Vocal Music

Vocal music is any type of music in which singing is the focus of the piece. The vocal performance may be cantata, meaning it is accompanied by musical instrument, or may be performed a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment. A short piece of music in which words are incorporated is referred to with the general term song. The words of a song are called lyrics. There are also examples of songs without lyrics in which only sounds or syllables are produced.

Vocal music has been around for nearly as long as humans themselves have. It is the oldest type of music since it does not require anything but a human voice and it is present in every culture in the world in a different form. However, reliable sources of the origin of vocal music are extremely rare due to the fact that for centuries music was not recorded in any way but was simply transferred orally between generations, communities and nations.

Traces of ancient vocal acts still remain in tribal and folk songs and chants but their origin and meaning are sometimes impossible to define. There are a few verbal accounts and opinions on music acts and their effect in the works of the poet Homer, Plato and the Bible. Surprisingly, some of the music pieces, albeit thought of as primitive, are complex and require plenty of skill to be performed. One example is the wide range of drum rhythms present in African tribes.

Traditionally, most of the theory and terminology in music comes from Italy because it was the place where music started to be studied and explored during the Renaissance. Early composers introduced a great deal of terms at that time and the early stages of that period are generally considered the beginning of music science. That is why the voice type classification of music is also marked by Italian terms.

Defining the voice type is extremely important for singers and vocal pedagogues. The wrong training could cause damage to the vocal cords and shorten the singer's career. A person's voice requires extensive training in order to be fully developed. Since the "instrument" is within the performer, a vocal pedagogue cannot describe the act of singing. Instead, teaching somebody to sing relies on introducing concepts and providing the student with methods to free the apparatus from tension and to reveal the full range of the voice.

A classification of voice types for classical music, mostly opera, has been invented. A voice is classified according to vocal range, vocal weight, pitch, timbre and vocal transition points among others. Female voices are divided from highest to lowest in soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto and alto. The lower ones, contralto and alto, are extremely rare. The male voices from highest to lowest are countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass. In non-classical music, this classification is only loosely applied mainly because the distinction is made with regard to classical music vocal training and techniques. In other words, even if a voice has the vocal range of a soprano, the sound would be different unless specifically trained in classical vocal techniques.

In the 20th century, vocal music developed in such a wide variety of styles, genres, interpretations and techniques that it is almost impossible to list them all. However, there are a few major trends worth mentioning. One of the most interesting and innovative techniques of the 20th century was the scat singing, improvisation of nonsense syllables, typical of jazz music. Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was to first to experiment with it in the 1920s but the most prominent scat singer was Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). Scat singing influenced another type of improvisation known as beatboxing. Beatboxers produce drum beats and percussion, rhythms and musical sounds using their mouth, tongue, lips and voice. It appeared in the late 1980s as "mouth drumming" and was closely linked to hip-hop but became mainstream in the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century.

The advancement of modern technology has greatly influenced vocal music. Vocal performances are very often accompanied by computer generated effects to enforce the voice resonance and vary the voice range and pitch. According to music experts, this may be considered both an advantage and disadvantage as it may lead to lower quality performers who rely heavily on computer effects even in live performances.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Choral Tradition: An Historical and Analytical Survey from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day
Percy M. Young.
W. W. Norton, 1962
The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a Holistic Basis for Sound Teaching and Learning
Peter T. Harrison.
Dunedin Academic Press, 2006
New Vocal Repertory: An Introduction
Jane Manning.
Clarendon Press, 1994
FREE! Choral Technique and Interpretation: By Henry Coward
Henry Coward.
H.W. Gray, 1914
Treatise on Vocal Performance and Ornamentation
Suzanne J. Beicken; Johann Adam Hiller; Suzanne J. Beicken.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Some Thoughts on Beethoven's Choral Symphony: With Writings on Other Musical Subjects
Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Oxford University Press, 1953
A History of the Oratorio
Howard E. Smither.
University of North Carolina Press, vol.1, 1977
A History of the Oratorio
Howard E. Smither.
University of North Carolina Press, vol.2, 1977
A History of the Oratorio
Howard E. Smither.
University of North Carolina Press, vol.3, 1987
A Musical Companion: A Guide to the Understanding and Enjoyment of Music
John Erskine.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1935
Librarian’s tip: Book IV "The Human Voice"
J.S. Bach
Malcolm Boyd; John Butt.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Vocal Music" begins on p. 414
Singer's Repertoire
Berton Coffin; Werner Singer.
Scarecrow Press, vol.5, 1960 (2nd edition)
Con Che Soavita: Studies in Italian Opera, Song, and Dance, 1580-1740
Iain Fenlon; Tim Carter.
Clarendon Press, 1995
Roman Monody, Cantata, and Opera from the Circles around Cardinal Montalto
John Walter Hill.
Clarendon Press, vol.2, 1997
Exploring Twentieth-Century Vocal Music: A Practical Guide to Innovations in Performance and Repertoire
Sharon Mabry.
Oxford University Press, 2002
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