Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Now that I have your attention, an alternative title would be:
How to Feel Musically Confident in Any Situation, and Why You Sometimes Don't
Singers are not stupid. But instrumentalists often think singers are musically stupid. Singers often think singers are musically stupid. But it's not an issue of musical intelligence, it's a issue of learning to listen to music in a way that is empowering. Even if you are musically literate, you probably won't feel musically confident (singing as a melody instrument in an ensemble situation) unless you're listening "smart".
Watch the broadcast, or keep reading below!
You can have the best hearing in the world, but if you can’t make sense of what you’re hearing, it doesn’t matter. The fact that I can’t speak Spanish doesn’t mean that I’m stupid, it means that when I hear Spanish my brain can’t make sense of what I’m hearing. Because I never learned to speak Spanish.
Walking on marbles
When a student tells me they don’t read music, or that they feel nervous about singing the wrong pitch or singing at the wrong time, they're often apologetic. I assure them that they're in good company; that many singers don't feel as confident as they would like to for those reasons. Then I show them the model below.
It's my Music Pyramid. Although Google is happy to show you any number of Music Pyramids, you may never have seen this Music Pyramid. It's elemental, and I think it’s important. Especially for singers.
BEAT: The pulse of the song; how fast or slow the music is.
RHYTHM: How the beat is divided to create the feel of the song. March or waltz, jazz or hip-hop.
HARMONY: The harmonic information of the song. Usually supplied by a chordal instrument – piano or guitar – but can also be provided by a group of melody instruments such as a horn section or a choir.
Here I demonstrate something simple such as major versus minor. I might show a simple chord progression, and then again with an unexpected or “wrong” chord inserted in the progression. I also tell them that they already intuit this stuff, so they're not learning from scratch, but learning "informed hearing".
MELODY: The part of the song you can sing. The melody is typically - though not always - made up of the highest pitches in the song, and is presented by the melody instrument. The melody can be played by a chordal instrument – a piano or guitar – but is usually presented by a melody instrument or singer.
LYRIC: The words. The part the singer presents. The part of the song that instrumentalists are (typically) least interested in and that audiences (typically) are most interested in. The lyric – being both music and spoken word - is the contact point for most non-musician listeners.
Instrumentalists tend to listen to music this way:
The reason I made this a triangle rather than a rectangle is because:
listening to music this way feels more solid and grounded to any musician,
in "microphone music" genres, you can have music that doesn’t have lyrics (or even melody) but you cannot have music that doesn’t have a beat or rhythm.
A singer who listens this way knows when the guitar solo ends, can make up background vocals on the fly, and feels confident about her melodic choices. Instrumentalists who listen this way (all rhythm section players and most melodic instruments) probably don’t know they’re listening this way. They take it for granted.
Singers also take their listening for granted. Singers tend to listen to music this way:
A singer can usually sing along with a chorus by the third or fourth pass, because they’ve been listening to the words. They often cannot, however, tell you what the form of the song is, or whether the key is major or minor. They may or may not be able to find harmony parts; a lot of singers find it impossible to sing anything other than the melody.
In fact, that singer who can only sing the melody may well be listening as many, many singers do; like this:
I think it’s fair to say that a majority of singers microphone-based genres listen to music in the way the two previous diagrams illustrate, from the point to the base, with or without knowing a little about what functions the instruments are serving. The singer who listens like that never feels totally secure and grounded in the music. In fact, it can be really scary. It can result in embarrassing situations. It can keep singers from having more expansive or challenging performance experiences. It can cost a singer their confidence.
What’s the fix?
The best fix, of course, is to learn to play an instrument from an actual human instructor. Guitar or piano, preferably, but anything can help. Short of that would be learning some basics on piano, or simply learning to listen.
In any case, you have to be aware that this musician has not taught their brain to listen for certain information. They've practiced focusing on melody lines, so when they begin to make music, that is where their focus goes. To form a new awareness, one that can really benefit the singer more than they can imagine, the singer has to practice shifting their attention.
If every melody instrument (singer, violinist, whatever) spent a small but consistent portion of their music-listening time to deliberately focusing on the rhythm section instruments, they would, over time, become more conscious of what’s actually going on. They would start to notice patterns and form, and over time expand their ability to hear knowledgeably. Those skills will only improve a singer’s ability both to present music, and to enjoy it.
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