different style of vocals for different styles of music and the reasons that people who like pop music might not like punk vocalists and visa-versa. I'm one of those people who likes both pop and punk and appreciate the qualities of each genre's vocals. I've never been a big fan of most top 40 music because it often seems vapid, self-agranding or the lyrics or subjects just don't move me. However I do enjoy songs in that genre that keep my interest even if they have some qualities of songs I usually don't like. When I listen to music I sometimes like vocals where I can detect obvious technical flaws, but I still like them because of the emotion in the vocals. I know there are artists that I absolutely love but other people I know don't like because "they can't sing." I agree somewhat with their assessment because their vocals are lacking, but the way they hit me emotionally make them work for me. Even though I rarely listen to top 40 music, I still enjoy the TV show "American Idol". One of the things that makes or breaks a performance for me on that show is whether or not I get the impression that the contestant is "feeling" the song. There are lots of people who get on that show who don't really connect a song's lyrics with the feelings behind them. I really look for that in the music I listen to no matter what genre it comes from. Interestingly enough I think vocal assessment is one of the most lacking feature of the music genome used in selecting songs on I can usually match the non-vocal qualities of a song played on one of my stations to the seed artists or songs, but there are many times when the vocals are completely off what I'm looking for. If you expand in any area, I hope that you'd do that. The biggest miss I get on my stations is the gender of the vocalists. I have stations where the seeds and the only songs that are thumbed up have female vocals, but your model continues to play male vocalists on those stations. I promptly thumb down those songs, but I'm surprised that after dozens to hundreds of songs played on those stations I still get new male vocals from time to time. Another area I'd like to have more closely followed is the use of mixed female and male vocals. There are some stations I have devoted to songs with mixed gender vocals, but they rarely bring up new mixed vocal songs. When I look at the characteristic for the songs that are thumbed up for that station there is no mention of the gender of the vocalists. One thing pandora has done is shown me how distinctive some of my favorite artists are. For example I think the way Suzanne Vega sings and how she sounds is very different than other vocalists. I have a station with her as the seed and there are few other artists that I think fit with her music.
  8. Johntheblasphemist
    June 18, 2008 at 2:57pm
    I appreciate your idea and implementation of Pandora. I am a subscriber to SIRIUS radio (3 years) and mostly my station stays on 27 HARD ATTACK... except when a song with the demon-like throaty effect so called singer is spewing forth this vile from hell. Immediately I change it. And it's really too bad because some of the songs (probably most) are excellent instrumentally. These guys (& gals) jam like I can only dream about, yet, in my opinion, thoroughly waste the song with this trendy special-effects voice box or whatever the hell it is. So if any of you bands (and you know who you are) are reading this.... Quit following the crowd. That voice worked for bands like System of a Down (who uses it conservatively) and Slayer back in the day. Now it shouldn't be the only way to get an audition or get air-time. By the way a little girl can sound that way. It's lost its fear producing reaction from the listener. Come up with something scarier. Be the Ozzy of the 21st Century. Black Sabbath RULES!
  9. Gray
    June 27, 2008 at 11:51pm
    I love the instrumental stuff in the songs I listen to, but sometimes it is all about the voice. There are some times that I love to hear acapella stuff just for the voices, the melodies and the harmonies. Some of that stuff is awesome. For example, the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo had some awesome acapella stuff. I have Paul Simon to thank for the fact that I ever even heard of that group, but I like the stuff that they did without him of course. And I like Paul Simon's voice, by the way, in his solo material, or as part of Simon and Garfunkel. Those musical acts all, I feel, emphasized the importance of voice in music. Of course instruments are there, but I do not believe they are overpowering or even the main focus. It's also why I like to hear acoustic stuff a lot. Even some of the heavier groups have some acoustic stuff. I have always felt that being able to do really good acoustically is a huge mark of talent for whatever group or artist. I think performing with your voice naked to everyone, and not covered up by so much electrical sound, has to be one of the most difficult things to do. Having said all that, I've been listening mainly to metal and some punk the last few months. I think that even with those particular genres, vocals are still hugely important to me. I can listen to groups where they do some of the screaming stuff, but I don't want the screaming, or throatiness, or whatever to be the only thing they do. If they do any of the demon-growling, monster-sounding stuff, I don't tend to like that at all. I like it if they can scream, but then they can prove to me, in the same song even, that they can sing, and sing well. And if they do all that, but then they can slow it way down, and then really, really show off their vocal talent. That's even better. Actually, all the metal bands I really like can do perform acoustically. I'll give the examples of Damageplan and Stone Sour. I can also give an example of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell. In the early days of Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, provided screaming vocals, but he also sang wonderfully. In fact, his screaming kind of vocals were very in tune and had an awesome, emotional, heartfelt sound. But his solo stuff was entirely different, and he proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he has an amazing singing voice. I also loved the vocals of Alice in Chains. One of my favorite songs by them is the acoustic Don't Follow. As for the issue of punk, I agree with what others have stated. The way that music ends up sounding to me is that the singers often get very wrapped up in expressing their feelings about subjects, and that is more important than trying to make their voice sound so incredible. But you know what? It works for that music. I am not saying that punk singers can't sing. There are a lot who can, but I don't think the quality of the singing is the most important thing there. The instrumentation can be quite impressive too, but the words, the lyrics are the issue I think. If I can identify with what they are singing about, then I can, to a point, overlook some of the vocal flaws. Besides, I believe someone else said something to the effect that the vocal flaws and the raw vocals are part of punk anyway. Like I said, it's the lyrics, the subjects that are important. By the way, I don't think System of a Down ever did any demon-growling type stuff. They did do some growling stuff. But there's a difference between the two types, I think. The type you hear them do is just sort of shorter yelling, growling, not exactly like singing verses, or anything like that. I don't know if I'm making myself entirely clear on that, but the way they did it, it was just very short periods in their songs. I know you said they were conservative with it, but I don't think it was really the same kind of thing, even still. Maybe I just say that because I hate that awful, monster-growling, demon-caught-in-the-throat, style of vocals, and I really like System of a Down. Ah, I've got it. Compare System of a Down to the group Job For A Cowboy. I think that should explain things. I hate Job For A Cowboy. I completely agree that while the instrumental parts of the songs might be awesome, if the vocals are atrocious, I'm not going to take the time to experience that "wonderful instrumentation."
  10. Bill
    July 03, 2008 at 5:34pm
    I'm sure there is a lot involved, but it would be nice to get Pandora on more mobile carriers.

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