How Vocal Range Intensifies Musical Emotion

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Bob Dyan - Like a Rolling StoneYou’ll notice that some instruments, like the trumpet, sound more intense the higher they’re played. As the trumpeter plays higher and higher in range, we hear more and more strength and power. So if you’re trying to convey an increasing sense of emotional energy with a trumpet, you’ll want to move into the upper register of the instrument.

The human voice operates in nearly the same way. As listeners, we perceive an increase of musical energy and emotion when the voice moves higher. But it’s more than an issue of actual pitch. It has more to do with tessitura, that word we use to describe the basic range of a specific singer.

Here’s how you might experience tessitura in action: If we listen to a woman sing the G above middle C, we tend to hear it as a note that’s in the low-to-mid-area of her basic range. It will sound relatively relaxed and unstrained. If you hear most men try to sing that very same pitch, you’ll hear that it’s in the very high part of their range, and you’ll hear the intensity. The same pitch — two different tessituras.

As a songwriter, you’ll want to consider tessitura, even though most singers will eventually move a song into a key that is more-or-less centred in their basic range. But it’s still an important consideration for you, because, like singers, songs themselves have a basic range. And how you use that range will determine how well (or not) you control the emotional impact of your music.

Every song has a range from which the notes are chosen, and for most songs, that range is surprisingly small. For example, most of the melody for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is constructed using the three notes C, D and E, with only occasional notes slightly above (to F) and below (down to G).

In fact, it is that constricted range that enhances the emotional level of the lyric. When he sings, “How does it feel…”, straining up to that F, which, though it’s only a semitone higher than the E he’s sung over and over before, sounds like an entirely new vocal range, we hear the emotion of the song suddenly erupt.

You may not be able to control what key potential singers of your song will choose, but you can control the basic range of the verse as it compares to the chorus. You do this by keeping the following in mind as you write your song melodies:

  1. Place emotional words, phrases, and even concepts higher in pitch than other lyrical content.
  2. Move melodies upward as they move from verse to chorus.
  3. As you modify your lyric while working on writing the song, be willing and prepared to also modify your melody.
  4. Try to be true to the natural pulse of the individual words in your lyric as you work out your melody’s rhythm.
  5. Keep in mind that dynamic level (i.e., loudness) of music works hand-in-hand with vocal range. The effects can be subtle, but tremendously important.
  6. Higher notes are more effective if they’re rare.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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  1. quick question about this post. In your opinion, let’s say some notes are a bit beyond the range of the singer’s chest voice and he/she slips (purposefully) into falsetto, does this negate or lessen the otherwise strong emotional impact of the higher notes? Seeing as those same notes, perhaps a D4 or something, would be an incredible stretch for this person in chest voice, but quite comfortable in a breathy falsetto. Thanks Gary! this is a helpful post, I think. Appreciate any response if you’re schedule allows 🙂

  2. Another excellent post from you Gary, your books deserve to be available in old fashioned Book Format.

    Sadly the average lyric writer, (Pro Writers Apart), never consider tessitura or the benefits of variable meter in a song.
    How many lyric writers would start a song with a two note phrase? I have never seen one on a web forum, or via a few attempted collaborations

    Take this song from “Cats”

    verse one:
    Mid- Night
    Not a sound from the Pave -ment (Et-cetera)

    taken from “Memorys” composed by by Andrew Lloyd Weber with words by the shows producer Trevor Nunn.

    starting a song with a two or three note phrase immediately draws the listener in,
    of course you cant do that every time, but it’s worth doing now and then.

    When we write to a melody , the result is nearly always so much better, than trying to fit melody to a unskilled lyric. if you can do both at once you will always get a better result.

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