Interpreting a song is key to being a great singer. When you understand the song you are singing, your singing will improve and you will connect with your audience more.
In order to interpret songs, you will need to memorize lyrics, understand what the song is about and render it in a way that your audience will understand. We will cover this and more in this article.
Find the songs you want to sing. I know this sounds obvious but it is crucial that you sing the songs you WANT to sing. Those will be the songs that you will render best.
Read the lyrics or listen to the lyrics as they are being sung. What do these words mean to you? What do they mean to the singer who’s rendering the song?
Emotional congruence* is where the words sung match the feeling tone of the singer.
*Congruence: agreement or harmony; compatibility.
There is often more than one way to interpret lyrics-Unless you are performing in a musical but even then you can still perform the song in your own way. Consider the Lennon-McCartney song “A Little Help From My Friends”. Compare the version sung by Ringo Starr to the version sung by Joe Cocker. One is whimsical in tone while the other is excruciating!
Memorize the lyrics. There are several ways to do this:
Sing the song over and over with the lyrics in front of you. You memorize the tune as well with this method.
Read the lyrics aloud to yourself. Read one line, then look up without looking at the lyrics and repeat the line. Read the first and second line, then look up and repeat the first and second line without looking at the lyrics. Read the first, second and third line and so on.
Write the lyrics as you sing them. You might need to rewind from time to time as you write depending on your speed but this is a great way for some people to memorize their lyrics to get a song down.
Fun Fact: Actors use techniques similar to these in order to memorize their lines for stage and movies.
Understand the pitch of the song. Sometimes you’ll need to be quiet and at other times you’ll need to be loud. Tempo and volume plays a big part in song interpretation. The rise and fall, the softer and louder moments are usually notated in sheet music.
Learn the song’s history. This will help you get a better idea of how to perform the song.
Figure out what the song means to you. It’s uncommon for a song to have one specific meaning, even with the original performance as a guide. If you want to convey the song to the best of your abilities, you have to find a particular emotion that works for you.
Let’s look at the song “Devil in Disguise” performed originally by Elvis Presley, written by Bill Giant, Bernie Baum, and Florence Kaye. When Elvis sings this song one might assume it’s about an ex-girlfriend who cheated on him. But what if instead, someone was to sing “Devil in Disguise” with their own mother in mind? Yeah, gets a bit darker, doesn’t it! That’s just one way of interpreting the song. Girls might sing “Devil in Disguise” about their ex-boyfriend or father or uncle or even a stranger. Each interpretation brings with it a different nuance that the audience will hear and feel.
Another example, “Snowbird” written by Gene MacLellan, made famous by Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and especially Anne Murray. The animated sitcom Family Guy had their say on this song in the episode “Chris Cross”, guest-starring Anne Murray herself. Brian thought “Snowbird” was about the fear of growing old, Stewie thought it was about a relationship and Anne thought it was about human limitation-both mental and physical: Three very different interpretations indeed.
Put it all together. Now sing with your heart, mind, and soul!
What if the song really does have one specific meaning? Your own style will come through even when the meaning of the song is unambiguous. “Ghost Riders” is a story song with an unambiguous meaning however Johnny Cash, The Blues Brothers and Frankie Laine obviously perform the song differently one to the other.
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