Freedom of Expression

This subject is in fact the very reason people are attracted to music in the first place. Music is such pure expression, and so too, is singing. The whole purpose of learning vocal techniques and music theory is to develop a vocabulary that is sufficient to express what we feel in the moment.

There are no rules for expression. There is only transfer of emotion. As long as the emotion is transferred, you have expression! But there are basic laws that are good to follow for expression in music. These are: consistency of tempo and consistency of pitch.

Consistency of tempo: this, to the musician, is like canvas to the painter. This is the surface on which we create and develop ideas. Just like the painter, our canvas must not be changing every few seconds. This is a rule that is good to follow.

Consistency of pitch: “pitchy” is a much overused word right now, thanks to programs like “American Idol”. Drawing from the painter analogy, we could say that these are the colours of the piece. The colours must have a certain theme, and all the colours must fit into that theme. A dark, gloomy painting would be ruined by a sudden, out-of-place dash of pink in the middle of the work.

Thus is the case with music – a song in mellow Eb tones would be ruined by an untimely A note in the strongest beats. We call this key signature in music and we tend to stay within the key or colour theme of the piece.

This, when followed, creates something that the listener can understand. The constant tempo and key provides some base that the listener can hold on to, while exploring the ideas expressed on top. Again, the familiar analogy of the painting on canvas.

That being said, singers nowadays are too focused on pitch. Singing in perfect pitch is all the rave nowadays. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but the consequences are that all songs start to sound the same. It’s the Autotune effect, and it sounds more cosmetic than expressive.

The artists of the previous generations used to not care too much about the rules. They were more focused on expression. And boy, did they get good results. Jazz was based on purposely deviating from the natural major key, in which all notes sound ‘correct’. Beatles songs had occasional diminished chords, which on their own sound horrible, but in the right context were magical.

This is true for singers too. The older generation of singers rarely used the “correct” pitches to sing. Their notes were sharped or flatted to express the emotions of the song. They also incorporated effects that are common in everyday speech such as shouting, whimpering, whispering, questioning, surprise, and the whole spectrum of human emotions.

These emotions and expressions are lost in today’s production style, which uses software to even out the pitches and remove irregularities. This does not make sense for me from an expression point of view. People who are excited might get their pitches sharped a bit. People in a mellow mood might go flat. This is not necessarily audible to the untrained ear (which is why I decided to teach myself perfect pitch) but nevertheless the effect took place in the hearts of the listeners.

That’s why the older songs were so evergreen, because they spoke to us in ways we could relate as human beings, with imperfections here and there. The songs nowadays are so made up that they feel artificial. Like tomatoes from the supermarket that look good but has no flavour compared to the less perfectly rounded, home-grown tomatoes.

When you become an accomplished vocalist by reading these articles and getting on the recommended programs, be sure to remember this point when you are actually out there singing. Make the most out of your “humanness” – I know, that’s a new word I came up with a few secs ago – and don’t be afraid to utilize unconventional sounds in your singing.

The audience will appreciate you more for opening up and not being a perfect note-producing machine. Happy singing! =)


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