One of the things that I am constantly trying to encourage the singers I work with to explore is the idea of the voice as an instrument. Allow me to explain what I mean.
The typical worship team is made up of drums, bass, guitars, piano/keys, lead vocal and a varying number of “background vocals”. Whether there is just one background vocalist or several, they generally sing homophonically or “choral style”. This basically means that they sing harmony to the lead vocalist – same words and rhythms, just different notes to round out the chord that is supporting the melody.
While this sounds great and is fairly “easy” for most singers to do, it is only scrapping the surface of what the human voice can do musically.
What I am trying to encourage my vocalists to do is to come up with parts that go beyond just the standard homophonic harmonies; parts that are more polyphonic (“two or more melodic lines combined into a multi-voiced texture”), parts that don’t necessarily use words, but that add new depths to the sonic scope. Often times we fill our bands with multiple guitars or keyboards to fill out all of the little layers and melodic lines that are in a song. I don’t have the luxury of multiple guitars or keyboards, and even if I did I don’t know that I would always rely on them to fill out the sound of the band.
The human voice can be such a cool instrument once we step out of our comfort zone and start using it in more musical ways. Don’t believe me? Check out Imogen Heap’s latest album “Ellipse”. She is one of the artists that embodies what I’m talking about. Every track of hers is filled with vocal parts that support the melody like a guitar or keyboard would. It is a stunning example of vocal polyphony at it’s best and a beautiful example of using the voice as an instrument.
The idea of polyphonic vocals is not the least bit new (it’s about as old as music), yet it has remained mostly untouched in the realm of the Modern Church Worship Band (at least to my knowledge) and I think it’s time for all vocalists out there to start taking some chances, to start taking some creative risks and trade in the standard harmony for the beauty of a well placed “ooo” or “ahh”.
P.S. – The first Imogen Heap video is of a song from her last album, listen to the vocals in the chorus – very cool. The second is the first single off her new album, just because (just because is not the name of the album, it is the reason I added it).
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