I’ve talked about what makes us intrinsically turns us on about a singing voice (or not, as the case may be) and a lot of it is about the emotional response we have to that sound.
But why do so many people like this voice?
First of all, put aside all those images of physical beauty. This may not be easy, given the pictures that have just about broken the internet in the last few hours, but read this and give your eyes (and/or your ovaries!) a rest for a little while.
We have our basic emotional response to a singing voice because we like the raw sound of it, the timbre, range and vocal colours of it, and that doesn’t matter if the voice you love is a soprano, or a tenor, or a bass. You’ve had that response and it turns you on.
But what else makes a voice feel so great to you that it makes you want to laugh or cry, or scream and punch the air when you hear it?
One really important thing is words. All songs have them, but depending on the singer, you don’t necessarily get to hear them properly. I’m afraid a lot of opera singers are guilty of this, as many styles of singing will encourage you to sacrifice the clarity of the words to make a beautiful sound. This was particularly so with the now fairly old-fashioned Bel Canto technique, which was all about the noise you make. As soon as you get near the higher notes you have to work hard on, forget all about the words as the audience are far more interested in your top C than hearing the word you are singing at the time. I have to say I have been to a few opera performances in my time that I’ve struggled to work out which language is being used, let alone individual words and phrases.
Rock singers don’t do too well at this either; sometimes this is about the balance of voice and instruments, which is the sound engineer’s responsibility, but sometimes when you have an untrained voice, you don’t learn the tricks of how to get the sound out and still preserve the words.
(video from Adam Lambert Music 411’s YouTube uploads)
And in the case of this version of Killer Queen from the Detroit concert, Adam also gets the words and music out whilst lying down!
It’s becoming increasingly common now for voice teachers and coaches to major on diction – that is, making sure your audience understand you, as that has a huge effect on the emotional response to the music. Let’s face it, if someone is telling you they love you and you can’t hear them, you’re never going to know and could live the rest of your life in unhappy ignorance.
Adam’s diction is excellent – Freddie’s was as well; with both of them you hear the words and the way they colour them, and that makes the songs come alive. I’ve chosen the same song so that you can compare, so here is a live performance of Queen in the Freddie days, doing Killer Queen with very clear diction.
(video from franclarii’s YouTube uploads)
This is where the technical stuff comes in, and it’s really quite a simple thing to grasp. Never forget that when you are singing that you are speaking at the same time.
You’re not just standing there making a “la-la-la” noise; your vocal cords are making the singing tone as they vibrate together like the double reed in an oboe or a bassoon. At the same time, you make the words – vowels and consonants, with your mouth and tongue. This is the bit that requires two separate parts of the brain to work at the same time, and for the singer, co-ordinating these at exactly the same time isn’t necessarily automatic. Listen to a few random singers, particularly untrained ones, and you’ll often hear a bit of timelag – the consonant can come out first and the note will follow it, or they slide on to the note with no consonant and you have to guess what the word is.
When you do sing, you have to make sure mentally that the singing tone is connected to the speech, or all sorts of problems will develop. This is another one of those “mind over matter” things that singers have to deal with, as the muscle movements required are microscopic and way out of our bodily control. Therefore you think it, and your body does it.
The pitch of your speaking voice also matters, and this is where both Adam and Freddie had a real advantage in being able to get words out clearly and have a great top range. Adam has a high, light speaking voice (which incidentally is very charming) and Freddie also had a comparatively high speaking voice for a baritone, delivered with a very posh English or mildly Atlantic accent when he was onstage. If you are singing close to the pitch of your speaking voice, the gap between the pitch of the two is fairly close and it’s easier for them to stay connected. This will mean that the high notes are easier to access and you’re likely to be able to add extra notes to your range through training and coaching.
It’s not that easy for everyone. I doubt many of you will ever hear me speak in real life, but I have an uncommonly low speaking voice for a woman; it resonates on a tenor E flat. Most people would assume that I was a mezzo soprano or even an alto, but most of the time I sang soprano. I was never one of those stratospherically high sopranos though, and tended to do the roles that required a darker, heavier tone – hence all the wicked queens. These days my voice has dropped in pitch slightly and I’m probably more of a high mezzo, as that’s one of the things that the ageing process does to a singing voice. I’ve therefore had to battle with the long mental distance between my speaking voice and my singing voice, but I could always find lower notes than most sopranos because I had that low resonance from my speaking voice. So, you win some and you lose some.
Still following me? If not, ask questions and I’ll get back to you.
That’s how words are produced, but it’s not just about individual words – it’s about the sentences. If you listen to an untrained voice singing, most of the time they just sing lots of words. They may be all the right words, but they’re not connected together and our ears notice that.
The best example of this I can think of is another band whose music I love, but whose singer doesn’t have a trained voice – Muse. I’ve picked a live performance so that we’re looking at things on a level playing field. Now, I do love this song, but I would love it if someone would coach him to sing through the words and the sentences, and not gasp for breath so loudly. It would make a fantastic song even better.
(videos from muse YouTube uploads)
Some untrained voices can “do” words though – Freddie was excellent at it as he had a good sense of drama, and this will make the words happen.
Words are of paramount important are in music theatre and because of his background, this is a big reason why Adam’s voice is so engaging. He does words that make sense.
To illustrate, this is the words that make up the refrain of Save Me:
Save me, Save me, Save me,
I can’t face this life alone,
Save me, Save me, Oh…
I’m naked and I’m far from home
On their own without the tune, they don’t look much, do they? The drama comes from the music attached to them and the singer thinking “through” from one word to the next. I dug through a lot of the versions of Save Me from the tour as it was quite difficult to find one where there wasn’t a lot of background singing from the crowd. It’s always been a popular song for Queen!
(video from ki55andtell’s YouTube uploads)
This mechanism of thinking through the sentences is also one of the things that helps with the overall support of the sound – which makes your voice carry and stops it going out of tune. Because Adam knows about support and has spent years doing it, he very rarely has tuning problems (unlike all the hundreds of untrained pop singers around now who need Autotune!) In addition to thinking through the sentences, you use the colour of the words to increase the impact of them.
Adam delivers the final, plaintive line in a pure, silver head tone which is perfect; the final sob of the cast-aside lover. It shows a fabulous performance sense from someone who has the theatre skills that most untrained voices just don’t have (Freddie excepted – his dramatic sense and love of opera and theatre meant that he’d learnt this sort of thing through observation, and he was a highly intelligent guy).
Anyone who went to one of the QAL gigs or have seen the footage on YouTube will have been blown away by Adam’s delivery of Save Me. It’s simple, but it is packed with mostly understated drama and anyone who has ever been dumped will identify with it. He delivers the tune and the sentences with dramatic awareness and sensitivity, and the audience are transported.
And Adam’s performance skills do tend to mean he does other peoples’ songs better than they do, but that’s for another post.