Think singing hasn’t changed much over the years? Think again. And if you don’t know, your practice could be held back…

I have had a lot of voice students lately who are trying to achieve the same kind of sound from the vocalists they hear on the radio, or those that are winning all the big TV singing competitions like Idol and The Voice. And they struggle.

Most aren’t much in touch with what’s been going on in singing lately. Maybe it’s because they are young, but I think it’s also because nobody really cares much about history. How has history changed singing? In really big ways—particularly in the last 20 years.

If you go back and listen to music of the 1950s and 1960s, you will notice something really important about the music—in terms of tempo and melodic rhythm—compared to what we’re hearing now. It’s very slow. Below is a really good example – Otis Redding doing “Dock of the Bay.”


In the 60’s, melodies seem to lilt along like it’s okay if they arrive tomorrow. Lyrics were simpler and less rhythmic. And there were a lot less vocal acrobatics. (Otis was one of the best soul singers ever and listen to how “straight” he sings the melody.) It seems at the time people were more interested in the song than the singer. And there are probably a whole lot of people who grew up in that era who will tell you that is true.

The ‘70s brought with it funk, louder more bombastic rock, and an influx of soul and disco music. Vocals got bigger and screamier with bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and Rush—but were still simple, with the vocalist mostly still singing the melody. Every once in awhile you’d hear a (most-likely black) singer “blowing” (improvising) over the outro of a song. And there were a lot of groups of vocalists all singing tons of harmonies, like the example of Earth Wind and Fire below – lots of layered harmonies, but few riffs and runs, as the focus was mostly the song.

The ‘80s were characterized by an influx of new sounds: metal, punk, new wave, power pop, hard rock, the new slickly produced R&B, alternative and smooth jazz. The harder side of things introduced us to the scream in singing (Sid Vicious). The softer introduced us to odd voices that we could still somehow like because they were dark and bizarre – the example: London Calling by The Clash.

And then came the ‘90s: a period of massive difference that dramatically changed not only singing, but most pop music. The reasons: rap and the rise of the R&B vocalist as the primary focus in pop music.

I will never forget the first time I heard the late Whitney Houston sing. Or what the cover of her first record looks like. That was 1987. The second even more popular record was 1990. She literally knocked the pop vocal world off their rockers.

Raised by gospel music’s female royalty, mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick, and Godmother, Aretha Franklin, Houston’s career began at 16 singing backing vocals on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” Her voice, dripping with the soul explosion of her early Gospel life, had a lush flexibility that pop music had not previously experienced. The first two albums—both artfully crafted handfuls of pop drivel really unbefitting someone with such talent—swamped the music world and radio. In effect, Whitney was the first step in erasing the very real color lines in singing between white pop singers and black soul singers. Following closely on her heels was Mariah Carey, another pop songstress who was just black enough to be soulful and just white enough to be mainstream.

Whitney, Mariah, Prince, Michael Jackson—the ‘90s were ultimately ALL about erasing the color lines. Our pop heroes at the time fell somewhere in between the races. The hinges on the door between black and white singers were consistently being pried off.

Simultaneously, the rise of rap gave us something new in the vocal department: no melody. Rhythm became king. And it was complex. And FAST. There were lots of jokes in the ‘90s about how rappers shouldn’t sing, and most didn’t – employing samples of earlier song favorites or great singers to take the chorus as the ultimate combination of the two forms. Song meet rhyme. On steroids.

Music would absolutely never be the same. White teenagers became the largest consumers of rap music. And the color lines in music became largely indistinguishable. I have always considered this one of music history’s greatest achievements.

It wouldn’t be long till even rappers were singing, and the rhythm of rap was bound to become a part of the pop music landscape…

Check back soon for Part 2, or subscribe to Andrea’s RSS or Twitter feed to get it automatically.

Originally posted 2012-03-14 19:00:31.