Selecting the Right Songs for Your Voice
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Anyone who follows the American Idol competition each year will have heard the importance of song choice repeatedly emphasized by the judges. Those contestants who choose songs that do not flatter their voices are met not only with criticism from the panel of judges, (whose ability to judge from a technical, educated standpoint is always in question), but also with the unwelcome fate of being voted off the show by the viewing audience.
Likewise, those who wow the television world with flawless vocal performances and songs that suit them - who make wise choices when showcasing their talent – are rewarded with high praise and an invitation to return the following week.
The major flaw of the competition - namely the voting audience’s tendency to confuse true singing talent with good looks, charm and marketability - notwithstanding, the three judges do make a very valid point. Song choice, whether for a competition, audition, performance or recording, will either make or break you. A song with a weak melody, a song that is in a bad key for you, a song that is too difficult for you to sing at this stage in your vocal development or a song whose theme doesn’t resonate with others on either an emotional or intellectual level can quickly end your career, or at least prevent it from moving forward.
Seldom will a poorly-written or sloppily-performed song be met with genuine and enthusiastic applause by a sober audience with any discernment for good music or voices.
In the singing world, there will, of course, always be those exceptions who, despite defying the laws of true talent and good taste, come to know success and fame as singers. (I could name many, but I dare not offend or disillusion their adoring fans with fact.) They may win their fans by flaunting their sex appeal or by having some quirky gimmick. They may get a record deal simply because they were in the right place at the right time, or knew stardom and had achieved name recognition first by another means, thus not earning it by way of singing abilities or talent. However, for the purposes of this article, I am referring to the average person out there who desires to develop his or her skills and achieve success via his or her talent; singers who opt for excellence and longevity in their careers over becoming a short-lived fad.
Whether you are entered in a nationally televised singing competition, is a member of a professional band that writes original songs, records, and gigs regularly, the same universal rules of song selection apply. Below is a list of things to consider and mistakes to avoid when making song choices.
The Basic Elements of a Good Song Choice
Although the analysis of a song can’t necessarily be charted or put on a rating scale in order to determine whether or not it is a good one – “good” is always somewhat subjective and dependent on the listener’s expectations and preferences, and a song may strike someone differently than it may strike another person, or may affect the same person differently from one season of life to the next – it is safe to say that there are some objective standards.
Songs are composed of several basic elements; primarily lyrics, music (which includes melody and chord structures, arrangements, and the actual performance by the musicians), and lead vocals.
While many people, especially young listeners, will argue vehemently that they do not pay any attention to a song’s lyric, they are not telling the truth. In fact, they can sing along to the radio without missing a word. Of course, they may never have taken the time to analyze the song’s meaning or it’s composition. They may never have noticed that the song lyric is strong on clichés and weak on original metaphor that gets a listener thinking about the subject in a new light. They may never have realized that the rhyming patterns resemble those of a first grade poem, or that the same word is repeated a dozen times in a single chorus. They also may not care about these things.
Wonderful melodies can usually hide cheesy lyrics, but don’t assume that the listening audience will focus exclusively on the melody and vocal performance of a song. Some music lovers, like myself, actually take the time to read liner notes and think about the words that we’re listening to or singing. While listeners don’t always have high standards when it comes to defining “good” songs – I point to the overwhelming and inexplicable popularity of certain musical genres and artists today whose songs lack lyrical depth, intelligent artistry and originality - a singer mustn’t assume that his or her fans are so lacking in intelligence and discerning taste that they would appreciate any old cliché so long as the melody is distracting enough or the beat can be danced to.
Of course, teenagers often believe that the use of blatant profanity makes a song more “real”, and the elderly are generally offended by sexually explicit lyrics. A lyric can be well written without resorting to either of these tactics.
Many singers do not have a strong musical background and can’t analyze a song from a musical standpoint. (For simplicity’s sake, I have removed melody from this section, even though it is generally included in the broader category of music.) This is a little tough to do because there is merit in simple chord progressions and also in complex guitar rifts and solos, so long as they add to the overall feel of the song. A good producer is particularly effective at critiquing a song and providing direction to the musicians in order to improve a song.
Song arrangements are also difficult to critique, because some listeners enjoy simple arrangements while others prefer the complicated musical chairs game of several busy instruments and background vocals fighting for attention.
It would not be wise for a lead singer to believe that his or her exceptional vocals can or will redeem the overall performance of a band that plays sloppily or doesn’t provide it’s singer with solid background support or expertly composed music. If the band’s musicianship is flawless, however, the audience can then listen to a singer’s performance without distraction, and the lead singer can also focus entirely on his or her job rather than concentrate on everyone else’s contribution to the performance.
Melody, on the other hand, is fairly easy to label as either effective or not. Many independent songwriters, who reject mainstream music because it is too commercial and overly produced in the studio, opt for musicality and personal “flair” over singability, failing to recognize the value of mainstream, popular music for its catchy, memorable melodies, if not for anything else. It may be easy to be self-indulgent, writing songs that reflect your personality or push your political agenda, but can an audience sing along to them? The majority of songs reach popularity on the basis of their singable melodies. Before a singer can recite the lyric of a song, he or she can likely hum the tune. A song should inspire the audience’s emotions to spring to life. The melody should lift them to intense emotional states, or drop them to thoughtful, reflective, sad ones.
When making song choices, many singers fail to select songs that have consistently catchy melodies. Sometimes, a chorus is the only redeeming part of a song, and I suggest not trying the patience of one’s audience by forcing it to endure a monotone or redundant verse melody while waiting for those choruses to come. Other songs employ awkward vocal phrasing – the timing of the words feels unnatural, parts of words are left dangling until the next melody line begins, the tempo of the song makes it difficult to sing all the words, let alone enunciate them, etc..
The most important reason for selecting melodic songs, though, is that they will highlight the best parts of your singing voice. A good melody is like a flattering dress or tuxedo. Nearly everyone, even those of us with plain features and less than perfect figures, can look fantastic when elegantly attired and made up. As a singer, you need to consider the effects of melody on the audience’s perception of your talent. A very monotone song will tend to make your voice sound lifeless and flat, whereas a melody that carries your voice through the various sections of your range will add drama and intensity to it. This is a principle that applies to everyone, regardless of the style in which you choose to sing.