For Singable Songs, Control the Vocal Range

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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SingerMost people write songs for themselves, even if they dream that someone else (famous, hopefully) might ever sing it. The key you choose is not really that important, because key can be easily altered to fit any singer’s voice. But vocal range becomes a concern because you want to be sure that you’re writing something that sits within the practical range of most singers’ abilities.

Some of the world’s biggest hits have used melodies that are remarkably constricted. “Hound Dog” barely goes the interval of a 4th, with only one or two notes outside that range. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” is even more restricted, with a melody that sits mostly within the restricted confines of the major 3rd.

But other songs have a much larger range; notably, the American National Anthem spans almost an octave and a half in just the first two bars!

As usual, there are no hard and fast rules that apply, but there certainly is advice you should consider:

  1. A melody that is too wide can make it more difficult to establish melodic patterns, and make the song difficult to sing, so keep it within an octave.
  2. A melody that is too narrow can be boring if the lyric doesn’t captivate the listener.
  3. A good melody should use occasional leaps, especially upward leaps, but should be comprised mainly of stepwise motion.
  4. Good verse melodies will often move upward in its second half, to meet the chorus.
  5. A good chorus melody shows a contour that peaks somewhere after its middle point.

Of all of these guidelines, keeping the vocal range under control will result in songs that more singers will be interested in, because songs with a large range will be more difficult to move. Consider that a large range means that the singer is already singing close to the top and bottom of their range, and that limits how much the song can be moved.

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