The Voice behind the Music

Archive for July, 2015

Hearing the Melody

A melody (from Greek μελῳδία, melōidía, “singing, chanting”),[1] also tune, voice, or line, is a succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity.

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

When you take away the words from a song, what’s left? Yes, that illusive melody! This comes up time and again with my students. You are not the only one who doesn’t know the melody when you take away the words or remove the familiar orchestration. There might be a section of the melody that you habitually skim over, and that just needs some loving attention. There is not something horribly wrong with you; you are not tone deaf, or miserably untalented. You probably just don’t know the melody, or how to listen for it. This is more likely to happen with a beginning student, but it is not uncommon with even the most experienced singers.

What is a melody? I think of the melody as the frame of the song.  If you were building a frame for a house, you would take careful measurements and note the distance between beams.  If you didn’t, your structure would pretty quickly fall down. The distance between two notes is called an interval.  What makes a melody interesting are the different combinations of intervals that shape the song. But if you are singing along and miss one of the intervals, it can be contagious, pulling the entire melody off center. Your structure warps, and your song falls apart.

If you play an instrument, it can help you find the melody. You can just pick out the melody to get an idea of the space between each note. Does it go up or down, and how far is it between each note? If you’re not used to doing this, it can take some time – but it is a practice well worth the effort, and it will get easier the more you do it.  Again, this is useful for even the most experienced singer – it will help you clean up your sound, and give you a better map of the road you are traveling on.

What I’ve noticed is that the way we THINK about a melody can interfere with our actually hearing it. For example, a student is missing one note repeatedly, and then says that they think the note is really high. When I pick it out on the guitar, we discover that it is just one whole step away (very close). They can then readjust the way they THINK about the note, and be able to find and sing it.

Another tool for tuning up on intervals can be a user-friendly app such as “Play by Ear”. I like this app because you can practice intervals one at a time (such as half step, whole steps, thirds, fourths, and so on), by listening and repeating.  This will help you recognize the distance between notes by ear, so that you can pick up melodies with more ease down the road. However, I recommend using apps with a cautionary note: if you are a brand new singer who has difficulty finding ANY note, the experience can be really frustrating – so approach using apps with caution. You will get better results by working with a patient teacher, or by spending time with musician friends and figuring it out together.

You CAN train your EAR and your VOCAL FOLDS to sing in pitch. I haven’t met a person yet that could not learn this. It requires patience and practice. Getting the melody right is part of singing, but it is not the whole equation. There are many aspects of singing that matter as much or more than being spot on with every note. So be patient, take the time to train yourself, and have fun. Relax and TRUST: the melody is there, you will learn to hear it, and it will guide and support you throughout the song.