Prejudice Against Singers?

I’ve written here before about prejudice regarding singers. It’s odd that this exists in so many places and shows up in a variety of forms.

Very few college composition programs teach young composers how to write for the voice along traditional classical lines. These “lines” (guidelines) are based on the laws of physics (how a pipe vibrates) and on vocal function (the vocal folds are there to protect the lungs, not make singing sounds). How is it possible that someone could graduate with a degree in composition and not know that there are established pitch ranges for voices? Many composers write things that singers either can’t sing or shouldn’t sing and don’t seem to know that is the case. I have spoken to opera composers who think singers are “fussy” because they don’t like to sing certain things. I have written about at least one opera composer who wrote an entire work without knowing that singers have “this thing called the passaggio they don’t like to sing in” until after he had finished it. This man was not young nor unsuccessful, but it was his first opera.

Many composers don’t know that they don’t know. They are unaware that there are ways to write for a voice that make the voice sound better and the music sound better, because there are ways to set the lyrics (and the vowels and consonants) and ways to set the pitches in the line that allow the singer to be expressive. Music that is written badly for the voice makes both the vocalist and the composer look bad but the composer is seldom the one to take the blame.

If you look at what is being written for Broadway now, you have arrangements that go to the highest possible pitch range a belter can manage and stay there for the entire show. Why? Well, because. And, if you look at who is doing this work, it is mostly men. Many of them do not, have not ever, won’t sing. I would also bet that many of them have never even read a book about singing.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because it is possible, doesn’t mean it’s optimal. Just because you like something doesn’t mean that it’s good.

Singers and their voices deserve respect. They deserve to have composers write music that lets them sound good and sing in a way that is easy. Singers deserve being treated like they matter. Singers deserve having others take their comments and their feedback in a meaningful, not derogatory, manner. Singers need to be listened to, not dismissed as “pains in the neck” by composers who think they know something when they do not.

If you write for the voice, LEARN what voices can and cannot do from a traditional, healthy place. If you think your music is “special” and “different” and deserves to be sung by “amazing vocalists” who have no limits, think again. Only singers with little experience and training think they have no limits. They, like you, don’t know that they don’t know. If you want to be remembered and you want your material to be remembered, take the time to find out what singers do when they are functioning well and write accordingly. Don’t brag about your ignorance by writing music that shows the world how much you don’t know about singing and singers.

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2 thoughts on “Prejudice Against Singers?”

  1. Hear hear! Although, there are a lot of composers who write for other instruments without bothering to find out if what they’ve written is possible, but not nearly as much as with voice. Some even think it’s quaint that you should take the trouble to find out how the voice works. Also annoying are composers writing for opera that have no familiarity with theatre, as well as not being interested in how the voice works.

    1. Thank you, Mary Jane. You are one composer who understands the voice and knows how to write for it beautifully. Wish there were more like you, but you are so unique, that would be impossible. Thanks for your comments! Jeanie

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