Electronic Mysteries

While shopping today I was in a store that played “top 40s” songs as background music. I was struck by how similar all the songs were to each other and how much the voices were the same. I admit, I don’t follow these songs much so I don’t profess to be an expert at discerning one artist from another, but it was striking that I was listening to different singers and different songs but everything sounded alike.

Why?

What’s going on is based entirely on marketing strategies. Everyone has to sound “trendy” so the artists’ work will sell. The voices are mechanically manipulated such that everyone’s flaws are fixed, but then everyone is perfected to sound more like a machine-made voice, not a human one. The “beat” is also controlled by machinery. Human beings, playing on their own, aren’t so strict. And the amount of “alteration” in the arrangement with its layers and layers of electronic manipulation is so dense that it, too, doesn’t sound much like what you would hear “live and in person”, either.

It’s true that not all styles of music are this bad. Sometimes live albums are made that are honest, but even there, if the sound system was sophisticated, and the engineer skilled, things can be changed “in the moment” or the recording can be tweaked after the fact. It remains true that fewer and fewer people, especially those who are not personally involved in making music themselves, get to hear a live human being singing full out without any kind of help. Acoustic performance is rare (except possibly in church) and that’s a shame. In my opinion one of the reasons why our young students have such unrealistic expectations of themselves as singers is that they have almost no experience listening to excellent singers who perform without any help.

Training a voice to be the best it can be is not dependent on a microphone, a set of monitors and speakers or on an engineer. It depends on your vocal folds, your mouth and throat, your lungs and your belly muscles. It depends on your relationship to pitches, vowels and consonants and on things like vibrato and tone quality.  Electronics can help (or interfere) but it can NEVER substitute for the voice itself and how it is working as it emerges from someone’s body. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you sing, the body does what it does with those vocal folds and the rest of the physical equipment. Either you work with that to get a better result or you rely on something outside of yourself than can never be entirely yours.

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