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Using Emotion in Singing, as Done by Foo Fighters
By Anthony Ceseri - 07/23/2012 - 08:40 PM EDT

During a vocal performance it’s so important fuse emotion with the lyrics. Injecting emotion into the lyrics of a song is possibly THE most important job a singer has. The vocal delivery and the words in the song, can’t be separated if you want an effective vocal performance.

For example, have you ever seen a singer reading the lyrics of a cover song off a page (or an iPhone!)? If you’ve witnessed that (or done it yourself), I can guarantee you’ve seen (or been) a singer who isn’t attaching emotion to his lyrics. Think about it, how can he be, if he doesn’t even know what words are coming next?

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters. He’s an incredibly emotional singer. When the lyrical content of a Foo Fighter’s song demands a powerful vocal, he delivers it with the appropriate intensity in his singing. One of my favorite examples of this is in the song “Monkey Wrench.”

Check out the YouTube video of “Monkey Wrench,” below. We’ll fast forward to right after the second chorus. We’ll call this section the bridge. The part I’m referring to starts at about 2:45 in this video.

In the first part of the bridge, we simply hear Grohl repeat the word “temper” three times. He does it in as calm a voice as Dave Grohl’s capable of. This is fitting, because the simple, repetitive use of the word “temper” is implying “Okay, don’t lose it here. I need to control my anger. I can’t let it get away from me.” And that comes through in his vocal tone.

My only issue with this first part of the bridge is if they were trying to convey a truly calming vibe, they could have calmed down the music in the background behind the vocals as well. Not only should the vocal emotion and lyrics go hand in hand, but so should the music underneath. Right now, this part of the song’s still rockin’, when it might be more effective if it was more subdued to match the vocal. But let’s overlook that. After all, I’m talking about vocals here.

Okay, so Dave’s calm. He’s repeated “temper” three times. Now he can breathe into a paper bag and walk it off, right? Whoops… Maybe not. Check out the second half of the bridge, starting at about 3:10 in the attached video. Here are the words:
One last thing before I quit
I never wanted anymore than I could fit into my head
I still remember every single word you said
And all the sh*t that somehow came along with it
Still there’s one thing that comforts me
Since I was always caged and now I’m freeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Okay, NOW he sounds like a guy who’s blown off his steam. Within both parts of the bridge, we’ve gone from the calm Dave desperately trying to control his temper, to the crazy outburst of the second part of the bridge, where he just HAD to get his thoughts off his chest. The two parts of this bridge together remind me of a guy who tries to start a fight with a second guy, but then his friends hold him back. To get his friends off him he says “it’s okay, it’s okay… I’m calm.” Then as soon as the friends let go of him, he flips out and tries to attack the second guy again. That’s basically what Grohl’s doing here, except in this case he’s both the guy who wants to fight AND the guys holding him back, because he’s battling with his own temper before letting it rip. And he makes that clear with the emotion in his vocal delivery.
It’s clear in the power and passion in these vocals, he means what he’s saying. Read those words again, and decide if it would be okay if they were delivered any other way. I’d say it wouldn’t fit. Picture a 14 year old girl delicately reading these words off a page, as she lightly strummed her acoustic guitar and sang them with a happy-go-lucky sort of voice. It wouldn’t work, right? Why? Because the appropriate emotion wouldn’t be there.
To prove it even further, what if Grohl had sung the second half of the bridge (starting on the words “One last thing…”) with the tone and emotion of how he currently sings the first half of the bridge (“temper”)? And vice versa. Would that work for you? Nah, me either.
I should also mention that Grohl has a bit of an unfair advantage in the second half of the bridge, because of modern digital recording. Clearly they’ve edited out all his breaths and recorded this vocal section in chunks (although it’s still fun to TRY singing it all the way through when you’re listening in your car). This aspect gives the section an unrealistic “wow, he must be the kind of pissed that can only be enhanced by computers” kind of vibe. Like the Incredible Hulk! Eliminating breaths typically tends to make recordings sound unnatural, and that’s magnified in this case because of the length and intensity of the section. You can make of that what you will.

Generally in everyday speech, the tone of our voices carries much more meaning than the actual words we say. The same applies in singing, since it’s simply an exaggerated form of speech. Emotion in vocal delivery is critical. Listen for it in your favorite songs, and decide if the lyrical intent matches the vocal emotion. Then make sure you’re applying the appropriate emotions to your own lyrics.

For more songwriting techniques, you can download my free EBook here:

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