How Rock Ruined Songs

More specifically, how guitars ruined singing

Ever since the rock era, singers have gotten a raw deal.

It has to do with keys and tonality.

From the dawn of time, before the ascendancy of the rock guitar, people wrote songs. A song was a melody with an accompaniment. It didn’t have a particular key; whenever an individual singer was chosen to sing the song, he or she got to select the key according to how the melody fit with that individual singer’s vocal range. The accompanists, band or orchestra would accommodate the singer and transpose their accompaniment into whatever key suited the singer.

This is because every singer has a relatively small, limited range of notes that he or she can sing well.

Every song or melody has its own range of pitches–the distance between the lowest pitch in the melody and the highest pitch. This is called the tessatura in classical terminology. Some songs have a small, narrow tessatura and are easy for anybody to sing; others require a wide range of pitches, and the composer’s insisting on a particular key would mean that few singers would have voices suited to singing that melody’s wide tessatura. If you’ve got a band, and a certain singer, and you want to perform a certain song, there’s no point in performing that song in a key that will make the singer sing badly due to the necessary limitations of that singer’s voice.

Pick any classic from the Great American Songbook. Start with Rod Stewart if you absolutely have to. Now find five or six different singers over the decades of the 20th century who recorded that song and had a hit record with it. Chances are each singer chose a different key from all the others to record that song, and the band that accompanied the singer accommodated. Same song, Five or six singers, five or six recordings, five or six different keys.

But this goes way back before the jazz era. There are ample examples of composers of grand opera or oratorios who wrote arias in a certain key but then changed the keys to accommodate the ranges of the particular singers cast in that role for certain concerts and performances. Over time, certain pieces from ancient famous operas have been traditionally performed in a certain set key, but it never started out that way. When a new opera or Broadway show is created today, the key of each song is chosen to work with the singer who’s been hired to portray the role, generally speaking.

The thread running through all this is that composers in the past wrote songs for singing, for singers, without regard to any particular musical instruments used for accompaniment. They wanted to write a song that any good singer could sing and adapt to his or her voice. More generally, orchestral or band musicians of all sorts knew that if they were accompanying a singer in a song, they would need to develop enough musical talent to play a piece on their  instrument in  any key that was called for, at the drop of a hat. It’s still this way in jazz, R&B, country, just about every form of popular music other than rock or folk.

Today, though, rock music has changed all that. Why?

Guitars, and records. Rock music is composed and written to be performed using a certain limited set of techniques idiosyncratic to that strangest of instruments, the guitar, and usually in certain fingerings that cannot be transposed. Everything else in the song, including melody, tessatura, harmonies and arrangements, accommodates the guitar.

In the rock tradition, a band usually writes their own songs, to be recorded only by that band, to make a record that will be marketed and sold. Most rock songwriters only write for their own band and they don’t much care if other bands or other singers want to cover that song in the future. They consider their initial recording to be the definitive version of the song and they don’t much care if other musicians want to adapt that music into some newer creation. Furthermore, fans are accustomed to hearing that song in its original version on the radio or the record player (or whatever medium you’re playing back your recordings on).

Here’s how most rock music gets written. A song is based on a guitar accompaniment, not on a singer’s melody. A guitarist sits down with his six-string guitar, tuned to E or maybe Eb. He plays riffs or licks on his guitar, and because he’s not a technically sophisticated composer, the riffs he plays depend upon fingering patterns based around the guitar fretboard, specifically involving open strings: the notes E, A, D, g, b and e. Most rock guitar arrangements use a lot of those open notes, which is why a great deal of rock music is written in the keys of E, A or D; other keys are rarely used. In other words the particular limitations of the guitar, according to the easiest way to play it, dictate a great deal about the music being composed.

This would not happen if you were writing music in your head, at a desk on paper, or at a keyboard instrument, particularly if you started your composition with a melody and built the song around that after the fact.

The rock guitarist completes the accompaniment first. He may have no idea of a melody at all at this point. Then he brings in the singer in the band and says, “Here are the guitar licks. Compose a melody that you can sing over this exact music.”

The singer  takes what the guitarist has given him as set in stone. Naturally this particular singer is not going to compose a melody that he cannot sing. So he creates a unique melody and tessatura that fits his voice, and his voice only. This becomes the song.

If another singer were to come along with another rock band and want to do the song in a different key, his guitarist would revolt. He would say, “I know those exact licks required to play that song. If you were to raise or lower the key, I couldn’t play those exact licks on a guitar because of the positions of the open strings and the chord voicings used in the original. So it must stay in the same key, because nobody would accept it if I re-voiced the guitar part to suit a different key.” The singer, therefore, may have to strain awkwardly to hit some notes that just don’t fit in his voice. It’s probably not going to sound as good as it could.

Needless to say, all this flies in the face of the entire history of the world’s music before the rock era, and in the face of every other genre of music that’s existed alongside rock.  Rock has created a set of expectations that are rigidly adhered to, but that make no sense to every other kind of music and all other musicians. And rock’s expectations are rooted in lazy guitarists who won’t learn their instruments well enough to be able to play pieces in any key.

All good piano players who work as accompanists can take any song in any key in printed sheet music, or by ear, and transpose it on the fly up or down to whatever key the singer they are working with requests. Furthermore, popular songs that have stood the test of time are usually available in multiple print editions in  different keys; often in editions with keys selected for “male low”, “male high”, “female low” and “female high” vocal ranges.

If a jazz band meets in a club and a singer is invited to sit in with them, somebody might suggest a certain song to sing. The next question goes to the singer: “What key do you want it in?” The band plays the song in that key.

Jazz guitarists, if you are curious, don’t have any problem at all modifying their guitar parts to fit into any key selected by a singer. They learn not to rely on idiosyncratic guitar licks that require open strings. They just take the melody, and the chord progression, and they figure out on the fly how to play good-sounding chords that fit the melody in the key chosen. They don’t care if the licks they are playing are exactly like Eddie Van Halen fingered them on that record; that’s not what jazz is all about.

So what can we do to regain the proper flexibility that good songs and good singing requires? I appeal to all rock musicians; don’t insist that the songs you write must depend on specific fingerings involving open strings on a guitar or bass! That’s a lazy way out. And if you are in band performing covers or arrangements of older songs which you insist require certain fingerings or open strings, use a capo whenever it’s needed to suit the singer. If the singer needs to have the key lowered below the standard E, A or D, get yourself a baritone guitar and put the capo below the E position. Drop the song to Eb, D, C#, C, B, whatever makes the singer sound best. If you have a baritone guitar, you can keep the same fingerings if you insist.

In summary, any good performing group should be able to perform any given song transposed to whatever key is selected by the lead singer. Any good musician should know his instrument well enough to be able to do this. All the other musicians in the world know this, and practice this; it’s time for rock bands to learn to do the same. The music will only get better as a result.

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0 thoughts on “How Rock Ruined Songs”

  1. You make many interesting points, and I cannot disagree with your conclusions — provided that you define “song” as a melody-driven primarily vocal endeavor, with other instruments relegated to supporting the vocalist or vocalists.

    For me, it is more complicated. When I listen to music, whether live, recorded, or broadcast, I tend to view the vocalist(s) as simply one of the various instruments — often a solo instrument, but not necessarily much more important than the others. Furthermore, I am increasingly convinced that the overall appeal and “sound” of any given piece of music depends more on the underlying chord structure than on the melody itself.

    After voice, my formal musical training was piano and then trumpet, with guitar coming third among my main instruments. I perform most regularly on trumpet, in a brass quintet, a symphony orchestra, two brass bands and a variety of other groups. Incidentally, my favorite style for trumpet playing is jazz. My favorite style for guitar playing is folk.

    While I am not sure about the proper musical term for this, one of my favorite things about the guitar is its irregularity. That is, due to the traditional tunings of the six strings, the chords used to accompany a song in the key of G sound completely different than the chords used to accompany a song in the key of A. On the piano or on the trumpet, I can play a song in either G or A, and the difference between the two keys will be mostly just the difference in pitch. On guitar, EVERYTHING changes — or, at least, in my humble opinion, everything SHOULD change. I have little respect for those guitarists who eschew open chords and instead focus mostly on bar chords, making the keys sound interchangeable.

    When I listen to a recording of a piano or a trumpet, it is a relatively straightforward matter to roughly duplicate what I hear. With a guitar, it can be an incredible challenge discerning how the guitarist used the particular combination of fingers and strings to achieve the sounds — especially if the guitarist used a capo or non-standard tunings. Again, this is one of the things I love about the guitar, and, in my mind, what sets it apart from other instruments.

    Incidentally, when I sing along with my guitar, I make extensive use of a capo to try and match the chords and fingerings of other guitarists, or simply to get the “sound” I am striving for, while suiting my own unique voice. I also accept that there are certain songs I simply cannot perform the way I would like to perform them, since even with a capo they fall outside of my vocal range.

    I am not saying that a guitarist is obligated to copy the notes or keys of some other guitarist, although that is an option, and sometimes the best option. (Sometimes another instrument will attempt to duplicate the notes of a guitar riff — this is one way to handle performing a guitar-based song in a completely different key.) The guitarist is simply obligated to attempt to contribute to each unique piece of music using their unique abilities and the unique characteristics of the instrument — which they should embrace, rather than struggle against. Not every song is suited for every instrument or every instrumentalist or every vocalist, and there is no reason why they SHOULD be.

    Finally, while I am not a music historian, it seems to me that “from the dawn of time” most early instruments capable of varied pitches tended to have a limited range and a limited number of available keys, so the vocalists would have to accommodate THEM. The development of instruments capable of easily performing in all keys came later …

    Still, it all comes down to your definition of “song.”

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