While you’re watching the Grammy Awards this Sunday, you should keep in mind that the talented artists hoping to take home the gold all owe everything to the language of music.
What do we mean by that? Everything in the music world has been categorized and sub-categorized, and each singer falls into a very specific category. Let’s take a look at five nominees who owe everything to the language of music, plus descriptions of where these musical terms originated!
Despite his rapper origins and “big man” appearance, Cee Lo Green is actually a fairly high pitched tenor. He is nominated for the pleasant sounding yet incredibly angry “F*** You” and is widely expected to win Record of the Year.
Other famous tenors include Luciano Pavarotti and Aaron Neville. Neville is also known for his voice belying his outward appearance, as he would often wear leather with lots of chains and jewelry.
Tenor comes from the Latin word “to hold.” In medieval and Renaissance times, the tenor was the fundamental voice to the performance. You could say the tenor was the rhythm section of its day!
One of the most widely used musical techniques this year is the practice of Autotune. Despite its reputation as a “cheat” that ruins songs, Autotune has actually been around for almost 15 years. Quite a few pop studio producers routinely make use of it to correct minor errors in otherwise solid takes. Some artists, like T-Pain, use it to comedic effect. For the most part, the high profile artists, such as Lady Gaga, nominated for Grammys, all owe some success to Autotune.
When you think of a nice, casual singing voice, you’re probably thinking of a baritone. In fact, the baritone is the most common male voice. Before becoming its own voice, the baritone was often lumped in with the bass.
However, it’s become more and more common with singers like Michael Buble, who is up for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. His laid back style has been called a natural successor to other crooners like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.
Baritone was first used in the late 15th century. In 17th century Italy, the term “baritone” was used to describe the average male voice. First translated from the Greek word βαρύτονος, which means “deep or heavy sounding,” it finally broke away from bass and got its own category in 19th century Italy.
Some singers refuse to stick to one range. Sara Bareilles, nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, ranges from the contralto to mezzo-soprano. This means she is between the lowest recognized female voice and the middle. Like Michael Buble, her style is considered “relaxed,” and this is due in part to her mid-range abilities. She’s been compared to Norah Jones and Fiona Apple, both of whom have roughly the same vocal range.
Contralto and mezzo-soprano are actually fairly interchangeable terms. Many contralto singers cover the mezzo-soprano parts during an opera. Alto simply means “high,” with the “contra” meaning “counter.” Mezzo-soprano means “middle” or “medium” in Italian, giving an idea of where the vocal range lies for those singers.
Although original singer Layne Staley passed away years ago, grunge & hard rock kinds Alice in Chain have come back with a vengeance. Their album “Black Gives Way to Blue” has had unexpected success, topped off with a Grammy nomination for their song “A Looking In View.”
New singer William Duvall, like Staley, uses vibrato, which is a musical effect that regularly pulsates to affect pitch. It’s often used to add expression and feeling to the vocals. Guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell also uses vibrato, though not to the same level. Both versions of the band also use harmonization between the two singers, which creates a more robust and rich sound to the vocals, giving them more impact.
Vibrato comes from the Latin “vibratus” or “vibrare,” meaning vibrate. This comes from the shaking effect of the singer or musical instrument or possibly the literal vibration from the singer’s throat and breath.