• meredith

Why Singers are Stupid

Updated: May 9, 2020

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. I believe the reality of the situation is that singers haven’t been taught how to listen.

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, I show them the model below. In thirty years there has never, ever been a student who has said, “Oh, yeah. I know that.” It has been new to every single one of them. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I show them the Music Pyramid. Now, there are a lot of Music Pyramids, and Google is happy to show them all to you. But I have never seen something as elemental as this, and I think it’s important. Especially for singers.

Here’s the version I show them:

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.

Bottom-up Listening

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 musicians,

  • 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. Musicians who listen this way (all rhythm section players and most instrumentalists) probably don’t know they’re listening this way. They take it for granted.

Top-down listening

Singers also take their listening default 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 the majority of CCM singers 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.

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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