Storytime: Ponderings On Pitch

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Ok, so I’ve been busy. Just not busy writing (at the moment). The past few days I’ve entered into a sort of “Master Class” on pitch. With the struggles I had singing All We Need Is Some Love, I decided to study the pitch ranges of some popular singers and compare the results with my own.

First, I had to understand pitch notation. Understanding that each octave begins with C, we then can label each octave’s notes. Middle C, for instance, becomes C4. The A above middle C would be A4. The C lower than middle C would be C3, and so on.

Once I grasped this concept (which I had learned as a child during piano lessons, but needed a serious review of), I was able to begin studying popular songs (as well as my own).

I started with songs done by male vocalists that I was able to sing fairly well, without struggling. I would literally play the melody notes on my keyboard and keep track of the highest and lowest pitches sung. I did the same thing with a few other popular songs and finished up with a few songs of my own.

One of the things that jumped out at me was the range of notes a singer would include in a song. Ben Harper sings a range of only five notes in Waiting For You. Coldplay, on the other hand, includes two full octaves in Fix You, with a reach for C5 on a couple of occasions. Another song, Long December by Counting Crows covers six notes (F3-D4) but, amazingly, spends 95% of its time in THREE notes (F3-A3).

The main thing I learned is that most of these artists spend 90% of their singing time within a few notes of middle C. EVERY SONG (with the exception of Morning Yearning) covers the four notes G3-C4. The highest (and lowest) notes you see plotted here are generally sung one or two times in the entire song. Let It Be, for example, spends almost ALL of its time at or below A4. Only two or three times does Paul reach for the C5.

Another interesting observation is that there are great popular songs that are sung entirely below C4 (middle C). Morning Yearning (Ben Harper) and Empty (Ray Lamontagne) are a couple of examples. A song like 100 Years by Five for Fighting, however, spends most of its time ABOVE C4. Also, thinking about those who are gifted at hitting the high notes, during the famous chorus for When A Man Love a Woman, Percy Sledge bangs away mercilessly at the B4.

Finally, it’s really interesting to me that my songs This Time and All We Need Is Some Love have the same highest pitch. What is interesting about this is that I don’t have any trouble singing This Time, but struggle a bit with AWNISL. The reason, I think, is the way I sing the highest notes.

In This Time, I’m only up at E4 a few times and not for long. During AWNISL, I’m up there in the chorus and I hold out the E4 a bunch of times! It’s really the signature note of the song. It may be some time before I write another song that requires me to be up around E4 for any length of time. One of my songs that is the most comfortable to sing is Stop the Rain. Interestingly, and perhaps obviously, it never ventures above C4 (middle C).

I encourage any artist to investigate and consider pitch. Learn where your strengths are. Learn your weaknesses. Study your favorite artists and the songs they sing! Use the information to YOUR benefit in writing your next great song!

Class dismissed,
J