Whether amateur or professional, all the best singers are masters of the art of listening: tuning the voice requires that they focus their attention simultaneously on the music surrounding them and the sounds they are producing, weaving their vocal melody seamlessly into the instrumental soundscape.
In the modern digital recording studio (something that has become so affordable many successful composers have one up in the bedroom) state-of-the-art technology that marries sound to digital imagery – a visual ‘language’ – is available to anyone with a laptop. This way of producing music has become so commonplace that I was able to surprise a student who is also a sound engineer by using verbal descriptions for the different qualities of sound the voice can make.
He was completely at ease with the idea of harmonising sounds as an essentially visual process, and it was only when watching a BBC programme on Music Technology for teenagers that I suddenly understood how anyone could think that the process of layering streams of sounds to make recordings could be achieved using only this sort of visual feedback.
We have an older visual musical language of course; one so flexible that – however keen both the BBC presenter and his interviewees were to claim otherwise – reading music remains a valuable skill for anyone working outside the narrow field of dance music. You have to marvel at the intuitive brilliance of the mind that first came up with a way of notating music so that groups of humans can come together (even in very large numbers) and perform music with beauty and coherence, and that such a simple idea enables us to continue to play the music that brought our ancestors together all those years ago.
Modern recording technology allows us to organise sounds into musical compositions by accessing those sounds as easy-to-read visual images, liberating us from the painstaking process of learning to read music notation the old-fashioned way, by which I mean the many years of practising required to “programme” the necessary neural pathways into the brain with the aid of a musical instrument.
There was one thing however that was obvious to me as I watched these young music makers explore alternatives to musicianship – singers are still pretty much irreplaceable. You might be able to make a marketable singer out of an unskilled one by abusing the mighty power of Auto-Tune, but by its very nature it leaches the charisma out of a voice as it injects the tunefulness into it. Of course Cher on Auto-Tune still sounds like Cher – but then she was a seasoned performer experimenting with a new gimmick, not someone faking a skill they didn’t actually possess.
Another modern musical phenomenon* is to take these complex musical productions and pare them back down to the minimum – a voice or two, and a guitar or piano. Only ‘real’ songs survive this process, and modern pop music continues to churn out a good supply of real songs that we will still be singing to each other a few generations on. To offer a personal favourite, here is Biffy Clyro’s rather lovely version of Rianna’s Umbrella:
(…by the way, this is also unfortunately an example of a rather damaged-sounding voice. I hope he is getting support for it – this kind of problem can lead to more long-term injury if ignored for too long).
Toning, Overtoning, Vagal Toning
Tuning Your Ears & Your Nervous System
Sunday February 13th – Online + Recording
2 pm – 5 pm GMT [9 am – 12 pm EST]
£35 (suggested fee, or any donation welcome)
In my ongoing mission to discover the full potential of the sound-making capacities of the human voice, it has become more and more clear to me over the years that the way we learn to listen is a key aspect of our musical and vocal development. I am now confident that it is possible to refine and enhance our hearing abilities by training ourselves to listen in a more conscious and attentive manner.
Listening to our own voice with focussed awareness is important for both enriching the tonal qualities of the vocal sounds we can produce, and increasing the ease with which we produce those sounds.
The effectiveness of our hearing is hard to quantify, and the slow deterioration that occurs as we age is not easy to recognise while it is happening – it is very likely that we may not know what we are losing until it is gone. As a lover of sound who would see little point in living without her music I have been interested in finding ways to maintain and extend my hearing function for many years.
I am still exploring what improvements if any might be possible when it comes to audio perception, but I am confident that we can all enhance and hone our listening abilities – both regarding the way we perceive the myriad sounds in our immediate environment, and in the metaphorical sense of enhancing the way we focus our attention inward onto our internal sensation, and outward to the glorious soundscape in which we live. This workshop will be an exploration of possible ways to increase our ability to both widen and narrow our attention, using all our senses, but focusing on hearing in particular.
We will use our own sounds – vocal, internal and percussive – to increase our whole-self awareness, and from there focus inward in order to explore the different resonating spaces inside ourselves.
We will get a chance to experience and explore the effects of sounding our harmonic overtones on our sensory awareness.
This will be a great workshop for anyone interested in voice, chanting meditation, enhanced self-awareness, and all types of performance, plus of course any interest in improving listening skills – I hope it will even enhance natural empathy, as I believe this is one of the effects of the way we as human animals vibrate in sympathy with one another, reading the emotions of the people around us. The performer’s job is to trigger that sympathetic vibration in the audience so that performer and listener become one for a few moments. Join me and learn how to pick up some of those ‘Good Vibrations’!
For a longer blog post on Listening and Hearing click here.
…And just for the hell of it, to finish, here is another version of a song that works surprisingly well as an acoustic duet – The Civil Wars version of Billie Jean:
*Originally published 21.6.13!
Main image – grateful thanks to Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash