Female singers and non-lyrical vocal embellishment

Here’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Maybe somebody can shed some light on this topic for me.

Why is it so much more common for female singers to add all manner of non-lyrical vocal embellishments to their songs than it is for male singers? I’m talking about all the “whooooooOOOOOooo” and “aaaaaaaaaaah” and “la la la la” and “oh yeah” and murmuring partial snatches/phrases of lyrics in between the actual verses and choruses, as well as during fadeouts.

I’ve noticed this in pretty much every genre. For example, in country music Tim McGraw typically sings the verses and choruses calls it good, while his wife, Faith Hill, sings verse and chorus and then adds all sorts of frills. There are obviously exceptions, and in R&B the difference between men and women doing this is slight, so please, no YouTube links to “This male singer does it” or “This female singer doesn’t”.

The logical side of me says it’s likely connected to the fact that male singers more often play an instrument while they sing, so they have something else to keep them occupied between the lyrics, while female singers are more often “just singers”, and find themselves needing something to do during the instrumental sections. Still, when a band has a non-instrument-playing male singer, the male singer tends to simply get out of the way of the instruments between the lyrics, while the female singer doesn’t.

The sexist side of me says it’s simply that female singers can’t stand not running their mouths, so they add frills. :smiley:

What say you?

I hate excessive melisma (stretching vowels out while singing) - but love it when done well and used VERY sparingly.

I haven’t thought about the contrast between genders - I suppose I can see what you are referring to. Could it be Western Cultural standards - “Real Men Don’t Use Melisma” or something like that? Lots of great male singers DO use it - Marvin Gaye and Al Green come immediately to mind - but they never overdid it, like Mariah, Christina, Celine, etc. (all with great pipes but their techniques are so overwrought…)

This is just me talking out of my nethers, but it might have something to do with vocal range. Of the few men I can think of who do this, most of them have a pretty impressive upper register and tend to go there for the ornamentation. Most female singers do it in their upper registers, as well, and as a general rule women tend to have higher ranges, and men have lower ranges. I’m not sure what scatting and ornamentation and whatnot would sound like coming from a bass or a baritone, but it would probably be akin to a word-poem read by a subwoofer. Taking it up super-high is just more aurally arresting, and since more women can do it, more women do.

To a large degree I think you’re overgeneralizing. I don’t know if this is actually true, but even if it is I doubt it’s the reason. To whatever degree this does go on, because there are plenty of famous counterexamples, perhaps there’s a difference in musical tastes, or it could be that men and women are taught to sing differently- sounding tough vs. sounding pretty.

No idea, but why the fuck cant they do the damned National Anthem without fucking around with it?

It was written by someone who seemed to think it was pretty good as it was, and we seem to have adopted it as it was written, so why cant they fucking sing it like it was written?

I’m familiar with melisma (I learned the word a while back while reading Martina McBride’s Wikipedia entry). but that’s really not what I’m talking about, at least how I read the definition: melisma being singing a single syllable of a word and changing pitches on that single syllable, as opposed to the “normal” technique of one syllable, one note. I’m not talking about decorating the words, but rather about singing a lot of extra-lyrical sounds between/after sections of the lyrics. Like so:

Male version of “The Raven” by E. Poe:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Female version:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’
Oooooh, oh oh aaaaaaah, nothin’ more nothin’ more nothin’ moooore …
Yes it is … I’m talking 'bout the raaaaaaven…

Okay, ridiculous example, but it illustrates what I’m talking about.

It’s certainly more common among singers with a high range (in which case it looks a lot like showing off), but not exclusive to them.

Fair enough. As a singer myself I naturally tend to select songs by male singers to sing. The songs I choose don’t include much in the way of extra-lyrical decoration, and after I’ve sung them enough times I become intimately familiar with how they’re sung. More than once I’ve heard one of these songs covered by a female singer, and suddenly it’s full of decoration, which often takes me right out of the song because I feel like its obscuring the lyrics.

One idea has just occurred to me - perhaps male singers tend to look at their lyrics as a statement that should stand on its own, while female singers tend to look at their lyrics as a tool to evoke an emotional response, and thus all the decoration is effectively punctuation emphasizing the emotional response they’re going for?

WAG; Is it more common for female singers to have started their careers as background singers, whose job it is to add such vocal embellishments?

Generalizations like this are never going to stand up to scrutiny. My guess would be that the men and women you have listened to come from different musical traditions.

That’s twice you’ve said I’m generalizing. Of course I am - this is art I’m talking about; there aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to style or interpretation. That’s why I said “male singers tend to …” and "female singers “tend to …” rather than saying “always”.

I said in my OP that “I’ve noticed this in pretty much every genre.” I’ve listened to (and played) a pretty wide variety of musical genres, and within each of those different genres I seem to observe that female singers do this particular vocal thing more commonly than the male singers within the same genre.

If anything, I’d say “selection bias” rather than “generalization”, since I obviously haven’t listened to everything that’s ever been recorded.

WRT my comment about playing an instrument while singing, it’s fairly well established that bands (at least in Western music) are mostly a “guy thing”; women are far more often “solo artists” and, unless they’re singer/songwriters, commonly don’t play an instrument while they’re singing. Male lead singers, in any genre, are far more likely to play an instrument while they sing. From my own experience playing in bands and talking to other musicians who play in bands, I can testify that there is a pervasive attitude that a singer who doesn’t also play an instrument isn’t pulling his weight in the group. A lot of that is rooted in the fact that the instrumentalists have invested a lot of money in equipment while the singer hasn’t, yet the singer gets an equal share of the cash at the end of the gig. Yet nearly every one of these guys would make an exception for a good female lead singer.

Guys who have almost feminine, higher voices tend to do this; women with particularly pretty voices tend to do this as well. It just sounds prettier for someone like a pretty voice to use it like an instrument than for someone with a distinctive, yet not-so-pretty voice like Bruce Springsteen to do so. I cringe when Bruce does the whoo hoo! YEAA-HAH! Woo-hoo! at the end of “Glory Days,” for example, but I love it when Anneke van Giersbergen gets all ethereal and dreamy with vocalizations in “Come Wander With Me”. Pretty wins.

I once heard it referred to as urban yodeling :slight_smile:

That’s fuckin’ hilarious!

Aretha did it and it sounded good. Some dork thought “more is bettah” and the next person decided to add range to it. Now is sounds like a big audio OrgasmFest. I’m sick to death of it and it needs to die. I’m glad that for the most part, the American Idol judges chastise those who beat it to death.

I’m not saying you didn’t know you were generalizing, I’m saying these ideas are probably just too vague to describe what most people are doing. My point, the second time, was that I don’t think men tend to see songs differently from women. I don’t think that makes much sense or that it explains anything. I agree that selection bias is probably a factor- please substitute that if it works better for you.

If men to do tend to do this less than women it might just be a power vs. technique thing. Cuckoorex makes a good point: I can think of some men who sing this way, but they tend to have higher voices.

I too think the “difference” you’re hearing is mostly just selection bias. I think you might also just be ignoring/accepting it when men do it. If the song was originally recorded with a male singer, it won’t seem like an “embellishment”, it’ll be just the way that song is. If you hear a woman cover a song you already know that was originally by a male artist then any changes she makes will seem obvious to you.

I don’t know so much about other genres, but I’m hard pressed to think of many male rock vocalists who DON’T do this kind of thing. “WhooooooOOOOOooo”, “aaaaaaaaaaah”, “oh yeah”, “uh hunh”, etc. are all very common in rock songs, as is plain old shouting and screaming. Here’s a great example of a song with LOTS of masculine non-lyrical vocal embellishment, but see also Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Steven Tyler, Iggy Pop…

Male and female vocalists may perform their non-lyrical vocal embellishments in a different manner (“tough” vs. “pretty”, as others have said), but I wouldn’t say that women do it any more than men.

It’s just a matter of fashion. It’s “in” for women to sing like that; it’s not “in” for men to sing like that. Listen to some Jeff Buckley or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan if you need to be convinced that it’s nothing inherently female or male; it’s just a style choice that’s more frequently made by women these days than by men.

Dude, I’m not sure if we’re 100% talking about the same thing totally, but I think I get you.

Lemme tell you my own observation, no it’s a bit of an annoyance, to be honest.
It’s that growlish …thing most pop divas do when they say a word like “If” or “I”
There’s this preceding gutteral something they all do that annoys the crapola outta me: and the really young wanna be
girls immitate it cause they’re thinking it’s required to be good singing.
oh well , one opinion amongst a million right?


Now, since you’re all sooo interested in my opinions, you have gotta check out what has got to be the worst abomination
of a Christian ‘worship’ song I’ve yet to hear.
It includes some of this… “vocal embellishment” of which you speak…

I first heard this on a compilation CD, but it’s not available live via youtubeses for all the world to see…and llloooaatthheeee

I’m a Christian, but I gotta say this worship song, sang by this performer, only causes me to sin.

Judge for yourself…

normal version of the same song, done by the writer:

ok, i’m all happy now!

Like Jester and Cuckoorex mentioned, I think it has mostly to do with higher range rather than gender. A perfect example would be Aaron Neville, if you listen to his duet with Linda Rondstadt on “I Don’t Know Much”, here, he is the one with the greater amount of melisma and vocal embellishment.

He might be an extreme example, and it’s something that he’s well known for, but a voice with a higher range can make that type of embellishment work easier.

I generally share the disgust with overusing melisma, but I realized recently that there are times I don’t mind melisma at all, and those times are when the song is in a language I don’t understand, because I’m not distinguishing the sounds of the words (which I don’t understand anyway) and the sounds of the melisma. My husband and I went to a filmed tribute to Fados music, called, oddly enough, Fados. At one point I turned to him and said (very quietly, whispering), “there’s certainly all kinds of melisma in here, but it doesn’t matter.”

In one section of the film, many older Fados singers and young up and comers are singing snippets of songs in a cafe. I have no idea who any of these people are because although I’ve seen the movie twice in the theater, the filmmakers made the (profoundly stupid) choice not to identify any of the singers* (I do know a few elsewhere in the film, like Cuca Roseta, Mariza, Lura and Lila Downs). Anyway, the second older woman, but most especially this amazing young woman (watch this, seriously!), and the cutie with braces who follows her are all melismafying all over the place, but damn, who cares? It’s awe-inspiring.

  • the trailer to Fados identifies more people than the actual movie does, but none of the singers in the cafe are identified.
    Not in the movie, but offered just because I’m on a Fados kick and I like them:

Dulce Pontes - Fado Português

Madredeus - O Pastor

Fernanda Maria - Barcos do Tejo

Amalia Rodrigues - Malhão de São Simão
Amalia Rodrigues - Conta Errada

Ana Moura - O Fado da Procura

There’s tons more but I have to sleep.

I think it’s simple as stereotypical gender roles and genre. I can see embellishments not being favored by male country singers (well, maybe a hmm hmm there but not much else). However, I thought about the great Motown singers - Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, who scatted and embellished in virtually all their songs. It’s much more expected in R&B.

I think it’s also because many more male singers have “utilitarian” voices, and it’s become acceptable to be a crap singer if you’re a brilliant lyricist (sorry Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, I’m looking at the both of you). I can’t think of a crap female singer that gets a pass because of her great lyrics at the moment.

Ani Difranco?