Singer-Songwriter Success: Uniting Your Singing Voice with Your Songwriting Voice
A little over a year ago, I became fascinated with the singer-songwriter genre and wrote my Master’s thesis about some of my favorite artists who call themselves singer-songwriters—what makes them tick, what makes them successful. Of all the genres under the commercial music umbrella, “singer-songwriter” is perhaps the most diverse. Its name simply implies that any singer who writes and performs their own material, regardless of their style, is a singer-songwriter, and that is absolutely true. While traditionally singer-songwriters may have been folk singers who started writing more intimate lyrics and less general protest songs, singer-songwriters these days can be pop, rock, country, EDM, musical theatre, Americana, jazz, and everything in-between. What unites singer-songwriters across styles seems to be not just the fact that they write and perform their own material, but that they possess a uniqueness in their singing voices, perspectives, and perhaps even personality that sets them apart from others in their styles. So, a successful singer-songwriter is personal and unique, and therefore it’s important for singer-songwriters to know themselves and their voices extremely well, in order to share their voices with their audience.
So how do we as voice teachers help our singer-songwriter students know and love their own voices? Can we even help them write songs that suit their own unique vocal characteristics? Clearly, voice teachers spend a great deal of their energy thinking about the singing voice—how to help a student overcome technical barriers and find their most natural-sounding tone. But I think it’s easy to forget that “voice” not only refers to singing, but to perspective and style. Writers think mostly about this type of voice, and the great songwriting teacher Pat Pattison explains the writer’s point of view and the possible link between these two types of voices:
Finding your voice as a writer is a lot like finding your voice as a singer. If you can carry a tune, you can learn to do it better. You can find, by exploration, where your voice feels strongest, where it feels the most like you. You try different styles, different timbres, and different approaches and, slowly for some, more quickly for others, the real you emerges… Writing is like that too. You have a writing voice, something that feels the most like you. Your job is to find it.
- Pat Pattison, Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice, pgs. 1-2
You are utterly unique—there is no one else in the world exactly like you, with your experiences, thoughts, tendencies, personality. Your job as a singer-songwriter is to find, learn, and love both your singing and songwriting voices, which are inextricable from WHO YOU ARE, the real you. And our job as voice teachers is to help singer-songwriters find their voices, both singing and songwriting, and unite them in their work. That is true artistry; that is the goal.
I explored all of these thoughts at (perhaps excessive) length in my thesis, and I want to condense for you here the most helpful points I found. Essentially, I studied five different successful singer-songwriters, developed a system for comparing and contrasting their unique vocal characteristics, and analyzed how they may have been inspired by their singing voices in their writing. I have since used this system with my own students to help them know their singing voices better, in service of helping them write songs to suit their vocal traits.
Step 1: Know Your Voice
The students who come in to voice lessons represent a wide range of not only experience with vocal training, but of familiarity with the sound of their own voices. Even some students who have trained for years may have been so focused on technical goals that they are unaware of what they actually sound like, and what makes their voice different from others. So every time I get a new voice student, regardless of their experience level, I ask them to tell me three things they like about their voice, and then one concrete goal they’d like to achieve. The three things they like can be anything from range to timbre to style to expressiveness, and the goal is usually a technical one, though not always. If you think this sounds easy, you’d be surprised how many students can’t tell me three different things they like about their voices, or how often they qualify their responses with negatives, saying things like, “Well, I like my range, but I’d like to expand it,” or “I like my dark raspy tone, even though it’s kinda weird.” Once you get these three things out of them, encourage them to write them down in a journal, put them on their bulletin board—something that gets them continuously thinking about those aspects of their voices that they love and that are uniquely them. Unless those three favorite characteristics are unhealthy or somehow forced and unnatural, these are things that shouldn’t change with voice lessons, and it’s good for both student and teacher to remember that.
Another great tool for assessing vocal characteristics is the continuum I developed for my thesis, based on the one Scott McCoy created for his textbook Your Voice: An Inside View (2012). Opposite qualities are placed on either end of a continuum, and both you and your student can fill it out while listening to a recording of your student’s voice. I believe most of these terms are easily understood by all voice teachers and most students, once you explain the terms. The only one that may be unfamiliar is “rhythmically driving vs. rhythmically relaxed,” by which I mean, is the singer ahead of the beat, behind the beat, or squarely on the beat when singing?
The experience of listening to their own voices not to critique any shortcomings, but simply to discover what their natural tendencies and traits are, can be eye-opening for many students who have never thought about what their voice really sounds like, but only how to reach a high note, get rid of tension, etc. It’s easy for students to forget that while there’s much we can improve about the voice with training, it’s a unique aspect of who you are, and there are parts of it you cannot and should not desire to change. Physically, you can change your hair color if you want to, but you can’t change how tall you are, no matter how hard you try. It’s likely students may have some strong feelings or insecurities about how their voices really sound—that’s all part of who they are too!
There are a few other informative characteristics of voices that don’t fit on an opposites continuum—encourage your students to also be familiar with these parameters of their voices:
Range—though this can be improved with training, at a certain point it is set.
Tessitura—this can actually be more essential to understand for singers who write for themselves than range sometimes. Explaining that there is a range of notes in which they feel most comfortable and in which the majority of their songs should lie is crucial for some students.
Registration tendencies—some students may have a predilection for head voice or falsetto, or for a light mix, or for chest or chest-dominant mix and belting—know it, love it, use it!
Accent—some singers have regional accents they use when they sing, some don’t; some may affect a “singing accent” like a faux-Cockney punk or indie pop voice. Or they may not have an accent per se, but just an unusual way of pronouncing some words or sounds. It’s helpful to determine what is truly important and natural in their style and what comes across as affected or imitative.
Phrasing—one of the best ways for students to experiment with their sound and figure out what they like. Do they like to rush phrases ahead or backphrase, are they free with their time or generally sticking to the beat? It’s a different and more complex consideration than just rhythmically driving or relaxed, which is also important but contained in the continuum.
Extended techniques—unusual tricks like vocal breaks, growls, yodels, slides, hums, and other such devices come very naturally to some singers and are important to note.
Step 2: Write for Your Voice
Let’s look at an example of how some artists know their singing voices so well that they’ve developed their songwriting voices to suit their vocal characteristics. Regina Spektor is one of my very favorite artists: quirky, personal, lilting yet melancholy both vocally and in her songwriting. Thus, she represents an excellent melding of her singing and songwriting voices to create one artist persona. I analyzed her vocal characteristics using her song “Fidelity:”
Spektor’s voice is rather in the middle in many aspects, but certain tendencies do stick out. She often sings with a breathy tone, and has an extremely agile voice and soft consonants. Her light, bright voice is the core of her sound, as are her back-placed vowels, and she has a tendency to sing lightly in head voice and to use percussive vocal sounds like slight glottal stops, almost sounding like hiccups. Consider how she uses all of this to her advantage in what is arguably her biggest hit, “Fidelity:” The melody sits relatively high, allowing her to easily access her head and head-dominant mix registers, and her hook features a hiccupping melisma on the words “heart” and “fall,” demonstrating her agility, light glottal stops, and relatively back placement on the [ɑ] vowel. Spektor is clearly aware that her agility is a beautifully unique aspect of her voice, as she writes to suit it on several other hits including “Eet” and “Us.”
This is the part where it gets tricky to give advice on how to write for your own voice—there are so many types of voices and so many ways to write to suit them! I have come up with a list of several ideas, exercises, and writing prompts you can give to your students (or try out yourself!) once you have discovered their vocal traits and tendencies.
Think about those three things you like about your voice and pick one of those things. What kinds of songs have suited that aspect in the past, and can you write a song or part of a song that suits it?
What’s your favorite vowel when you warm up? [ɑ, e, i, o, u, æ] or anything in between? Brainstorm a list of words that use that vowel and maybe that even rhyme with each other, and see if that inspires a song.
Have you noticed a word you tend to pronounce in an unusual way when you sing? Make it part of a hook in a song, or rhyme it with some other words you say similarly!
One of the best ways to get to know your singing voice as a songwriter is to improvise melodies over a chord progression. You can use a common one like 12-bar-blues or rhythm changes, or create your own. Use la-la-la or just sing what you feel and see what melodies, rhythms, and sounds your voice tends to create!
Do the same as above, but with a drum beat instead of (or in addition to) a chord progression. Garageband is a great resource for this, and many loop pedals come with drum beats as well.
This is a difficult one—how would you describe your style and personality as an artist, without directly referencing your voice? Are you sweet, sassy, aggressive, laid-back, thoughtful, raw, direct? How does your voice reflect those traits?
Figure out where your most powerful notes lie and write a song or hook that puts a spotlight on those notes.
If you write lyrics first, speak them to yourself. Speak them conversationally, with no rhythm attached. The way you say lyrics naturally is your most unique way of communicating them, and may inform your rhythm and phrasing when you put a melody to them.
Consider the emotions implied by the sounds you make as a singer—what emotion does head voice evoke, or belting, or a vocal break, or rasp? Try to marry the emotions implied by your vocal choice with the emotions in your song, especially where range and melody are concerned.
If your voice is conversational, try writing a song with dense, speech-like rhythms; if your voice is more ringing, try writing longer, more legato passages.
If your voice is agile, experiment with fast melodic passages and melismas.
If your voice tends to be rhythmically driving, experiment with styles like rock, pop, and EDM that may be well suited to that tendency. If it’s more rhythmically relaxed, try writing in an R&B, jazz, or folk style. Even if this is outside of your style comfort zone, it may influence your writing in your own style in some way.
If you like singing in a certain register, like falsetto or head voice, try writing a song whose range makes it easy for you to sing in that register.
If you like using a certain vocal technique like slides, growls, or vocal breaks, write a song that exploits those tricks. Alanis Morissette is a great example for how to use vocal breaks in songwriting; Jewel and Joni Mitchell use yodeling well; Ray Lamontagne uses slides frequently in his melodies; and Aretha Franklin demonstrates how a growl can really make a song.
I hope these tools and tips are helpful to any singer-songwriters and voice teachers out there looking to craft a unique sound for themselves as artists. Your voices, both singing and songwriting, comprise the largest part of who you are and how you communicate with the world. Thus they must be inextricably linked to each other, and the better you know and love your voices, the more honest, distinctive work you’ll create. A singer-songwriter’s success depends upon the personal, unique nature of their work, and it is their job as artists and our job as teachers to help them find, love, and unite their singing and songwriting voices.
References and Further Reading
Carriage, Leigh. 2011. “Repercussions of Uniqueness for the 21st Century Vocalist.” Paper Presentation, Promoting Excellence in Music Education: 8th Asia-Pacific Symposium on Music Education Research (APSMER). Taipei, Taiwan. July 4th-6th.
Edwards, Matthew. 2014. So You Want to Sing Rock ’n’ Roll: A Guide for Professionals. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hoppenjans, Kelly. 2015. “Finding Your Voice: Making Connections Between Vocal Quality and Songwriting Through the Analysis of Five Female Singer-Songwriters.” MMus thesis, Belmont University.
Lebon, Rachel L. 1999. The Professional Vocalist: A Handbook for Commercial Singers and Teachers. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
McCoy, Scott. 2012. Your Voice: An Inside View. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Inside View Press.