Melody and Communication

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LABBS members who attended the education day in Bristol earlier this year will have already heard Heather Lane’s interesting ideas on the relationship between a melody’s shape and its meaning. I wasn’t there, but had the pleasure of hearing her present them at Category School in September, at which she showed herself to be emerging as a distinctively creative thinker.

Her basic thesis is that a song’s melodic contour often correlates with the way the song’s lyric directs its message. So, a lower tessitura often betokens a more inward, personal statement, while when the melody heads higher, the song is often reaching out to communicate to another.

She developed this thesis initially from a very clear example, Beyoncé’s ‘If I Were a Boy’, in which there are clearly distinct sections lying in different registers of the voice with strongly contrasted emotional flavours. She then used it to consider more localised melodic shapes, where the rise and fall of the line can be understood as a more subtle oscillation between inward and outward expression. Think of ‘You Don’t Know Me’, for example, or the hook of ‘If You Love Me, Really Love Me’.

Now, this is a powerful coaching tool, as it gives a very simple and transferable method to explore musical meaning in a way that places more expressive control in the hands of the individual singers. It is likely to have the greatest beneficial effect for groups who have invested a lot of time and thought into vocal production – groups that have the control to produce a consistent tone throughout their vocal range, since their challenge can be combining uniformity of vocal production with variety of expressive shape.

Ironically, ensembles with less assured vocal control may already have more of an intuitive understanding of this kind of inherent expressive contour as shifting placement as the voice travels between registers changes the vocal colour. They will possibly be already experiencing the sense of inward versus outward expression as the resonance slips from head to chest following the tessitura of the line. Unfortunately, the visceral sensation of the sound rumbling in your own body doesn’t usually translate into an equally effective audience experience. It’s ring rather than rumble that carries, so the sound just gets muffled.

So Heather’s thesis about expressive shape needs to be thought of in terms of the audience’s experience, rather than the singer’s. It is not so much a matter of reliving the contrast between speaking to oneself and to another so much as recreating the impression of it so a listener can relive it vicariously.

From a singerly perspective, then, this will have that typical balance of opposites you find in vocal technique and expression. When the line goes high to reach out and communicate, it needs to be anchored deep into the self, and when it comes down and in to a more introspective place, it needs to keep its connection with the outside world above and around the singer.

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