Singers who can hear the fine nuances of other singers’ voices can usually sing better themselves. If you don’t feel like you know what to look for, or you don’t feel like you have a good ear, don’t worry. You can learn to listen better. Then you can use other singers’ examples to make yourself a better singer. Here’s how.
First, here’s a list of elements to listen for in other singers’ voices.
(This is not an exhaustive list; if you have other ideas, please comment!)
Melisma (embellishments, riffs, trills, licks, runs) – how, when, and to what extent does the singer “decorate” the basic melody?
Texture – is the voice breathy, edgy, brassy, clear, gritty, etc?
Intonation (pitch) – is the singer on pitch? Do they use “blue” notes? Do they intentionally (or not) sing any notes slightly flat?
Emotional Expression – what does the singer do to help you feel the lyrics emotionally?
Phrasing and Space – what is the rhythm of the lyrics? Does the singer push or pull any lyrics ahead of or behind the beat? Where does the singer leave space?
Dynamics – how loud, how soft? How quickly or slowly do the singer’s dynamics change?
Mix – is the singer singing in chest voice, head voice, or a mix? If a mix, how heavy (chesty) or light (heady) a mix are they using? Do they use different approaches throughout the song?
Compression – how “compressed” is the voice? (High pop belting is often very compressed; breathy low-volume singing is not.)
Tension and release – how does the singer help you feel emotional tension and then release simply through the voice (and not the song structure or lyrics)?
Placement – is the voice “aimed” forward behind the nose? Or is it rounder and throatier? Is it more present in the mouth, or in the nose, or equally balanced?
Here are some ways you can improve your singing by listening.
1) Get a piece of software that can slow down music without much degradation so that you can hear exactly what’s going on. If you have a hard time hearing phrasing, rhythm, or embellishments because they go by too fast, I highly recommend the $50 software application called Capo for Mac users or The Amazing Slow Downer for Windows users. If you really have no money to spend, you can get the free cross-platform program Audacity, which has tons and tons of plugins, some of which can change tempo and pitch. (But I’ve found that Capo does a lot better at maintaining audio quality at different pitches and tempos.)
2) Analyze another singer’s recording for the elements above. Pick a phrase or two and analyze one of the elements above, such as texture (breathy? edgy? clear? gritty? silky?). Then pick another element, such as dynamics, and analyze the phrase for that. And so on. You’ll start hearing all kinds of things you might never have noticed.
3) Analyze another singer’s recording… and then try to imitate them. Record yourself singing a single phrase, and then compare every syllable, every consonant, every vowel, and the whole arc of the phrase against the original singer. Don’t record too much at once. In order to improve your ear, it helps to narrow down the focus so that you can really drill deep and listen closely.
I cover a wide variety of artists in my live shows. Since they are all so different, but I am just one singer, I usually try to record myself singing the covers at home. I compare my technical approach to theirs. How are my vowels shaped, compared to the original singer? How do I attack the consonants? How do the dynamics compare? Placement, phrasing, tension, texture? I compare all of these things and CHOOSE which elements of the original artist’s approach I want to bring in to my own cover of the song. I don’t attempt to sound the same as the singer; that’s impossible. But often the song just sounds more “right” if I modify my own vocal approach in one or two natural ways to be a little more like the original singer.
Doing this has helped me grow in many different directions as a singer, has given me more awareness of my voice, and has gained me more flexibility across genres. The same can be true for you!
(c) 2011 Adrienne Osborn