Singing with Emotion

One of the best definitions I’ve ever heard of music came from one of my college classes where a student defined music as, “Emotion that you can hear.”

And really, when you sit back and think about why we enjoy the different music we listen to, it’s usually because it makes us feel something or because it’s in line with what we’re feeling. Sometimes we’re aware of this, and sometimes we’re not, but think about it…

What type of songs do you listen to when you are happy? Sad? Frustrated? Excited? Angry? Overwhelmed? Intoxicatingly in love? My guess is you probably have certain songs or artists that you listen to for each of these.

So why does this work? Well, psychology teaches us two things:

1. We like people that are like us, and,
2. The most dominant emotion in the room is the most contagious.

So, if you’re in a mood that’s portrayed well by an artist, then you’re going to be drawn to their music. But at the same point in time, if an artist connects well with a song, they can start to pull you in that direction emotionally as well, helping to bring you deeper into the song.

Truth is, you have the power to do this as well. If you’re performing, you are automatically the dominant emotion in the room because you have a mic. From there, all you have to do is choose the right songs to connect with your audience, then sing your song in a genuine and therefore contagious way, and your audience will be eating out of the palm of your hands.

So now that we understand that music is about more than just notes and words on a page that can be translated into flowing melodies, let’s talk for a minute about what we as singers can do to make our voices connect with others even more on an emotional plane.

Analyze the Song

In order to help your listeners fully feel a song, you’ve got to know on a deep level how you, the singer, feel when you say each part of the song. Some songs have a consistent emotional feel, but most will evolve into different emotions throughout the course of the song.

For example, take the song “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green (which I’ll admit to indulging in from time to time). In it, I’d argue that the main emotion of the chorus is hurt/angry, while the verse tends to be a little bit more frustrated in feeling, and in the bridge he’s so upset, he breaks out into sounding like a blubbering fool… all the while, the music is fun, upbeat, and makes people feel good (ironic, isn’t it?).

Which brings me to my next point… the emotion portrayed in the singers voice doesn’t always have to be in line with the lyrics. Sometimes we use sarcasm to evoke emotion in a song (listen to Cake’s “Never There”).

So, before you start to really sing a song, sit back and take a few minutes to break down each line of that song so that you know exactly what feeling you want to portray during in that line. Once you do that, you’re ready to start adding the emotion.

Different Ways to Add Emotion into Singing 

Adding emotion to a song can be done in so many different ways that it’ll make your head spin. You can use variations of dynamics and tone, you can speak the words in different ways focusing on the vowels or consonants, you can color the tone by using vocal fry, growling, breathiness, cracking… the list is endless.

But here’s the deal… if you have to manufacture it, it’s fake.

Said differently, if you create these different tones and colors in the voice, but there’s no emotion behind it, then your listeners will know and you can kiss that connection goodbye. Think about it… has someone ever told you that they loved you, but you knew in that moment what they were saying wasn’t genuine? Same thing.

We can go through the process of manufacturing these sounds all day long, but without us genuinely feeling what we’re saying, it’s all for naught. That’s why it’s so important for us as artists to wear our hearts on our sleeves.

Wearing Your Heart On Your Sleeve

This can be one of the most difficult things for an artist to do. In order to be successful, we have to make ourselves vulnerable in a way that shows people how we really feel.

Anna Nalick addresses this in her song Breath (2am) when she says,

“And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
cause these words are my diaries screaming out loud
and I know that you’ll use them however you want to.”

Honestly, not everyone can do this. Not everyone can let the world in. Not everyone is willing to give others a window into their soul and show them what it’s like when they’re not wearing their everyday “everything’s alright” mask. But, not everyone can touch their audience in a real way either.

Good singers are a dime a dozen… Great singers that connect with their audience in a real way are rare indeed. To me, Singing with Emotion is one of the biggest differences in the two.

So, how do we share that emotion?

Singing with Emotion

There are songs that you have first hand experience with… in other words, you’ve experienced nearly the exact same scenario discussed in the song. It’s by far easiest to connect emotionally to these songs. All you have to do is go back in your head and relive that experience in your mind. But don’t just visualize what happened… feel it in your body. Make it as real as possible to you. Once you’ve done this, your voice will naturally take over.

However, there are some song plots that you haven’t experienced directly. In this situation, it’s easiest to define the main emotions, and try to feel them in your body as well. You can do this by reliving another experience that may have made you feel a similar way, or simply imagine what that emotion would feel like and take it from there. To me, the biggest key is finding a way to physically feel it within your body. If you can do this, you’re golden.

Application

All of this is worth nothing if you don’t take the time to apply it to your singing. So, go now and find a song that you can connect with. Analyze it so that you know specifically how every line should make you feel. Start making yourself feel those emotions and sing through it a time or two and see what comes out. Play with the dynamics, the color of the tone, different inflections, and the length that you hold different notes until you’ve created your own version of the song that is so contagiously emotional that your listeners become putty in the palm of your hands.

Follow these guidelines on singing with emotion with each song you perform, and if you really allow yourself to be vulnerable (and you choose songs that will connect with your audience), then you’ll see a huge difference in the response the crowd gives you. Guaranteed.

Best of luck!
Vocal Coach Ken Taylor

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