It's hard to call something a trend when it's been around for ages, but lately I get the feeling that a lot of pop artists try to outdo each other when it comes to showcasing their vocal range, and particularly its highest end. I hear artists reaching for their falsetto range so often that in my mind I started calling it The Vocal Range Wars, to paraphrase the Loudness Wars from the 1990s and early 2000s.
Adam Levine does it mid-chorus in "Wait" (starting at 0:54). Sam Smith does it in "Too Good at Goodbyes" (1:26). Justing Bieber does it in his DJ Snake collab "Let Me Love You" (also 1:26). Lauv does it in "I Like Me Better" (all over the song). Max does it in "Lights Down Low" (0:35).
Even when the main vocal stays in a relatively narrow range, it's often doubled with a falsetto (or digitally transposed) line in some sections of the song, like in Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" (0:46) or in Bieber's "Love Yourself" (0:48).
Shifting from one part of the singer's vocal range to another, especially to the extremes, is a very effective tool for grabbing and keeping the listener's attention. It's impressive, it makes the vocal melody sound more dynamic, but most of all it creates attention grabbing contrast, the kind that stops you from switching to a different station while you commute to work.
Contained Extremes: "Never Be the Same"
One song that has done a great job of preventing me from switching the station is Camila Cabello’s “Never Be the Same”:
At 0:45, when Cabello starts singing "nicotine, heroin, morphine", my attention is all hers, no matter what random musings were going on in my head previously.
It’s not the list of addictive substances that hooks me into the prechorus of "Never Be the Same", though. What grabs my attention every time is Cabello's sudden shift to the very top of her vocal range, which, combined with the thinning out of the instrumental texture, places a very potent sonic spotlight on her voice.
This would be effective enough in any context, but what really makes this a home run has a lot to do with the melody that came before it.
Cabello starts the song in what is probably the very bottom of her vocal range and stays there for quite a while. This is her first two-measure phrase:
Now, let's compare this side-by-side with the first two measures of the prechorus:
As you can see, I had to zoom out quite a bit to get the piano roll to cover enough ground in order to make that comparison. The shift from a phrase that goes as low as E2 to one that goes as high as G4 is pretty significant.
In fact, it might have been too startling for the listener had she gone directly between these two phrases. It would also be very difficult for any singer to go from the lowest end of her chest voice straight to borderline falsetto. Which is probably why there are two glue elements bridging this gap.
The first glue element is the climb to E3 at the very end of the verse, moving to the middle of Cabello's chest voice range ("you intoxicate me"). The second is a two-note pickup to the prechorus ("just like"), which lets her both breathe and comfortably switch to her head voice before hitting those high notes.
But wait... did I just describe what happened as both a sudden shift and a smooth transition? Which is it?
Well, it's kind of both. Yes, the gradual melodic climb does smooth the transition to a certain degree. Still, as a listener, it's hard not to hear it as an extremely stark contrast because the verse 'lives' in one extreme vocal range and the prechorus in the other. The transition does just enough to help this shift avoid being too disorienting, but is also short enough to keep the effect potent.
Cabello's extreme vocal shift is not only great for capturing our attention in the moment. It is also extremely effective in amping up tension and anticipation toward the chorus.
Let me explain: Tension and release in music relies in large part on gravity. In nearly any musical aspect there is an element that acts as a center of gravity. Moving away from this element generates tension. For example, in functional tonality the center of gravity is the tonic, and every other tonal function generates varying levels of tension that are only completely resolved when returning to the tonic. In rhythm and meter, strong beats (and hyperbeats) similarly act as centers of gravity, which is why an attack on a weak beat that isn't followed by another attack on a strong beat generates rhythmic tension known as syncopation. Even in sound production there is usually a baseline of sonic energy that acts as a 'sonic tonic' (think of the first verse in most pop songs).
In "Never Be the Same", the push-and-pull between the extremes of Cabello's vocal range dramatically enhances the feeling of anticipation, because neither extreme feels stable. Arriving at the chorus feels like a cathartic 'landing', since it's the first time we hear her sing in her cleanest and and most powerful range.
Free Movement: "How Long"
I mentioned a number of artists who use vocal range shifts in their songs, but one in particular who really gives Cabello a run for her money in my imaginary vocal range war is Charlie Puth.
Take, for example, one of Puth's latest hits, "How Long":
Like Cabello, Puth showcases his ridiculous range throughout the song, which follows a similar vocal trajectory to "Never Be the Same"--He goes as low as C#2 in the verse (0:12-0:30), climbs two octaves up to C#4 in the prechorus (0:30-0:46), and 'lands' on his mid-high range in the chorus (0:46-1:04). In both songs the artists later revisit the highest range in their postchoruses.
But the melodic content in "How Long" is a different animal than that of "Never Be the Same".
While Cabello's verse centers around a single note, as I showed above, this is the first half of Puth's verse:
This is a much more dynamic melody. Puth moves freely between the different areas of his vocal range, and does so in the other sections of his song as well.
While doing this showcases his immense virtuosity as a singer, it makes for less of a stark contrast between adjacent sections. Instead of extreme contrast between sections, the melodies in "How Long" feature fast-paced, abrupt changes in both the vocal timbre/range and the vocal production. Nearly every mini-phrase is different--either the main vocal line switches range, or it's harmonized/doubled differently.
These changes are more subtle than the single extreme change in "Never Be the Same", but they are extremely impressive and lend themselves well to repeated listening, because the listener can discover new details even after hearing the song multiple times.
Chart-wise, however, "How Long" didn't climb quite as high as "Never Be the Same" (though it still did very well, reaching #2 and #3, respectively, in Billboards Adult Top 40 and Mainstream Top 40 charts), which may suggest something about which type of contrast has more potential for mass appeal.
The Big-Picture Takeaway
Chart performance aside, comparing these two songs is a good lesson in big-picture planning. The obvious lesson is that making a melody stand out is not only about the melody itself but also about its surroundings.
But this principle can be generalized to something like this:
Contrast and space are great tools for making any musical element stand out.
A specific note will stand out more if it is surrounded by rests or if it is approached by a melodic leap rather than by step.
A simple hook will be catchier if it comes after a complex melody.
A chorus will sound bigger if it follows a sonic break or a very thin texture (which is probably why "washout" effects like Dada Life's Endless Smile are so popular with producers these days).
A sonic texture will sound smoother if it's preceded by a rough texture (see the chorus of Taylor Swift's "Ready for It").
This is not to say that every song needs to have these types of contrasts. Music would be very boring if all songs did exactly the same things. However, contrast is one of the most effective tools in music, especially in relatively repetitive music like pop, and is an important tool in the toolbox of any songwriter or producer.
Top40 Theory is a project aimed at providing advanced music theory knowledge and composition tools to pop songwriters and producers. Join the small but growing community of highly accomplished songwriters, producers, theorists, and composers at the Top40 Theory Facebook group. You can also follow Top40 Theory’s Twitter account and Facebook page, as well as join the mailing list via the form located in the sidebar, to receive updates about new posts and other pop music theory related musings.
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Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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