Singing and Rapping: Two Vocal Traditions

Version 2Every now and again, when I say to a student, “please stop talking and instead sing,” I get a reply of “but talking and singing are the same thing.” I used to be amazed that anyone would not pick up on the differences between spoken word and sung lyrics. But then I stopped to reflect on it. These students have grown up in a hip-hop culture, where for years, sung melody had completely disappeared from rap songs. A generation of kids who primarily or exclusively listened to rap music over a period of years might very well conclude that singing was nothing more than speaking in rhythms.

Thankfully, a newer genre has evolved, that of pop-rap. As the name suggests, it is a melding of the lyrical, melodic aspects of pop used often as hooks or refrains, and the melody-less art of rapping. Salt-n-Peppa is a good example. Here, students can hear side by side singing and rapping. The difference is clear, and is an important device in creating interest and contrast in the song.

Combining spoken word and music in art forms is nothing new. In this regard, Pop-Rap and opera have a commonality. It is normal fare in opera for the great arias to be preceded by recitative, a device that is somewhere in between speaking and singing. Like rap, recitative has a limited pitch set and an active rhythmic movement.

An even more literal example of talking and singing side by side in an art form is in musical theater. There are the actors saying their lines, and then suddenly they are singing, and then they are back to their spoken lines (or perhaps off to a dance first).  But in the smash hit “Hamilton,” we once again find rap and melody brought side by side.

So once students hear these examples, or any number of others you might come up with, we must get down to making observations and drawing conclusions based on the text, which in this case are the audio tracks. We might couch our inquiry in an enduring understanding and essential question. The enduring understanding might be something like this: Musicians use their voices in specific and distinct ways to produce singing sounds. The essential question would then be, “How do musicians use their voices to produce musical tones?” We could then contrast this with a parallel set of EU and EQ. “People use their voices in specific and distinct ways to produce speech.” “How do people use their voices to produce speech? Students start out by comparing the sounds of voices singing with voices speaking. They can use the scientific method by speaking and singing themselves, and making note of the physical differences in what they do to produce each kind of sound. This will actually lead to the realization that there really are three types of voice being used: one for speaking, one for rapping/acting/public speaking, and one for ordinary conversation.

Connections should be made during this line of instruction to previous learning, especially if these are upper elementary or middle school students. A great deal of instruction (hopefully) was spent during the elementary years, and is (hopefully again) still going on to make the student aware of and to develop a head voice, or what is often referred to to younger children as the singing voice. It is a hallmark of John Feierabend’s pedagogy to make a clear distinction between the singing voice and the speaking voice, and to repeatedly demonstrate that difference (I speak like this, I sing like this) and to have students learn what their singing voice is and how to use it by doing pitch exploration exercises such as echo songs and sliding sounds on the one hand, and chanted rhymes on the other. All of this should culminate with an understanding that rap does not utilize the head voice as singing does, nor does it utilize the variety and range of pitches as pop music does, even when sung by musicians in a belted chest voice. But it isn’t always so. The best pop singers get around to showing their head voice, especially when they are in their prime. Mariah Carey is a good example. No one (I hope) could mistake this singing for speaking.

If there is one conclusion I would like to draw for you from all of this is that we must provide our students with experiences hearing popular art forms in which musicians demonstrate the kind of singing we are trying to teach them. It is an uphill battle to convince students it is cool to sing with a head voice and then never expose them to anyone but classical musicians using one. It is akin to letting instrumental students know that most of the great jazz wind players studied classical music, got their technique from classical training, and applied themselves to learning to play jazz. The combination of the two enabled them to become the great musicians that they became. The same is true with singing. The head voice is the foundation for all singing. It is the technique one can learn to be tuneful and artful, and do so without damaging the vocal apparatus. Speaking and singing do both utilize the voice, but the way which the voice is used, the way it is activated and made to sound, project, and produce its color and timbre is markedly different. There is a science behind how the voice works, and science proves there is a difference between singing and speaking, and honestly, even between rapping and speaking. So it is really true: you can’t talk and sing at the same time. So please, stop talking and sing instead.

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