Episode 60 – The Power of Words

Words have meaning, but they also have sounds. Inside of each word are musical colors, textures, and rhythms just waiting to be brought to life by the singer.

In this episode, John discusses a deeper way to look at language and how to add this new layer of depth and complexity to your singing.


Episode Transcript

Episode 60 – The Power of Words


Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist. Today, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite things which are WORDS. Yes, today will be words about words.


Words mean something but they also sound like something. What I want you to do as a singer is really start looking at the sound of the words that you need to sing, not just their meaning. What I want you to do is just start finding deeper and deeper levels to this singing thing. The sounds of words are one of the areas that great singers really know how to mine. They used the different sounds within words for musical effect, in terms of rhythm, phrasing. But they also use the sound for textural effect, even emotional effect, and even using sounds to represent the idea or the word itself – something called “prosody”. It’s one of those words that you read and like to think you know, and then realized I don’t know how exactly to pronounce it. I think I’ve pronounced it in different ways, so I’m going to say “prosody”. But that’s the idea of the artistic sound of the word – the word and the music coming together, and they’re in lock-step. And you can utilize the sound of the words to achieve this.


Some of the different word types that you’ll find in lyrics is – I want you to look at the consonants, particularly if there’s alliteration. Now that’s a word I know how to say. But alliteration is just a fancy word for the same sound starting a series of words in a line, just like I pointed out, recently.
I broke down Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City. And the first line he sings is “A boy is born..” He took that B sound, that alliteration of the repeating B sounds, and uses it to punctuate and keep the song rhythmically dynamic.

One of my favorite uses of alliteration is a Peter Gabriel song called Secret World. The line he says is “And so I watched you wash your hair underwater unaware..”, and all those W’s. Just the way he sings it and the emotional context of the song, the texture, it really is beautiful. The sounds of the words themselves are incredibly musical and incredibly emotional. It’s the mature, intelligent vocalist that digs down and find these sounds and uses them in the correct way.


There’s also just where the stresses of the words are. You can stress different parts of the word. You do want to kind of follow language on this, but occasionally singers will play with that. Recent one that comes to mind is Katy Perry’s Unconditionally. She hits the accent “Uncondi-SHA-nal” – that’s it. The word is not “Uncondi-SHA-nal”, it’s Unconditional. But she doesn’t hit the accent at the same place. Some will argue that that is not great songwriting, and others argue that that’s actually brilliant because it kind of creates this hook. I kind of go with the second one.


You know, language is to be played with. I remember being a little child not understanding how the Beatles could have a hard day’s night. I asked my mom about that, and she told me “It’s called poetic license.” That just stuck with me. It’s like “Oh. so poetic license is this magic thing that we can use to apply words in different ways and say things in different ways that in real life wouldn’t make sense but in this poetic license world do make sense. I just love that idea of poetic license with language.

The way that you look at the lyrics, especially if you’re going to be doing original songs. I mean, if you write your own lyrics, I want you to really pay attention to not just the word you’re using and the rhyme schemes, but the actual texture and sounds of the words, themselves. Are they starting with hard consonants? Are they starting with aspirate, or softer like an H sound? Or getting right of with G sound, GUH – really hard. How are the words ending? Are they ending softly with a vowel, as the word She? Or does it end with a harder consonant Sheep or Sheen, that you can hold on to? Seem, or a word like Shut – and that word is kind of cool because it’s sort of mix the sound of something shutting. Those are called “onomatopoeia”. I’m pretty sure that’s the word where the word sounds like when it’s talking about, like BANG. But you want to use and find these words, you want to find the deeper sound and context within them.

Then, what I want you to look at beyond the consonants are the vowel sounds. I talked a ton about vowels, this episode is no different. But when you look at a word like Soon, and you’ve got to sing it high, there’s a high likelyhood that you may want to go into falsetto with that, or if it’s an E vowel. Because those vowels very much lead themselves to flipping, or to going falsetto.

Whitney Houston on I Will Always Love You, she belts “And I..” because AH is always a great belt vowel, “Will always love you..”. And she flips into a very heady sound as she does a little vocal rift on the You. She utilizes the sound of OO and its tendency to want to go heady to great effect. So if you have those more rounded vowels OO’s and EE’s, is the composer looking for a lighter touch there, especially if they’re being sustained?


Now you will hit those words where they need to be belted, and you’re going to pronounce them differently. Those vowels are going to have to open up in order to have that intensity. They’re going to open up because you’re going to need to bring in higher frequencies into the sound. Basically, when we round our lips for a vowel it actually acts like a filter. You can hear it to my vocal fry. But it sounds like the pitch is dropping. Actually, all I’m doing is just taking away the upper frequencies. If I go the other way, then you’ll hear as if the pitch goes up but I’m only adding back the upper frequencies. So on those more open vowels like AH,EH, the tendency is for them to have more acoustic content in that that’s going to be higher frequencies. It’s not going to filter out as much. So those sounds are going to be beltier. They’re going to be more in your face, they’re going to be brighter. When you round for OO, OH, EE, EH, or move the tongue forward for those more of closed vowels, if you will. Those tend to boost some of the higher frequencies.


E does another thing. E actually adds in higher frequencies, but then also bumps another part of the sound wave really low so it lands itself very well to flipping, for other reasons, without going too far into the science. But that’s why yodelers yodeline, yodele-ee-oo. They flip on the EE and the OO. Acoustically those vowels can sound headier, they can sound warmer, more hollow, especially the OO. So when you breakdown the words look and see how bright or dark the vowels are. Do you want to make a choice to exploit that brighter/dark sound? Make the bright vowels extra bright, make the dark vowels extra dark or warm? Or do you want to take them the other way? Do you want to darken up a bright vowel, or do you want to brighten up a dark vowel? That can certainly be done.
There is a whole spectrum of sound that you can use to make different choices in how you are approaching the sound. And you can open up OO. If you’re going to belt OO it’s going to be more YOW. If you have to maybe just go a little heady on the word I, or go a little softer/warmer, you’re going to take that AH a little more to UH. And you’ll play with those vowel shapes.


But I want you to do it, not just for registration. In another words, singers learn to adjust vowel shapes and vowel sounds according to, if they’re singing a high pitch, a low pitch, in the middle. And being able to control vowels helps, especially with the vocal break – that part of your voice where you have to shift from lower to upper register, which most singers really have to work at in order to gain control over that area. That takes a lot of work. But once you’ve gained control over that area now, how much can you play with vowel color and still stay in vocal balance? It’s a wonderful area to look at because as you begin to dig into great singers and really listen how the sounds and shades of the voice change, it can really impact your singing.


Now, to do a quick advertisement, I have my Youtube Channel. If you just go to Youtube, look up John Henny Vocals, you’ll find my channel. And you can also look up Why I Love This Vocal. The newest episode which just finished editing as I record this, I’ve just looked at it before I came here, covers Coldplay’s Fix You. And one of the things I love that Chris Martin does is he makes the sound of his voice match this pad that’s playing in the background. The accompaniment is an organ sound but it’s not a true organ – it’s an organish sound that’s mixed with some almost breathing textures. I think it got some vocal effects in there. There’s a breathiness to the keyboard sound, and he will match that breathiness in his vocal, he takes some of the vowels. He takes an O vowel, and as the melody goes down, he rounds that O vowel even more towards OO so that he can keep a very very light breathy sound, hollow-kind of sound in there, to match what’s going on with the instruments.


So there’s really getting this idea of having huge ears in that you really listen to everything – you listen to the other musicians on what they’re doing. And then you listen to not just what they’re playing but the sounds of their instruments, the textures of their instruments.

A great guitar player doesn’t just flip on their amp and go with the first sound that come out. The guitarist is going to listen to the song and listen to the texture of the song, and make adjustments to the guitar rig in order to best fit in and support the song. You should really start thinking, in those terms, just as this keyboard player sits down and goes through all the possible sounds and tweaking of sounds that they can play in the track. They have a huge color palette to work from, and they narrow that down to find the right sounds and textures. And you can do this vocally by playing vowel colors and playing with vowel sounds – by letting the consonants influence some of the rhythms, some of the freezing that you do, how long you’ll hold the note. If you’re going to push through the end and maybe crescendo a little bit because you got a hard consonant, or you’re going to let that note kind of fall away because it ends on a vowel sound and there’s no consonant to close it down? Or maybe even reverse that. But what can you do with words?


So here’s something I want to challenge you to do is just take one line of a song – just take the verse so you’re not dealing with high notes or anything really really difficult. First of all, write the words out, and then sit and break down all the sounds. Look to see whether they’re softer consonants like SH, F. Or a little medium consonants like M, N, or really hard consonants like K, B, and mark those. See what you can do with those. How you can play with those sounds? Look at the vowels – are they wider or brighter vowels? Or they’re more closed in or darker vowels. Then, what do you want to do with those colors? Do the consonant and vowel sounds make you want to hold out somewhere just a little longer?

I mean, obviously you have to keep the basic rhythm of the song, but within that the singer has room to play. And within that playing, can you come up with five different ways to sing that line? Can you come up with ten? Can you come up with more?


Now if you’ll really try this, let’s say you go for ten, you’re going to get a few that are a little silly and don’t really work musically. But you’re going to get a couple that really have something, that have something to explore. And the other thing is, you’re now using your music mind a little deeper. You’re looking at texts and sounds in a better way. And then when you combine that with musicality, the texture and sound of your voice with emotion, that’s when a human voice is magic. Because not only can we be musical, we can also adjust all these wonderful textures and sounds right on the fly, very very quickly. And then, we have the language of communication, with the only instrument that has the spoken word. This is why we have American Idol and The voice. We do not have the same thing, looking for the next great guitarist or piano player or tuba player. Maybe we will in the future. I know we’ll never have it a trombone player. Sorry. I just have to make trombone jokes at the expense of my trombone playing friends. But there is a connection with the human voice like no other instrument.


There was a recent study done where they put all those brain electrodes on people and they have them listen to music, a version of the song without vocals and a version of the song with vocals. And almost without fail, the brain lit up more when there is a human voice. You have the instrument. That’s why when a band breaks up, the lead singer has the best chance of having a career after the band.


Anyway, singers are important. They’re important because of words – and words are important. I want you to really understand words are important. Not just what they mean, but how they sound. Get into the sounds. Fall in love with the sound of language, of your language. And then, how can you play change the sounds within your language, within your words or someone else’s words.


Hey, I really want to thank you for listening today. If you want to find out more about me, just go to my website johnhenny.com. And if this voice teaching thing interests you, if you’re a singer and think you might like to try teaching voice or at least find out how it’s done, well then, I have my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. Just go to johnhenny.com click on TEACHER TRAINING in the menu. It’s an online course, you can study at your own pace. It’s $49 a month, you can quit anytime you like. There are quizzes all through, there’s a certification test at the end where you can print up your certificate and show people how smart you are because you’ve been through the course.

I really think it’s a great course. I know because I did it, so I’m going to brag about it, but I put a lot into this. It’s kind of like the combination of decades of teaching voice and working with other teachers. I’m pretty proud of it. And I love to see people go through it and getting good results. With this information, I’ve had some people go on to be pretty successful voice teachers. So please do check it out.

If you want to go to the show notes and read the transcripts, just go to johnhenny.com/60. If the transcript is not available when you go, it’s always available within a couple of days. So just wait a day or two and come on back, and you can read this instead of listening to me babble.

So until next time, to better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.