So first off, welcome to my first article in the “How to Sing Like…” section of this website. Here, I’m going to take a new artist each month and use one of their songs as a guideline in sharing a stylistic element or two with you. And seeing as how Adele has won umpteen thousand Grammy’s this year, I decided to start off with her, and her “Set Fire to the Rain” single.
Today we’re going to use Adele’s song to outline how artists use patterns in song structure to add stylistic texture to their songs, focusing specifically on vocal phrasing and vocal tonality. So let’s dive right in!
One of the first typical elements that I want to point out is this… as a general rule, most songs in popular music go back and forth between having super smooth phrasing, and choppier phrasing. This helps to add texture to the song, while helping it not fall too deeply into a repetitive, boring feel.
Adele does this well in her “Set Fire to the Rain” single. The verses tend to be super connected, while the pre-chorus breaks up the phrases more. This isn’t to say that the pre-chorus is choppy, but the phrasing is more deliberate, and has a little bit more space between the words instead of the super smooth feeling in most of the rest of the song.
So what can we learn from this? Well, when you’re singing, you want to make sure that you vary the phrasing throughout your song. If your whole song is super legato (music term for smooth and connected), then it’s going to be kinda boring. If it’s all choppy, then it’ll likely fell pretty monotonous.
The solution is to alternate back and forth between connected phrasing, and a more broken up feel. This will give your song more character, while also providing the listener with more variety, adding depth to your song. Remember, there’s no set formula for this. Adele did her verse and chorus smooth and let the pre-chorus be a little more broken up. You may want your verses less connected while making your chorus smooth. It’s all an artistic choice.
Another predictable element in Adele’s song is the strength of the tone of her voice. During the verses, she tends to have a slightly breathier feel, almost like she’s waking up from a nap. You can hear this much more easily by listening to the end of her phrases… most of which are extra soft and breathy.
After that, the song starts to drive forward in a more solid tone in the pre-chorus, and builds to a very solid and full sound throughout the chorus.
Now, as a general rule, most songs are going to start softer, often using more breathiness in the beginning, and as the song progresses, it’ll build in intensity and start leaning more towards a full, solid sound.
“Set Fire to the Rain” is a great example of this. In the first verse, we have a less intense sound that turns into a breathy sound by the end of most phrases. Then, the pre-chorus builds until the song opens up nice and strong for the chorus. After that, the second verse comes in. It starts like normal, weaker with breathy endings, but it’s a shorter verse that ends much more solidly. This helps the song continue to build in intensity while also adding texture in vocal tonality.
You’ll find that most songs use this approach when building in intensity, so feel free to play with this principle and apply it to songs you sing if you haven’t already.
Now of course, Adele does quite a bit more than this to create her unique sound, but outlining everything that she does stylistically within a song would take quite a bit more than one article, so perhaps I’ll come back to her later (comment below if you’d like to see another article diving deeper into Adele’s voice).
Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this article on how to add killer phrasing to your songs, and a special thanks to Adele for giving us such a clear example.
~ Vocal Coach Ken Taylor