Monthly Archives: July 2013

SONGWRITING: Using the 3rd in your vocal melodies

So I was listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne recently… (not just Stacy’s Mom, which is a great song, but they’re a far better band than that novelty tune— dig into their Welcome Interstate Managers album, and find gems like “Hackensack”, “Valley Winter Song”, “Hey Julie”, “No Better Place”, and “Fire Island”)…

I noticed something when I hear Chris Collingwood’s vocal melodies… he’s oftentimes landing on the 3rd, melodically…. whenever there’s a chord change.

This is a smart thing to do, but don’t overuse it.

If you don’t know what the 3rd is… it’s basically the 3rd note of the scale, that the chord comes from. So if he’s strumming D, he’s singing an F# note (in D major, the notes are D E F# G A… etc). If he then changes to G, he might play around with a melody, and then land on the note B (or hold the note a little longer, which is equally effective). Then, he might change to a C major chord… and then another melody/phrase is sung, and the last note might be an E (again, C major scale is C D E F G…….)

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about melodies that it’s always wise to use the “safe” notes of the chord (the 1, the 3, and the 5)… you can move anywhere you want, but those are the most important notes that should play a big part in the melody, because those are the notes in whatever chord you play (and of course, minor chords have the flatted 3rd instead of the regular 3rd).

I’ve noticed this melodic technique in other bands (many, many others)… but I was studying Fountains of Wayne the other night and all of this stuff came to my attention (plus, I’m doing some prep for my upcoming songwriting/recording camp).

So yeah.. again… a smart thing to do, but don’t overuse it, because sometimes it sounds really weird (especially over a lot of consecutive major chord changes).


SONGWRITING: Sing in a comfortable range

A week ago, I had my second major vocal cord surgery in five years, to fix a vocal cord hemorrhage on my right vocal fold. I’ve been silent for a week and have another week to go before I can speak. I won’t be able to sing at all for another several weeks following that.

I enjoy singing, A LOT. It is the one single thing I enjoy more than anything in life. I enjoy it more than movies, and I even enjoy it more than sex (not that I have that, that often….. would love to have it more, though). Bottom line…. singing is the ultimate form of expressing yourself. And I love to express myself through music, and singing.

Some of the songs I enjoy singing most are songs that seem to often be JUST out of reach for me, comfortably. These songs include:

Nada Surf “Beautiful Beat” and “See These Bones”

Miniature Tigers “Hot Venom”

Third Eye Blind “Jumper” (verses)

Velocity Girl “Same Old City” (and really, anything sung by females… which I love to sing along with more than most songs)

Spinto Band “Oh Mandy” (I just LOVE that chorus sung in falsetto… the verses are right in the head voice “break”, too)

And then there are songs that are often impossible for me to sing, since suffering from chronic voice issues which began February 2011…

The Shins “Kissing The Lipless” (and the entire Chutes Too Narrow record)

Band Of Horses (the entire Cease To Begin record)

James “Laid” (the ultimate test if I’m having a great voice day– singing that soaring falsetto chorus)

The point of this post? Sing in a comfortable range, when you write your vocal melodies for your songs. As a tenor, when my voice is in good shape, I’m able to comfortably sing up to A4 (which is the A above middle C), and play around with melodies around middle C (which is my absolute favorite range to sing in, and a range I feel my voice sounds best in). I can also dip into falsetto at will, doing all sorts of high, pretty sounds. When my voice is NOT in good shape (as it’s been for the 29 months prior to my recent surgery), I can barely comfortably sing even a middle C or the D right above it (D4). That’s pretty damn disheartening… really only having a singable range from like… D below middle C, to the D above middle C (that’s just one octave, and often a strained one when I get to middle C). Usually, when my voice is in bad shape, that’s all I can really sing. It’s tough to write songs with such few notes to choose from, too. Not a lot of available expression, there.

But, the lesson I learned is… you’ve got to sing in a comfortable range. If there are notes you can’t reach easily more than once, then avoid jumping up to them. Some days/weeks the human voice just DOES NOT DO WHAT WE WANT IT TO DO. Other days, it lets us move freely about, which brings me much joy, personally.

If you want it, you can gain more range (really, it’s not impossible). The voice is a miraculous (and delicate) instrument. Ultimately, to GAIN more range is something that takes a lot of time, and PERFECT singing/practicing technique. It’s not so much breath control, as a lot of people might tell you. That’s part of it, yes (and a big part)… but ultimately, it’s HEALTHY vocal cords, and warming up long enough so your voice can handle whatever you want to do, with zero strain or damage. So take the time to develop your most personal instrument, by doing correct (healthy) vocal warmups (DAILY… and BEFORE you start singing/working out melodies), and utilizing your range properly. Find a great voice teacher (either through Skype or locally), and take the proper steps if you wish to expand your notes/range. If you can’t… then continue to write in your comfortable range (and stay there as long as you need to).

What’s a comfortable range? It’s any note you can hold/hum/sing quietly, for at least ten seconds, without your voice breaking or quivering. For most tenors, this is from about A2 (A two octaves below middle C) to F4 (F above middle C). For me, prior to my surgery, it wasn’t near that low, or near that high (as mentioned above). I won’t even know what range I currently have for another week (which is scary)….

So yeah, just be safe…. we all can’t be Justin Vernons (Bon Iver), Jonsis (Sigur Ros), James Mercers (The Shins), or Ben Bridwells (Band of Horses). We have to work with what we have, and we have to be SMART about working it RIGHT, without putting any strain on our vocal cords.

Trust me, this is scary shit…. and prior to the surgery… not being able to sing even the easiest of pop/indie songs made me suicidal (I’m not kidding).

So if you love to sing, and if you’re a guy (female singers don’t run into these problems nearly as much as men, from my research), don’t be afraid to regularly schedule a strobe or flexible scope appointment with an ENT/Otolaryngologist…. and do the RIGHT warmups…. never, ever push your voice beyond what’s comfortable.

I’m hoping my voice will be ok so I can finally finish all these half-written songs I’ve been dying to finish for the past 3 years….

Much love,