When you are writing a song, you need to answer this question –
Who is going to sing it?
Answering this will effect many of the other decisions that follow.
Many of my songs start on the guitar as a riff. And though I can comfortably play guitar in any key, my voice has a limited range. At this point in my life I am pretty aware of my limitations as a singer and will write for myself in specific tonal areas. But you may not know your range and more importantly your Tessitura.
Tessitura is the place where you can sing most comfortably with the best tone/timbre and dynamic range. A song can be in just about any key as long as the Tessitura works for the singer.
Here is simple exercise to begin figuring out your range and tessitura:
Sit down at the piano or with your guitar and sing 5 note scales. C,D,E,F,G up G,F,E,D,C down. Then move this up a half step. Db,Eb,F,Gb,Ab ect…….keep moving it. As you go higher, you should notice that your voice begins to change from a chest sound to a head voice sound – for guys this is your falsetto, for ladies this is a little more subtle. There will be a point where you can not sing any higher. This is the top of your range. Do the same exercise going down. There will be a point where you can go no lower. This is the bottom of your range.
While you are figuring out your range, notice where you are most comfortable singing. Where is that block of notes? It could be more or less than an octave. This is your Tessitura.
The outer areas of it are ok to visit in a song but you do not want to sing there for extended periods of time as you will fatigue and start sounding strained. Some music is hard to sing because of the Range (The Star Spangled Banner), some music is hard because the Tessitura (Wagner’s Ring Cycle) is very demanding of the singer.
So now that you have figured out your range and tessitura, we need to write a melody that will take full advantage of your singing voice.
If you write your chorus first, it should be pitched where you can sing the most full voiced. When I write, my choruses generally start a minor/major third or more up from my verses. This little change in tonal center supplies a natural lift and energy to the song without having to add an extra voice, instruments, or production effects.
In my example below , Saraswati from our Of The Heart album, the melody is quite simple and covers a total range of a perfect fifth. It should be simple since it is written for Kirtan. Anyone who walks in to sing with us should be able to sing it successfully regardless of voice type.
The harmonic under pinning is a little more complicated. The verses are in C# minor and then shift to the relative major, E, for the chorus. I use the B major chord at the End of the Verse to bring us to E major chord (V-I) in the Chorus. The note we are singing at the end of the verse (D#, Ti) is the leading tone and pulls us to the E chord very naturally. In fact, we expect it to happen. Most of the tension created in the verse is cause by going back to the C# minor chord to repeat the verse. This is called a Deceptive Cadence. We finally allow that resolution to happen when we get to the chorus and it is both exciting and rewarding. The natural lift in the melody only makes the reward sweeter. As the song progresses, we harmonize as my range and tessitura are lower than my wife’s so we can take advantage of the lift in the chorus by supplying harmonies. I didn’t include that in the audio example because I want you to hear how the lift of just a minor third can make the sonic energy of a chorus Pop out.
Another technique I incorporate is that I resolve the chorus melody on E (Do) but the chord is A (IV). It works because the spelling of A Major is A+C#+E. This simple move allows me to take the song back to the verse or the fast section simply by putting a A/B (A major with B in the Bass) chord in the next measure or we can stay on the A major chord to take a repeat of the chorus as many times as we want.
Since Kirtan is like jazz in its open structure, having simple melodies and elastic harmonic progressions that lead the participants in any direction seamlessly is what makes writing this music so exciting.
When I am writing do I think of all of this theory?
The simple answer is Yes.
I know who is singing it, who the audience is, have years of study, and I make musical decisions with those things in mind. However, songwriting is not a science and I don’t care how much theory you use to back up a decision you’ve made, if it sounds forced or bad, it is. Flowing, Seamless, and Natural – those are esthetics that guide my writing. Sometimes I will make a choice that makes very little music theory sense but just sounds like it is the right direction for the song to take.
So figure out your range and tessitura and get writing!
I challenge myself to release a song a month.
Give it a try, you may surprise yourself at how productive you can be!