Composition · Music Production · Vocals

Vocal tapestry

This blog post is a special entry devoted to the unique characteristics of vocal writing. In the tradition of western music, spanning between the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, vocalists were given separate melodic lines which the entire group would performed concurrently. This layered tapestry resulted in a musical texture called polyphony. Motets, or polyphonic hymns, guided church worshippers to listen deeply into the “threads” of sacred text sung by each section. Thus was the birth of contrapuntal music, a style which Palestrina and later on, J.S. Bach developed into modern counterpoint. Bach’s compositions solidified the approach that western composers still apply to part writing today. Over time, however, this layered texture fell out of favor with the Catholic church because lyrics were too difficult to clearly hear. Instead, composers began writing harmonic accompaniments (i.e. chords) to support a single melody of sacred text. This device, called homophony, allowed a tangible line to “stick” to someone’s ear and be easily remembered. Extra voices only functioned to complement the main melody. Beyond classical practices, the folk music tradition, where music is passed down through generations, regularly employs this approach. People who weren’t trained musicians needed to clearly understand the words and melodies so they could recall them before the advent of recording technology. Pop music is a style which particularly flourishes upon this ease of recollection.

If one pulls apart polyphonic lines consecutively, a call and response emerges. It is an extremely powerful vocal approach derived from ancient African cultures and music. In this resilient form, one vocal line will answer another vocal line, often providing a commentary to the initial lyric. Rock ’n’ roll brought call and response to a mainstream western audience (The Who’s “My Generation” is a solid example). A version of call and response is also found ubiquitously in Salsa during the montuno vamping section. The lead singer’s improvised phrases are answered by a “coro” of supporting singers and players, who respond with a recurring melody and lyric.

Vocal register (i.e., high vs. low) is another variable which composers need to keep in mind when writing for singers. Arranging for each the four main registers, SATB or Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass, takes a certain amount of understanding of how each voice will interact with the other. This aspect is sometimes challenging to hear in the isolation of one’s mind, which is why workshops are so important. In one example, a lower alto harmony may compete with a guitar riff written in the same register. In this case the writer may decide to revoice the harmony by swapping the vocal lines so the alto will sing a different part. This swap still keeps the overall harmony intact. As a comparison, think of the relationship between two similar colors in a painting. If they are too close spatially, a viewer will have difficulty telling them apart.

In my experience, opportunities for call and response emerge when giving phrases I’ve already written for myself to other singers. It usually works when the lyrical idea fits the change in vocal character. With little exception, my singers have their parts written out, which can allow the tapestry of vocal and instrumental lines to be very precise. The threads of each part are sewn together to create an overall aural image. Ad libbed sections are clearly marked in places where a “space” within the image is available for a listener to focus on the improviser’s color and shape.

Thanks again for reading! Looking forward to next month when I share with you my recording process for the new album.


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