The Kpopalypse music theory series is back with another post! This time we’re learning all about vocal meter!
Previous posts in this series have talked about chords and scales as well as rhythm. The next few posts in this series will gradually consolidate knowledge from these three posts so you can use this knowledge to write song melodies and harmonies. This one is all about vocal meter, which is the rhythm-based aspect of melody, so read up on the rhythm post if you need to before continuing!
A melody is just a bunch of notes that are either played or sung, that generally sit on top of something else (not always, but in k-pop at least 99.9% of the time). Usually in any sort of pop song, the notes of the melody are primarily sung by the vocalist, and the “something else” is a selection of chords (harmony) played by some instruments, as well as some rhythms. Of course, anybody can select a bunch of notes to sing or play on an instrument at random, but it is fairly evident when listening to various songs that some melodies sound better than others. Clearly, there is a selection process at work.
There’s several ways to break down aspects of melody writing. The selection process of melody-writing can be split into three different aspects.
- Rhythm (when are the notes used)
- Harmony (which notes are used)
- Melodic choices (where are the notes used)
I’ll cover the other two parts in the next post of this series, which you won’t have to wait long for. For now, we’ll just look at rhythm. It might seem odd to cover rhythm first when looking at melody writing, but in pop music rhythm is vitally important, and the most crucial aspect of songwriting to grasp, so it’s worth a post of its own.
Rhythm when applied to a melody is called “meter”. All sounds have rhythm, because rhythm is just the “when”, the location of the notes in time. This means that sounds not normally associated with rhythm, such as vocals, still do have rhythm anyway, because the notes have to exist somewhere on the time scale. Several Kpopalypse posts refer to “vocal meter”, and this is one of the most important considerations in melody writing, yet one which is rarely given much attention, even by music scholars.
Musical melodies, for any instrument, are generally arranged in “phrases”. Anyone who has ever learned a musical instrument that requires note-reading will be familiar with the “slur”, and no we’re not talking about k-pop idols (or k-pop bloggers) being problematic according to ultra-woke hyper-sensitive k-pop fans, although they might be, but that’s a separate issue. A slur is the name for a “phrase marking” that indicates certain notes should be played smoothly together as if they are one passage.
The above melody is in two sections, each section has that long curved line underneath it, that’s a slur marking. It indicates that all of those notes within the line’s length should be played together smoothly. If this melody is being sung by a vocalist, they would sing the first phrase, then take a breath in that beat rest at the end of the second bar, then sing the second phrase, and so on. You can hear how this works in practice by listening to the song, which is Minx’s “Love Shake”, and the notated section is from 0:19 to 0:26.
Singers can’t sing all the time, they have to get some air to power their lungs occasionally, and likewise if there’s no break the song can be wearying to listen to. Of course in the k-pop world with multiple vocalists singing one song, a second person can always take over from the first person to allow them to have a breath. That’s fine for the performers, but it doesn’t give a break to the listener – when this happens it tends to give a song a very “crowded” feel.
Loona’s “So What” is a good example of this type of vocal crowding which is very common in k-pop. From 1:35 right through to 2:31 there are no gaps between the vocals greater than half a beat, whenever one girl stops singing another girl or some backing vocals cuts straight in to fill the gap and there’s not a lot of similarity to a lot of it, almost every line is different and it’s a lot to take in. If you personally found “So What” to be an exhausting listening experience, this almost total lack of space in the vocal arrangement combined with the general haphazardness of the vocal meter is possibly why. Listeners tend to like the feeling of space and regularity, and without it, a song can feel a bit uncomfortable.
Despite her currency in the Korean rap world, Jvcki Wai’s “Enchanted Propaganda” actually isn’t a rap song at all as the entirety of it is sung – sure, with hard Autotune, but sung nevertheless. Her song is pretty vocally crowded too – not as much as “So What” but there’s certainly times here where she has elongated vocal passages. Listen to her sing constantly from 0:40 and then rush in an ultra-quick breath of air just before 0:50 so she can keep the phrase going. However the rhythm of constant vocals don’t irritate too much (even if the Autotune might), mainly because the rhythm patterns within them are so repetitious. Just like the first two phrases in “Love Shake” are rhythmically identical, so is much of Jvcki Wai’s song, and it’s this repetition which makes it easier to digest. Most pop songs have very repetitious vocals in terms of vocal meter, even if the singers are singing different notes and different words.
If we look at that “Love Shake” melody again, you will notice that the notes are different, and you can hear that the words are different too, but the rhythm of both phrases is 100% identical. When trying to write a song designed for mass appeal, regularity in vocal meter goes a long way, and this is what can make a melody feel “addictive” or “catchy”. A melody that doesn’t have repeated rhythm has a very hard time worming its way inside your head, but a melody with repeated patterns is easier for the brain to memorise.
T-ara’s “Roly Poly” is crazily catchy, and is also so simple that it can be broken up into just a few vocal ideas:
- Intro rap: 0:20 (itself just the same phrase repeated three times, with a bit on the end)
- Verse part 1: 0:40 (the same mini-phrase, over and over, with small variations)
- Verse part 2: 0:57 (again, the same phrase releated twice, similar to verse part 1, with other mini-repetitions within that phrase)
- Chorus 1:12 (also not that different rhythmically to the verses, once again with repetitions within itself)
- I Like Dis 2:40 (a short rap, also the same phrase repeated over and over)
- End chorus 3:10 (just the same chorus with another repeated phrase substituted)
The song may go for three minutes but if you get all the rhythmically unique vocal parts and string them together, it’s less than 30 seconds of singing.
Vocal meter choices often depend on what type of feeling the artist is trying to convey, and clever songwriters can exploit this to positive effect. What works for an ultra-commercial pop song may not be appropriate for something more left-field. Bewhy’s “Gottasadae” may be a rap song in the true sense, but rap songs still have vocal meter and phrasing even if they don’t have deliberate melodic pitching, so they can still be used to study vocal meter. The song’s vocals start off fairly rhythmically spacious, and the chorus also has regular breaks in the phrases, but everything changes in the second verse. From 1:43 through to 1:56, Bewhy raps in one continuous rapid-fire block of syllables with no breaks at all. The constant blur of speech becomes more unsettling as the listener continues to listen to the phrase, because the natural expectation of the listener is that Bewhy is going to take a breath at some point, but he continues to delay drawing in air for as long as possible to instead spit out more syllables. It’s a deliberate device to build a feeling of tension and unease in the song. It’s not always a bad thing to make a listener feel uncomfortable, as long as this feeling is controlled and used appropriately, and Bewhy does exactly this to give the song a sense of urgency and match the very dark mood set by the backing track. The section from 1:43 to 1:56 sounds great in context, and that context is that there’s a big chunk of no vocals at all straight before it, and a very different vocal section with more space straight after it. If the entire song was crowded like that all the way through, it would just become annoying.
A final thing to consider – if you’ve ever wondered why Park Bom gets a lot of hate from k-pop vocal analysts for her singing technique, it’s because she doesn’t smoothly connect her notes together in a phrase, preferring to sing “staccato” at times, cutting the notes shorter than they are actually written (although this is partially hidden in “You And I” due to the producer’s use of heavy reverb on the voice). However this is just a stylistic choice (and perhaps also to do with ability, and/or Bom’s medical conditions) and doesn’t really have any bearing on the way someone would write a vocal melody. The phrases are still there, Bom’s just singing them a little short for whatever reason. If Bom were to sing “Love Shake”, she’d probably do it like this:
It’s still the same amount of notes, just shorter. Vocalfaggots can’t stand the way Bom does this because it probably interrupts the flow of their masturbation, but people who don’t have a creepy obsession with “vocal technique” probably don’t care. The point here is that when writing vocal meter it’s often relevant to consider who you’re writing it for, what sort of constraints they might have, and also what sort of stylistic choices they might make. Just like you wouldn’t write an ultra-high register vocal line for someone with T.O.P’s deep voice, you also probably wouldn’t expect Bom to rap like Swervy.
That’s all for this post! The next post in this series will discuss the melody and harmony aspect – what notes to use, and how!