Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

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Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

That’s all background. The bit that made me want to write this post is the point that pitch is a really significant paraverbal dimension of speech. The rise and fall of our voices gives shape and meaning to what we say; think how odd and disconnected from communication it sounds when someone speaks in a monotone. The lyrics of a song tell us what is going on, the music tells us how to feel about it.

But, as one of the Telfordaires pointed out in Stefanie’s session, singers don’t get a choice about which pitches to sing. The composer and arranger make those decisions for us. This is a really important point about how we relate to the songs we sing. So often we are coached in expression by working through a text in speech, seeing how the meaning changes if you emphasise different words, whereas in fact most of those emphasis patterns are ruled out by the shape of the melody.

This insight has led us to a new learning activity for one of our newest songs. We have for some time been recommending the learning method developed by Jay Giallombardo that separates out the learning of melody and words into distinct activities before putting them together. We have extended this idea into using the two dimensions to explore meaning.

So, one week the homework between rehearsals was to spend time reading the lyrics out loud, including in a range of different accents. This is a great way to bump your brain out of autopilot when engaging with a semi-familiar text; it slows you down and makes you engage with the relationship between meaning speech more consciously. I recommend it for preparing important presentations as well as for performance-related activities. When you have a lot of words to learn, trying to absorb them parrot-fashion is the difficult way of doing it; activities that re-engage you with the story are more fun and give your memory more to hook into.

And then a subsequent week the task was to work on the vocal lines to neutral syllables with the specific focus of exploring the sense of narrative built into them. Rising and falling steps give local inflections; leaps give greater emphasis; chromatic notes add emotional colour – surprise, query, chagrin.

Assuming a competently written song, this is always a revealing exercise for those singing the melody. And working with this concept with singers has brought into focus the corollary for my work as an arranger: it should also be a meaningful exercise for those singing the harmony parts.

I have been writing for years about the importance of giving all singers in an ensemble an expressively meaningful line to sing, one they can imaginatively commit to in performance without having to micromanage its technical demands. I’ve mostly thought about this in terms of melodic shape, although the first point in one of my key posts about this is the relationship between music and lyric.

But thinking about pitch specifically in terms of its power for paraverbal expression has refined and clarified the way I think about this. There will always be stylistic differences between the parts, given their relative roles in the texture, but each has needs a coherent relationship with meaning, and one which is compatible with the others, even whilst it can’t be identical.

And this is where we find some of the differences in characterisation between different parts emerging. Basses tend to get bigger leaps than the other parts – 4ths or 5ths are not that uncommon, and they even get the occasional octave – and this builds to a somewhat more emphatic mode of expression than the tenors, whose line typically operates within a much narrower range. The tenors get a lot more little chromatic inflections though. The baritones, filling out above and below the lead, find themselves with inverse pitch relationships: their voices lift in mild surprise while the leads are confirming a point, and vice versa.

As a coach, I spend my life inviting singers to perform their lines as if they had the melody. You get so much more narrative engagement this way, and often a commensurately more consistent vocal line. As arrangers, the more we can make this a natural thing to do for all singers, we can help them give a more meaningful experience to their audiences.

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