When asked about his famous falsetto voice in a recent interview, Earth Wind & Fire singer Phillip Bailey quickly corrected Sway (the interviewer) by stating it was not about his falsetto, as much as it was about his extended vocal range. He said it was his 8-octave vocal range, which allows him to hit those high notes, that is as important as him singing in his well-known falsetto style.
After listening and analyzing singers in the falsetto and whistle register range over the past year, I think he may be right about the importance of a vocalist’s range. Because all a falsetto singer is doing is demonstrating their “range” by hitting all those high notes. Now I am wondering if it is a singer’s range that is actually their most important asset and what makes them a good singer.
My personal, un-edumacated definition of “good vocal range” is the ability of a singer to produce an extensive range of notes extending from the highest of high keys to the lowest keys like on a piano. It is the ability to move across the entire spectrum of octaves (8-note intervals that repeat), with ease of transition and while producing clear quality pitch-perfect notes.
A good example of a singer with good range to me is Angela Winbush. You will hear her drop from high soprano notes to deep bellowing low notes at any point in most of her songs. Another example could also be Luther Vandross who, not only has the range of several high and low octaves, but the quality is pristine on both the high AND the low notes, and he would hit them all in one quick vocal run! Chaka Khan is another one with off planet range, with her ability to belt out really strong high and low notes that can probably be picked up by sattelites. Then there’s Rahsaan, Stokely, Jeffery (Osborne), Prince, too many artists to name, who have that crazy vocal range that makes you want to run and tell somebody.
So is this what is considered being a great singer, having great vocal range? Being able to hit all or most of the notes from the top octaves to the lower octaves clearly and effectively? To classify singers like this would be fine, except what about those people who may not hit both ends of the piano, but they totally OWN the lane that their in?
Take Mariah, for example, she may never sing a baritone note in her life, but her high notes are like Swiss Alps altitudes, leaving us all dizzy and may be unmatched. And on the opposite end, Lalah Hathaway, well, sometimes I wonder where those low, deep notes actually come from, and where they end up after leaving her throat. (Now she’s hitting high and low notes at the same time…)
Sade is a magnificent artist without a lot of range, she basically stays on the same level of notes in most of her music. However, the purity and uniqueness of her tone and voice, matched with feeling and depth of her performance, is why she is the mega star she is today and why we love her like mama’s cooked food. I would gladly take Sade’s sweet mellow tone over Beyonce belting her high notes, any day of the week.
So what is the more important asset? Is it the ability of the artist to have a wide spectrum of good notes? Or is it the quality and uniqueness of a few notes and a signature style that makes them a good singer? Phillip Bailey may indeed have great range, but his falsetto high-notes are what he is most famous for, its the “reason, the reason that we’re here…“So I think its safe to say, when a singer has a signature style that we adore, we really could care less about range.
Something to think about, if you have an interest in vocals. The truth is that every singer is great in their own right. What a beautiful gift we have to be able to enjoy so many different voice types, styles, sounds, nuances, and emotions in the variety of artists we listen to. There can never be an over-saturation singers, because they each bring something different to us. So I guess we will continue to love them all, for the reasons we do, for we each take away something different. And at the end of the day it’s the sincerity and genuineness of the artist in his or her self-expression that is what’s most important. Any singer of any range or register who stays true to who they are, can’t lose.