Victoria Malawey is Assistant Professor of Music at Macalester College.
Vocal Prosody in Popular Music
Singing voices are notoriously difficult to analyze systematically, yet they are central to listeners’ experiences, particularly in popular genres. To interpret an artist’s general manner of vocal delivery, I propose a framework for examining vocal prosody in popular music. Five constituent components—phrasing, metric placement, motility, embellishment, and phonation—illustrate differences in vocal prosody among four versions of a single song in contrasting styles: Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” (2002), Glen Hansard’s acoustic folk-rock cover (2003), Ten Masked Men’s death metal cover (2003), and the Cliks’ rock cover (2006). Analysis of phrasing draws attention to inter-phrase connectivity (the degree of connectivity between phrases) and intra-phrase connectivity (the degree of connectivity within each phrase). Within the domain of metric placement, elongation or truncation of vocal lines result in contrasting prosodic styles, both at the level of initial beat placement of repeated text and in differences in syncopated versus on-the-beat attacks of important syllables. Artists’ capacity for agility—singing rapid passages with apparent ease and fluidity—and execution of vocal motility manifest in contrasting ways, ranging from virtuosic melismas (Timberlake) to quick, virtuosic shifts in registration (the Cliks), and clear enunciation throughout rapid syllabic passages (Hansard). Pitch embellishments take the form of pitch bends and melismas, whereas timbral embellishments occur when the onset of an individual syllable is marked by significant coarseness before quickly restoring the artist’s normative, less turbulent timbre. Finally, analysis of phonation considers the degree of variation of duration and emphasis of voiced and unvoiced consonants.