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Use Consonants to Enhance Melodic & Lyrical Flow

Using Consonants to Enhance Melodic & Lyrical Flow

Choose key words and sounds to create the mood – says Juliet Russell

This famous chorus by the Isley Brothers uses consonants in a really interesting and atmospheric way (chorus at 1.10):

The repeated use of F, S, Z (the S in jasmine is treated as a Z as this is how it sounds) creates a breezy, airy effect which brilliantly reflects the lyrical content.

Even when the rhythm is strong and quite punchy on the repeated phrase, ‘summer breeze’, there is still a lightness of touch created by the the s and z sounds.

Today I want you to consider using these consonants in a more intentional way.


Together with V, this group of consonants are known as fricatives (or spirants). F and S are voiceless and V and Z are voiced.

Just try moving from S (hissing) to Z (buzzing sound) on 2 beats for each sound (minims) and then a F (fffff) sound to a V (vvvvv) on minims.

Did you also notice the repeated use of M and N in the video? These are nasal consonants.

Technically they are oral occlusives, (creating a blocking of the oral vocal tract), but unlike the stops (especially P, T and K), the breath still flows through the nasal cavity so there is no interruption in sound.

In Summer Breeze, these consonants support the melodic flow and enhance the dreamy mood.

The “Secret” Power of One Republic

‘Secrets’ by One Republic repeatedly uses the S fricative throughout the verse and chorus. Listen from the beginning to the end of the first chorus.

This much repetition of a consonant is unusual.

Not only does this create alliteration, but the repeated S catches the ear.

It creates the impression of listening to the whispers and the secrets. In this song, the fricatives don’t necessarily interrupt the flow, but they do create a very specific effect to enhance the lyrical content.

S is an example of a sibilant consonant. These sounds can sometimes cause a noticeable impact of breath, particularly on a microphone.

Use the Consonants Time After Time

It’s great to combine different effects created by consonants for melodic and dynamic contrast.

Listen to the chorus of Time after Time (chorus at 1.49):

If you’re lost, you can look (more rhythmic, with stops)
And you will find me
Time after time
(longer notes, simpler phrasing and sung consonant)

Of course the length of the word/note/vowel sound and repetition all significantly contribute to whether a consonant sounds percussive or more legato.

M and N sounds aren’t always mellow, just as fricatives aren’t. It depends on context and how you use them.

The Power of Poker Face

Lady Gaga’s Poker Face riff breaks up the sung consonants with a repeated short phrase. Listen at 1.13:

My, my, my poker face
My, my poker face

Understanding basic phonetics (how human sounds are physically produced and pronounced) and the effect they can have can be an extremely useful creative tool.

Creative Use of Your Consonants – An Exercise

Write lyrics and melody for a 4-line chorus:

  • Line 1 – Start with a long, legato line, incorporating fricatives and / or nasal consonants
  • Line 2 – break this up with a shorter, punchier phrase or phrases incorporating an oral occlusives at the end
  • Line 3 – See where the first 2 lines take you
  • Line 4 – Choose an element of repetition from earlier in the chorus.

Repeat and vary this sequence to make it an 8 line chorus.

Think about enhancing your lyrical and melodic ideas through:

  • Mixing long and short phrases
  • Sounds that help to create atmosphere and reflect your lyrical subject
  • Repetition and catchy hook lines

Good luck!

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

MacKenzie Underwood MacKenzie Underwood - Teenage Dirtbag (Cover)

Kenzie, your voice has a great pop quality to it and your intonation was really good throughout. I like the melodic amendments. They really work for you and it’s great that you know your voice well enough to make creative choices rather than sing lower than is comfortable. I think you could develop your physical performance and just add a little more expression and gesture. Being less static will give more freedom, not only physically, but vocally. Your eye contact is good and you connect with your audience well. Your sustained notes have a lovely clarity and it’s a well supported sound. I like the contrast in the voice qualities you use in the verse and the chorus. It adds a good dynamic. I checked out your Titanium cover too (good job by the way!) and I think your voice really lends itself to a soulful pop sound, maybe more than a pop rock sound. Having said that, it’s great to experiment and try new things too!

November's Vocal Coach in Residence: Juliet Russell

Juliet Russell has coached Grammy award winners and X-Factor finalists and is a vocal coach on BBC1’s The Voice. She has performed and collaborated with Damon Albarn, Imogen Heap, Paloma Faith, Ringo Starr and is in demand as a coach, singer, vocal arranger and choral director. www.julietrussell.com

In spring 2015, Juliet be touring her forthcoming album, Earth Meets Sky, throughout the UK, collaborating with choirs to create a unique performance in each city.

Juliet’s vocal exercise CD, Love Your Voice, will be available late in 2014.