The Complicator Vol. 38 – Singing is Philosophy

What’s in a voice?

You 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.

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