The Importance of Rhythm in Singing Modern Black American Music Styles // Alison Crockett

As voice teachers, we commonly work on how the voice sounds, feels and how to produce the sound necessary to create a beautiful tone that can be reproduced consistently without difficulty and strain. We as a community are starting to embrace teaching techniques that allow for health, well being and good sound production within modern music styles and singing practices. We are no longer afraid of managing and nurturing healthy belting and utilizing registration to create authentic sounds. However, one thing seems to be missing in our practice: rhythm.

If our students are singing music from the African American music diaspora, which is a significant portion if not all of it, we must understand how rhythm plays one of the most important roles in stylistic and healthy vocal production. The great Jazz pianist Barry Harris in his workshops for singers said that the jazz vocalist is first another drummer. A singer is a part of the rhythm section in a way, as the singer’s phrasing choices of the melody directly impact how the band plays. This interplay between the band and the singer is extremely important in all Black music styles, even in modern trap music that has sequenced beats.

African music starts with the drum. The feeling of the pulse, then the groove or pocket, creates the palate for the singer to create the picture they paint with their voice. Most African diasporic music is sung in the spoken or wailing part of our voice. I didn’t say chest register on purpose because we don’t always speak just in that part of the voice; but it is the dominant place from where African based singing creates sound. However, chest register is more percussive and it is easier to create specific rhythms in this part of the voice. If the head voice is low, it’s very difficult to create that same quality as the head voice is generally used to make the voice sound warmer and more lyrical or “singy.” It also makes the lower range harder to manipulate quickly. However, the head register, if primarily mixed or light and quiet, can be pretty percussive as well if sung in a spoken style. Amplification makes this very possible.

Dr. Triniece Robinson consistently speaks about Black music forms using emotions and ideas of the individual singer in the moment to create the musical performance. The individual singer controls the melodic and rhythmic narrative of the music when performing.  In classical music or musical theater, the composer is the controller of the performance and must be followed as specified on the written music. Printed music is just a basic guide for music from the Black diaspora. It tells you the melody and lyrics, the chords and the form. It may tell you the speed. But the rest is up to the singer themselves. 

Improvisation is in all forms of Black music. In Jazz it is the playful way of phrasing the melody rhythmically and melodically, as well as scat solos. In Gospel, it’s riffing, volume swells within the articulation and attacks of the melody, and the use of ornamentation to emphasize the lyric that is important. R&B, which we must remember is short for Rhythm and Blues, takes from both of these traditions, utilizing the playful rhythmic phrasing of the melody like Jazz AND the Gospel riffing and explosive emotional outbursts and releases of sound to emphasize the lyric. Most singers of each style have experiences singing versions of both styles as they intertwine in the Black American community constantly. Gospel singers scat and swing and Jazz singers riff and wail. The sacred and the secular in the Black American community constantly and consistently feed off each other as musicians and singers commonly play in both situations and are influenced by each type of music.

Improvisation does not come from an understanding of harmony first like many educators teach. Improvisation and phrasing comes from the understanding and manifestation of the rhythm.  A riff is created through fast notes that are accented on specific down or up beats. A singer thinks less of individual notes and more about where those notes are placed; where does it start and end inside the beat. Kim Burrell, Whitney Houston, and Stevie Wonder are prime examples. Changing the phrasing of a melody doesn’t happen in a vacuum and utilizes rhythmic vocabulary words that are in every single African diasporic music regardless of American country of origin. Syncopation and its use to create emotion is at the center of each choice. The Brazilian Samba usage of landing on beat four allows the singer to lock with the band. These types of singers are almost always singing on the up beats and in triplets. It’s what gives the music the “swing” even though the eighth notes are straight. It makes the singing feel like talking and dancing at the same time. Elis Regina demonstrates this constantly in her singing. Her singing is light and speech-like and very connected to the pocket of the music. A quiet volume or light registration doesn’t change the intensity of the rhythmic feel. Complex rhythms appear effortless even when they slip and slide around as Sarah Vaughan or Anita Baker sing them because note choices are connected to seemingly random up and down beats mixed with triplets that go over barlines.These playful rhythms can’t happen if the singers aren’t locked in tight with the pocket of the other musicians. We singers are another drum.

Pocket is the groove of the music. Most forms of music that use the drum kit will put the primary pocket in the bass drum and the snare.  In swing the ride cymbal accentuates it. In R&B it’s the bass and snare drum either slapping the drum head or hitting the rim. Erykah Badu created a whole song based off the “Rim Shot” (hey diggy diggy). Gospel can accentuate the pocket with a tambourine or simple hand clapping on beats 2 and 4 or on the upbeats of each quarter note in the measure. Non drum kit based music like salsa uses the clave to establish the pocket. These grooves inform how you are going to approach the singing of your song as much or more as the melody and lyric. If the singer is not in sync with the pocket, things feel “off” and not relaxed or easy or excited. 

All or at least most of African music forms have a dance component associated with them. The pulse must be felt in one’s body in order for the music to feel “right.” The swinging and circling of the hips, the bouncing of the shoulders and upper body, the rhythmic swaying and clapping from side to side are intrinsic to making the sounds that come out of our mouths when singing. The body is acting as a drum in concert with the voice and the other instruments. These rhythms change how we express our vibrato: how much to use, how wide it will be, or to use it at all. The rhythms tell us which volume to sing and how to articulate the note. The pocket and how greasy or clean it is invites the singer to shift registration and vowel production just like the African talking drum. Listen to Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan. All of it is to be used to express the emotion of the lyric that the singer feels AT THAT MOMENT. The singer is in control of the narrative and uses all the tools at their disposal to create the flavor they are looking to express. If one doesn’t have the tools of rhythm then the singer sounds bland, unconnected and unemotional.

There is always a feeling of two in the four bar measure. In Brazilian music it is 1 and 3 with the emphasis going onto beat 3. Samba is not even written out in 4, but in 2. Swing feels music in a march like 4 but still has an aspect of 2 feel, putting the emphasis on 2 and 4. Notice, these two musics put emphasis on an up beat or the less “strong” beat like the 2 in Samba, cause the Ish feels good. But also, beat 1 is VERY important to know where the singer/musician is. But the beat that centers everyone together is beat 2 or beat 4. If a jazz band wants to “lock” with a singer, you’ll hear them stop on beat 2 of the measure, and then continue. This same thing happens in samba and funk on beat 4. In this feeling of 2 inside the measure, there is almost always an “and” right before the 1. The eighth note right before the strong beat “swings” the pulse and creates the basic groove. 

If the above sounds like google-dy-gook, you would not be alone. These things are not easily written about and far easier to hear. African musics are meant to be orally and aurally passed down, not written (which is possibly one of the reasons you don’t see many African American musicians writing about this, among other reasons). It is common when one is asking a question of a musician about what to do, they will say, “just feel it” or “you’ll hear it” or “listen to (insert person here) do it and that’ll learn you.” To learn the rhythmic base of the music the best way is not just to listen, but to participate by either dancing or playing a drum or another rhythm section instrument. In studying rhythm, the singer gets the feeling into the body which comes out in their voice. There is no way to get the laid back feeling of Billie Holiday or Musiq Soulchild or Toni Braxton or Teddy Riley without it. There’s no way to get the energetic percussive quality of Tina Turner, Beyonce or Rihanna or Chris Brown or Nancy Wilson or Darryl Cooley without it. There’s no smoothness of Frank Ocean without the soul of Sam Cooke and the deep blues of Louis Armstrong, the father of Jazz. Without understanding the rhythm, the singer cannot authentically create this music.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Rhythm in Singing Modern Black American Music Styles // Alison Crockett

  1. Oh this is just brilliant!! This is by far the best article I’ve seen on the singer finding the pocket. Black music is so amazing and has informed most if not all of the popular music now made. Rhythmic singing from the ‘feel’ instead of just the ‘count’ involves almost unconscious choices that are a combination of art and math, with communication the ultimate focus. A great article for those of us who teach singers who have not yet developed a natural rhythmic sense. We need to suggest drumming and dance lessons, to get it in the bones and not just the brain!


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