Matthew Edwards

Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Analyzing style in pop/rock songs

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Beamed eighth and sixteenth notes on a score

When I was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I spent A LOT of time analyzing classical music and discussing tonal structure and form. I’m sure many of my readers had similar experiences and today I want to share some great news – those same skills can be used to learn pop/rock style! The reality is no one lives in an artistic vacuum. All artists learn from those who came before them and they draw upon those influences to find their own artistic voice (check out “Steal like an Artist” by Austin Kleon).

When students are learning to sing in a new style, it is very beneficial for them to really dive into each piece and analyze the little details that come together to create the bigger picture. I call this listening on the micro level (small details) instead of the macro level (the big picture). Today I am sharing a PDF of a worksheet that I use with my students to do just that. You can download the worksheet here (Analyzing Your Pop_Rock Song Worksheet) and you have permission to print and distribute it as long as the copyright statement at the bottom remains in place.

Let’s walk through the steps. 

The first time you listen to the song you are going to pay attention to the following:

  • Does the text tell a story or set a mood? For instance “The Story” by Brandi Carlisle tells a story, but “Good for you” by Selena Gomez sets a mood.
  • Is the song melodic, rhythmic, or a combination? “Don’t” by Ed Sheeran would be considered primarily rhythmic, whereas “Faithfully” by Journey would be considered melodic. Many songs mix together elements of both.
  • What is the primary register? You can use whatever terms you prefer for this – chest, head, chest-mix, head-mix; thin fold, thick fold; curb, overdrive; etc.
  • Are there register changes/breaks? If yes, mark them in your music. 
  • What is the perceived effort level? Does it sound like the singer is using low, medium, or high effort when singing.

Next you are going to listen for rhythmic emphasis in both the accompaniment and the vocal line and determine whether the emphasis is primarily on 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. You will then use a carrot (“<“) to mark the emphasis in both the accompaniment and the vocal line.

After you have determined the rhythmic emphasis, listen for words and consonants that are emphasised and underline them.

Next ask yourself whether the diction is crisp (for example “Stay” by Lisa Loeb”) or more lazy (for example “Blowin’ in the Wind” as performed by Bob Dylan). Think about how you would describe the tone quality – is it dark, bright, speech-like/neutral, etc. Also listen for an accent. This is rare, but if you are trying to sing a country song or a British rock song, it should be considered.

Next you want to think about what is happening at the laryngeal level. Does the voice sound free (neutral/free-floating larynx) or does it sound constricted (locked/high larynx). Then you want to listen to the onsets and releases in the song and determine if they are clean, glottal, aspirate, fry, etc. You will also want to mark scoops, slides, fall-offs, and other phrasing choices. Finally, mark any instances where there is vibrato. The assumption in pop/rock is that the voice will be straight-tone, but depending on the style this may not always be the case.

In addition to being a great exercise for your students, this process also takes some of the pressure off of you (the teacher) to be an expert at every style. I primarily teach CCM music and no matter how much I listen to Spotify, I cannot keep up with the tastes of my students. Some sources claim there are over 35 million songs on iTunes. If that is true, it is IMPOSSIBLE to listen to every song in the iTunes catalog in your lifetime. So instead of trying to spend your whole life catching up on all of the sub-genres that are constantly evolving, teach your students to analyze their own songs and you will set them up for a lifetime of success.

Thanks for reading and be sure to sign-up on the bottom right of this screen to follow the blog.

~Matt

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5 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Analyzing style in pop/rock songs

  1. lancastershire
    February 29, 2016

    This blog is so excellent! Thanks for sharing your wisdom. The role of the voice teacher in the collegiate studio is changing so quickly. It’s a good thing, but can seem overwhelming for teachers who only trained classically. Your posts are thoughtful and always have golden “nuggets” that I can put into practice. So great and appreciated!
    P.s. Today’s post has a “their” that should be a “there.” 😳 Darn stupid spell-check. Someday, it will catch up and be able to understand context!

    • Matthew Edwards
      February 29, 2016

      Thank you for the great feedback! And I fixed the “their” 😉 That’s what I get for writing at 1:00am……. Have a great week!

      Matt

  2. Maira Jaber
    February 29, 2016

    I love it. I usually spend a lot of time with my students making analysis of everything related with voice in the song: voice style, use of different registers, dynamics, breathing, use of background vocals, and so on. I like your approuch of analysing other elements of the song too. I’m gonna add it next time. 😉 Thank you!

  3. Kate baker
    March 2, 2016

    I see your point in doing this. However,……Somehow analyzing rock with is about rebellion and f)*_)*_)* it and about breaking rules. Feels weird to make it into rules. Kinda looses the heart. Also each person has a different body. Muscles, ligaments etc may be longer and thicker or basically different sizes. Some may need to tilt on one note others on another. Remember singers first gift is to imitate sometimes we make it harder than it is and take away the naturalness.

    • Matthew Edwards
      March 2, 2016

      I resisted doing this for many years. However, my students who wanted to sing rock and came from a classical or musical theatre background had no idea what they could do or what they could get away with. The idea for this worksheet came from reading about the Rolling Stones and how they would buy a bunch of blues records, imitate the songs, then start mixing stylistic elements together to find their own sound. L.A. vocal coach Roger Love also talks a lot about the value of imitating when learning to sing with style. When I started using this worksheet, I found that my singers started thinking differently and singing better. Now I would never do this with someone who was already singing pop/rock successfully. I also quit using it once it is clear that the student is getting a handle on singing in styles other than what they have been trained in. I agree, we need to cultivate original artists, not imitators. And we have to find what works best for each individual singer. Good points Kate, thanks for the comments! ~Matt

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This entry was posted on February 29, 2016 by in Misc. Thoughts.

Ranked the #1 New Release in "Vocal and Singing" on Amazon.com (October 2014), "So You Want To Sing Rock 'N' Roll?" covers voice science, vocal health, technique, style, and how to find your artistic voice in a way that is beneficial to both singers and teachers. Order your copy today!

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