How would you describe Cutty Ranks to a deaf person?
February 17, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Is there a technical terminology that could describe different styles of popular singing, in the same way that linguists might describe accents? Try your hand at a couple of examples inside.

One of my favorite albums from 2010 was Tennis's Cape Dory--check out the title track here. They have a very particular retro surf rock sound--partly due to the instrumentation and production--but in no small part due to Alaina Moore's singing.

Then, for instance, take dancehall like this Cutty Ranks track.

Two different styles of popular singing, but I have a hard time describing either. Tennis's retro sound seems characterized by the absence of any vocal flourishes, but that wouldn't be enough to give you an idea of how it sounds if I were just describing it. Similarly, dancehall seems like rhythmic monotones, but I assure you, if I were just to rhythmically intone the lyrics I would just sound like a crazy person.

If you were a linguist--or, perhaps, someone writing out sheet music--how would you notate these two styles of singing so that someone 200 years from now could now how it sounded?

I'm not just interested in these two examples--I'd love to be able to bring the same descriptive framework (if it exists) to other kinds of popular song.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know that there are definitely ways of expressing qualities of vocal style and that fine-art vocalists work on them in training. I don't know much about the terminology but I have heard it thrown around. Wikipedia talks about how outside any particular musical idiom, there is no agreed-upon vocabulary of singing characteristics.

Interestingly, Alan Lomax was obsessed with this problem and attempted to develop a system for classifying vocal stylistics which he termed cantometrics. It's pretty fascinating stuff but it runs into a lot of difficulties as a 'science' right out of the gate. But he was interested in the question you're interested in - how can you describe different vocal sounds using words? To do it you have to consider where the voice is 'situated' in the body, how the throat, tongue, and mouth muscles are used, what pitch the singer aims for, how much breath and nasal quality is introduced, etc.

So though I think we can apply descriptive terms that make sense to us idiosyncratically, unless you're working within a specific tradition it's difficult to find any vocabulary that universally signals the subtleties of what a human voice can do across all genres and cultures.
posted by Miko at 12:22 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't help you with a linguistic description, but if I was writing out sheet music I'd write "Clear without obvious legato, adding vibrato at end of each phrase" for the first example. For the second, I'd just write "Monotonic Jamaican toasting style".
posted by hanoixan at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are a few of the different ways that voice is talked about in my ethnomusicology/pop music studies courses:

Timbre is an important factor—the grain of the voice, which is part of what you mentioned in your post. There are so many factors that go into this. An important one is to identify where in the singer's body the bulk of the resonance is located. Is it principally a chest voice, or one that focuses on the sinus 'mask' behind the nose and cheekbones? Is it a falsetto that sounds like it comes out of the top of the head? Is it pinched and nasal, or an open, ringing tone? Is it relaxed or strangled? Is it yodeled, playing with the transition between chest and head voices? Does it follow the operatic bel canto style, where, in most cases, sustained notes are on vowels, or does it include long notes on nasal consonants, like in koranic recitation and some country music?

It helps a lot to learn about the relationship of the vocal cords to the 'false vocal cords' to be able to describe rasp more precisely. The vocal cords can provide focused pitch better than the false vocal cords that are located slightly above the vocal cords. The false vocal cords are timbrally rich, but produce scattered, complex harmonic partials—the key to the richness of the 'vocal fry' of Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong, for example, as well as death metal 'cookie monster' vocals. Even Tom Waits varies significantly between relying heavily on his false vocal cords on a few songs, but mixing vocal cords and false vocal cords in different ways on most of the other songs. Ted Levin's work on Tuvan throat singing is an important resource that provides lots of good descriptions of different vocal styles. Voice teacher Melissa Cross's website and DVDs are interesting as well.

Air support is another thing that can be described. Is the tone breathy, or belted out?

Ornamentation is another factor—melismatic vs. syllabic singing (lots of pitches per syllable, or just one). Different kinds of ornaments.

Finally, microphones and studio production make a huge difference, so they are another factor that should enter the mix. Is the mix reverb-y? If so, what kind? Does it cut out certain frequency ranges? Is compression used? That makes a huge difference in a vocal recording.
posted by umbú at 8:20 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all--this has been very informative, and you've each brought a different interesting perspective. Really great!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:59 AM on February 22, 2012

« Older What are some non-academic jobs in the social...   |   Suit and tie Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.