The Vocal Instrument

Music is made with a wide variety of instruments. People constantly think of new ways to create unique sounds and tones. When you think about percussion instruments, you can create one out of almost anything. When you talk about the elements that make up music, you can find several different answers. The main elements you usually hear about in the definition of music are rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamics, texture and form. Some definitions will compress this to five unique elements or expand them to twelve. You can apply these elements to most instruments used in a song. For example you can you can find melody and harmony in percussion instruments if you use them that way. Drums in a standard kit can be tuned to specific musical tones if you want. Other percussive instruments can be tied to specific tones, although percussion is not used that way in most forms of popular music we usually discuss in our blog posts.

The one instrument that differs from the rest in most songs is vocals. Vocals add an ‘element’ to musical composition that other instruments don’t – lyrics. Although lyrics may not be considered a ‘musical element’ they can be the most important part of a musical composition. Today’s post is going to look at the vocal instrument using songs for examples. For our purposes we’re going to look at three general parts of a song vocal: melody, rhythm and lyrics. By viewing these three parts we’re really grouping some elements together. For instance harmony will incorporated in to melody, dynamics are incorporated in to rhythm, etc. The vocal examples we’re looking at have all the elements in them. What we’re looking at in this post is what single element the vocal adds to the examples that make them great songs. These songs are vocally amazing on all fronts, but for me a certain aspect really stands out. As always, since what makes something ‘great’ is subjective, the examples are really just my opinion of songs that I see fitting best for the categories.

We’ll start our song reviews by looking at songs that have great melody lines. There are songs that I’m drawn to due to the melody line. The melody alone brings out all sorts of emotions. Although these songs also have great lyrics, I feel that you could probably change out the lyrics and the melody line would still carry the vocals.

The first song we’re looking at is ‘Wichita Lineman’. It was written by Jimmy Webb in 1968. The version we have is the original recording made by Glen Campbell in 1968. To be honest I wasn’t the biggest fan of what became known as ‘the Nashville sound’ in country music. The lush orchestration just didn’t hit me as hard as the more stripped down and raw versions of country and bluegrass. For ‘Wichita Lineman’ none of that mattered. The song always felt so emotional to me every time I heard it, and it still hits me that way no matter how many times I hear it. For me, that melody line melts away everything else in the song and it would still sound amazing if it was sung acapella. As an aside the song also has some of the best lyric lines: “And I need you more than want you/ and I want you for all time”. What an amazing two line description of love!

Our next example for amazing vocal melody is ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith. It was released on their 1969 self titled album. We did cover this song before in a Grapevine post. But I think it is a great example of a melody line that really carries the song (which is why it was in a Grapevine post). The instrument tracks are pretty mellow and laid back. If you listen to the guitar parts before the vocal begins, you’ll hear some of the vocal melody mirrored in the lines the guitar is playing. Everything that is recorded in this song funnels you right to the vocal melody. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone with the vocal chops of Steve Winwood singing. While searching for the songs I felt have great melodies I did notice something that were common to the choices I was looking at. The melodies weren’t what could be called upbeat or happy. The melodies that stick with me the most seem to bring up more ‘moist eyes’ emotion. I think of all the aspects that we look at with vocals, melody is the one that most ties in to emotion.

Let’s look at songs where the vocal functions as a rhythm to pull you in to the tune.

First we’ll look at ‘Housequake’ from Prince’s 1987 album ‘Sign o’ The Times’. The song is really mostly made up of percussion. There are long stretches in the song where all we hear is drum percussion and vocals. The vocal line is heavily syncopated. In this song the syncopation of the vocal is more important than the melody line or the lyrics. You’ll see this a lot in dance songs. The timing of the instruments makes the song danceable. But what pulls you to the dance floor is the timing of the vocal line. Again, as with melody, I think you could change out the lyrics without the song losing any of it’s fun. The rhythm of the vocals also effects the dynamics of the song. For dance music you need a little variety so the beat doesn’t get boring. In ‘Housequake’ this is accomplished by bringing the vocals in and out of the song.

We can find a lot of examples where the vocals are a rhythmic center if we stick to dance music or funk music. If you’re looking more at rock music I think a band that often used the vocals as a rhythm instrument were the Psychedelic Furs. They fell in to the era of ‘post-punk’, but that term covers a lot of ground. Richard Butler’s vocals were often very narrow when it came to their melody lines. The vocals did, however, really add to the rhythm of the song. The guitars in the songs were usually pretty heavy on effects, almost having the feel of what later became ‘shoegaze’ music. On top of this wash of sound, the vocals locked in with the drum beats to propel the songs forward. I think this was especially true on their first albums. For our example I picked the song ‘Pulse’ from their self titled debut album. In this tune the vocals are up front in the mix, with the drums, especially the snare, being crisp and at almost the same level as the vocals. The guitars bass and sax maintain a wall of sound to place the lyrical beat on top of.

Finally, we’ll look at songs that are all about the lyrical content. The music is the background for the social, political or poetic content of the lyrics to take center stage.

First let’s take a look at Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. It was released in 1965 from the album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. This song is a pretty obvious choice when talking about the top end of lyrical content. You could just read the lyrics as poetry and still really get the feeling Dylan was trying to put across. I know some people aren’t Dylan fans – they often find his vocal delivery difficult to understand. This obviously takes something away if the lyrics are the main driving point of the song. The music in ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ are a great backdrop for the lyrics. It does put across the feel that the words are expressing. Most songs are lyrically pretty straight forward. Dylan’s lyrics and phrases are not always straight forward. I think that’s what makes them so good. In this song you have to pay some attention to the lyrics. And boy, is there some bite in them. A lot of songs at that time were love songs. This song is really a shot at someone who thought ‘they were all that’ and lost that standing, now having to try to fend for themselves. I’ve always liked the truth of the line, “when you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”. How true. I’d love to have written one phrase like that in a song. I’ve used a lyric video for this song to make it easier hear and catch all the lyrics.

For our second song about the lyrical end of vocals we’re going to look at ‘Clampdown’ by The Clash. It came out on their 1979 album ‘London Calling’. The Clash as part of the first generation of ‘punk’ bands used their lyrics to highlight the flaws in the government and business systems that were in place (and still are). I’ve always felt this song had some of their most pointed and true lyrics. I think most of us relate to the lyrical messages in songs best in our late teens and early twenties. That’s when you’re just trying to figure out the world and feel the most rebellious about fighting the system (if you’re so inclined). The song’s lyrics work on two planes. Joe Strummer was discussing how you can get sucked in to the identity destroying capitalist/corporate world where you become just a cog in the machine. It also describes falling in to the fascist world of power – “so you got someone to boss around, it makes you feel big now”. In songs you’re working with both lyrics and music. To make the lyrics hit home you need music with a good kick to it. ‘Clampdown’ achieves this with it’s fist in the air musical attack. Again, to get your lyrical point across the musical canvas has to attract attention. As an aside, if you’re wondering what the spoken word intro says before the actual lyrics start up, here you go:

The kingdom is ransacked, the jewels all taken back. And the chopper descends. They’re hidden in the back, with a message on a half-baked tape. With the spool going round, saying I’m back here in this place. And I could cry. And there’s smoke you could click on. What are we going to do now?

Published by churchhousepro

Musician, Sound Engineer, Producer

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