Making a “complex” song appear simple and easy is what separates vocal design/musicianship from mere karaoke, especially where singing covers is concerned.
Simplicity is often proclaimed as the holy grail of singing, but complexity has its place as well. We’ve all been exposed to thoughtless and tasteless vocal performances, from “Jessie J-like” renditions of Mamma Knows Best to over sung versions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. When we finally get to hear a voice with a controlled, well-balanced delivery, we rejoice and spread the word.
Complexity in singing needs to be well balanced, tasteful and musical, and based on a good understanding of what is expected at that moment. Let me explain further.
Think about the role of a drummer in a band. Usually the drummer keeps simple time to support the musical backbone of a track, but if a drummer is required to perform a solo, it needs to be thrilling, masterly and organised in a way that gives an audience what they want.
Now let’s think about a jazz solo – scat or riff. Serious jazz singers are able to access a variety of musical ideas instantly, and hence deliver a complex performance. If a jazz singer kept a “spotlight” solo simple, it would take away from the buzz and excitement of a musical moment where showing off one’s technical and musical command is part of the whole purpose. To not deliver something with prowess would be disappointing to say the least.
The way complexity can serve a vocal performance is to infuse the workings of an idea into other elements of the song, like the musical arrangement or harmonic arrangement or a “special moment” in a song, and make plain the concepts that a listener needs to grasp easily and remember instantly.
I really like this analogy: a traffic light is one of the simplest and most important devices we rely on daily with three intuitive colours – green, red and orange – telling us what we need to know. Behind it there is an immensely complex system that coordinates and controls the traffic light, but all the driver has to worry about is what is in front of them. This for me sums up what singing is all about, complex ideas made simple to understand.
Research shows that songs with “hooky” melodic movements are easier to remember. When a listener is confronted with a complex cluster of musical ideas, it increases the cognitive load and makes it harder to pick out the moments (musical or lyrical) he/she wants. A simple “clean” melody/lyric allows a listener to zero in on the desired emotion quickly and easily. This is part of the reason behind why popular music genres shift from era to era depending on what is happening in the world (but that’s another article for another time). The point is a “hooky” song requires less thought to process than one with too many lyrical/musical embellishments.
It’s quite uncomplicated really. Keep things simple and tasteful but choose moments where you can explore a skilled complexity. Design a purposeful balance between the two where necessary and you will gain both fans and kudos.
Check out these singers who in my opinion combine wonderful simplicity and complexity in their music.
Rachelle Ferrell – I can explain (live)
Lalah Hathaway – Forever For Always For Love
Rahsaan Patterson – Spend the Night (Live at The Belasco)
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen