Finding the Right Emotional Tones

Written by on in Vocalising

Namaste, Dear Music Lover,

This blog-site is a vehicle to express my thoughts and for advice to you for whom singing is more or less a passion for your well-being. (As it is for mine.)

Some people sing to express or convey their thoughts in the usual forms of songs or raags (however, most raags are intended to invoke higher states of consciousness, or to be some sort of a standalone soundtrack to some other activities—as are film songs; Hindu raags and other classical fare are still rare in cinema; maybe they’ll see more use in the future, other than merely as semi-realistic incidental portrayals of concerts, or other “background” content). Anyway, Hindu classical styles are generally without scripted vocals.

Some people sing primarily to make money, possibly to achieve fame, and/or at least to be known to larger audiences. Although it wasn’t always my hope to work in playback singing, it’s been incredibly exciting, and often, artistically challenging. I love the variety, excitement and the fan feedback is heady stuff for which I’m eternally grateful. I don’t take a single moment for granted. Movie (and music) fans drive our industry even more so than critics do.

Apart from the rigors of pandemic avoidance interrupting our workflows like a train crash last year, ours is a very fickle, feast/famine industry. Actors and directors may become accustomed to going for long stretches without work, but I doubt they (nor I) will ever enjoy those days! Troubled times remind us just how blessed we are to have regular employment—when it’s not deemed essential business or public health & safety critical. On that subject, clearly: opinions differ.

To extend a thread above: A common notion about many classical musical compositions is that they exist in a continuum extending from selfless service, sacred/profane devotion and grace (for self, community) to a crasser ‘self-enrichment’ sort of shallow existence for commercial product exploitation. In other words, from benign worship to filmfare profiteering.

Please don’t misconstrue: I’m a team player. Furthermore, what one person regards as cheap may strike others as high art! Eyes and ears of beholders—they continue to rule! The beholders influence others to visit box offices (if they’re open) or to download or stream the title. Directors and producers are still driven to cater to those who influence patronage.

Whatever makes great movies has not and will never change: quality of the script and story and character portrayals, as well as certainly the music (and dance numbers, love scenes, and chases for which they’re used). Who can deny that a great music score often makes (and a failing one can break) a movie (i.e., can cause/help it to succeed/fail).

I share various thoughts here, to present you with more than merely my own fixed ideas (as if they’re ’superior conclusions’). After all, as women, are we not entitled to some measure of informed indecision? Will you share your thoughts and suggestions in our forums? By the way, guys: I’m writing to you, too.

Please allow me to add the caveat that no modern author or commenter’s ideas are totally sacrosanct, new nor exist without scrutiny of the global digital landscape. I pose this impromptu dictum toward an idealized image of this blog-site, as a public service to music lovers, wherever & however they may be, and regardless of how they arrived here.

In other words, I think for the audience’s best experience, we must develop our hearing acuity beyond mere sound production skills; furthermore, any of us can try to assert our own cultural authority, as if we’re only able to expound/expand upon what constitutes our “reality” or some “absolute truths” (about playback singing, or for that matter, any ideas on music or theatrical performances—including play acting—for everyone has their take on a story and its meaning).

By simply asserting it, cultural authority can be asserted in various guises… as if we might standardise whatever school or modern trend that by dint of popularity claims to know all of the right theories and solutions to “life’s pressing issues” or to represent “what God [or local edict] prescribes”—as if we conveying musical offerings have God on speed dial—or speak for higher-ups. Please note that I’ve personally posed no such dodgy assertions. (So far, or at least I think so, lol.)

Presumably, a singer feeling passion for the lyrical content of a song can key on themes and ideas presented in the songs’ words & music’s contributions to plot twists—for guidance on their character’s mood(s).

Toward the core of this topic: How do we as singers find the “correct” or “best” emotional tone for a given song? Is it obvious? Perhaps unknown?

florid French text ‘Je ne sais quois’
Please pardon my French. Lit., ‘I don’t know what.’

This notion arises often in playback singing. Movie characters are (usually) meant to depict believable people (grappling with human thoughts and emotions). Their mind states can’t be too elusive/unknowable, but it’s possible they’re somewhat elusive.

Though I persist in thinking that keys to producing box office hit movies and songs are odd/largely unpredictable alchemies, I can also demur what seems like folklore—on grounds of too-narrow reasoning implying life is accidental (and depressing) instead of life being inherently purposeful and meaningful—even beyond this time and space. Whew. That’s some sort of deep space, I suppose. (Haha!)

Beyond dialing in “just enough—not too much” style, it’s also best to avoid paralysis by analysis. This is where we can showcase our playback vocals (within the confines of an aptly-emotional state).

I also suggest that we should avoid spillover from our characters’ moments potentially detracting from the song’s other merits, especially if we let our own emo baggage influence our vocals.

It may be a rather narrow lane to walk, but every song has its requirements. Hence whatever notes and briefs we’re given are invaluable, and must be assiduously observed (especially in every case when they’re not followed to the T, because I’ve found that those directing and producing movies’ instincts are rarely off the mark).

Image of person walking on a path
Let your imagination lead you there.

Rest assured that if our treatments of the parts we’re asked to perform are off the marks, a) we’ll be afforded more chances to get them right (hopefully not needing rehearsal or other time-eating tasks—with competent engineering, technical hurdles are few-to-none), and b) I like to recall the brilliant observations of an American poet nonpareil. Here’s one of them:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. —Maya Angelou

By noting that quote, I’m implying/asking, “Are we to assert our ultimate or even expedient authority to know and insist upon a “best interpretation” of the emotions implied or exhorted in the songs? And by engaging in such pursuits, do we thus fulfill our purpose as singers?”

Or are we actually more subject to the vagaries of mundane reality, so incapable of fully realizing the boundless glory implied in sacred texts of antiquity, rather than shared by exalted masters speaking the minds of great past authors?

Might it be a whit hasty to cynically infer even an iota of portrayed probity in anything as churlish as a film song? Ha! Have I just obviated my already epidemically-challenged playback singing career? I’m joking, obviously.

Is that “too many questions” for you, Dear Music Lover? I dearly hope it’s not!! The good news for my career is that my phone still rings for various film projects—and I’m still quite delighted to be in the mix (whenever my voice fits the songs & parts).

The practice of careful social distancing along with proper hygiene [e.g., correct hand washing, as needed] adds measurably to my comfort level in the studio work of late. Let’s keep our practices up to the standards we know are needed; minimum standards seems to apply in too many ways; if possible, we try to better any standards!

Similarly, is it more reasonable to suggest that no movie, and likewise no song or vocalise [wordless musical vocalizing] can thoroughly convey the fullest substances of any significant human feelings, and instead we singers merely crudely claw at the impossibly difficult task of speaking the mind of X, Y or Z Brahmin author, or of whomever you consider conspicuously espousal on the story subject(s) at hand?

Well, here now, we’ve turned a corner in terms of exposition. I’m honestly not trying to paint myself into a verbal corner-of-no-escape! One caveat I’ll pose (for any here feeling that I’ve lost my focus) is that film fare isn’t limited by the tight constraints of traditional or even modern social norms. We like to imagine that our artistic license is irrevocable, too—so to say, lol.

There is a rarely-noted film genre (often associated with academic and documentary topics) called, variously, cutting/leading edge, experimental or even avantgarde film. Alternately termed student project freedom. My point here is, in film: the sky’s the limit. The true apex is the writer’s imaginations reach. Speaking for those whose songs reach me for my vocals, there is thankfully no rigid formula nor solely sanctioned interpretation in nearly all cases. I apply a fresh approach to each of my vocal renditions. Hence, the end products (for better or worse) simply remain ART that lives or dies largely based upon how it registers with the audiences.

Or should we dryly rename our audiences as multimedia consumers, given how precarious the physical premises aspects remain under these seemingly-endless lockdowns and quarantines? Will movie theatres ever again seem to resemble past days of sardine-can packed seatings (with concomitant box-office sales)? Can digital media consumption ever match the enviable cash flow of larger urban cinema chains or halls?

Conversely, I wonder: How could any single cinema (or, frankly any chain of multiplexes) provide an audience comparable to that available on the World Wide Web? The other upside to digital distribution is the lesser requirements for physical resources in terms of buildings, equipment and energy.

If there is but one lesson to be gleaned about how viewers feel about watching movies at home (or wherever is convenient or expedient, and on whatever size screen[s] they have), it is that they aren’t put off too dearly, and they like eating their own snacks, and watching at their leisure dressed as they choose (or, forgive me for saying so, not dressed for public scrutiny).

How well-tutored a given exponent (here, singer) is often informs their ‘level of perceived sincerity’ or how ’authoritatively’ their singing comes across to listeners. There is no substitute for excellence—and surely upon hearing it, we all know greatness.

As in all artistic expression, a movie’s songs tend to find their levels of comparative appreciation rather independently of the given release’s cinematic exhibition run. Whether the release is shown in-person in conventional cinemas (which in many cases now actually receive the movies solely in digital formats, directly online), or only online (which now includes Netflix, Amazon, and a growing cadre of cable- and satellite-TV channels), the work (expressed in films) will find its place in history (or the historical dustbin).

There are, of course, no simple rules or mandates that we can ascribe to our work in order to ensure that we strike the optimal tone for a given song composition to guarantee that we “nail it” (as if there could be only one “most-perfect interpretation” of any text/song!). Else whence would the musical artistry apply? Playback singers are essentially musicians who must rely on their training and artistic instincts much like actors, in order to best portray the essence of the entertainment experience we call a movie or film. Television production follows a much-similar course.

Since time immemorial, the musical conceptions of “performance styles” have been of at least modestly significant importance to the process of how one interprets a set of lyrics (often being poetry, which we may all agree is in many cases both meant to inspire contemplation and/or to stimulate some emotional responses). That, friends, might be called the optimal emotional tone. To suggest that singers can or could apply some simple formulas or techniques to suss out the optimal performance of a given song is like saying a painter can apply a simple template to each painting!

Don’t worry, Dear Music Lover, there is not, at least so far as I know, any pat set of how-to formulae for song interpretations… even for, let’s say for the purposes of argument, a given genre of movies (as if to imply for example, that all characters being portrayed in this or that movie could or should respond in the same ways), such that when a singer masters the 3-5 accepted “techniques for emotional portrayal”, they will be prepared to sing any song within the genre “correctly”?

No, as I frankly claimed above Dear Music Lover, the field is (stylistically) broad, and (in my opinion) not particularly dogmatic or limited in scope. This winding post is getting quite long as it is, to this point. On this journey, however, it falls to each of us to forge our own paths through the thickets of Bollywood songwriting.

True, it’s not rocket science, but neither is it child’s play, even (some would say especially) for songs intended to be sung by children. In summary on this point, I wish each of you childlike freshness for the consideration of how each track you record is best realized. If you’re fortunate enough to have an edit of the movie/scene to inform your interpretation, that can be very helpful. However, there is no escaping the need for playback singers to bring substantial experience to the process. There is no substitute for expertise built upon years of practice and work (really, this is the case for work any field)! While physicians’ medical practice in residencies for literally years in order to achieve standing and their M.D. appellation, we as playback singers have our catalogs (and the treasured experiences of working with industry legends on various movies, if fortune and our work favors us to stay busy doing this), it’s likewise our music practice that tends to distinguish us as professionals. While in decades past, some singers were attached to a single studio or production house for large segments of their careers, in the modern era, the freelance basis for employment—or in popular jargon, the gig economy—where nothing is guaranteed on a long-term basis unless one has established a reputation like SRK or AB) is the new normal.

Please note above all, Dear Music Lover: My point in mentioning this is that every creative type must rigorously pursue her or his dreams (until the quality and quantity of work offered to us is simply more than there are hours and days in a work week or film production season). Very little is automatic in any career, even for those whom many might presume are in continual demand. This fact is especially germane when an artist has especially high standards for what they’re willing to consider in terms of content (by this, I again refer to what are loosely termed community or family values and cultural or moral standards).

The reality (as in life, obviously) is that movie characters, as distinct from movie stars in practice (presenting often stereotypical humans in all of our human frailty) are unfailingly unique [at least, one presumes], so unpredictable! No predictable formula or special trick can fully convey characters’ emotions. How well we can mix this hard-to-describe emotional tone with superior pitch control and skillful melodic performance marks our own best contributions to a given film production (or post-production) process.

In simpler terms, we must view (and hear) each of the characters in context. I won’t pretend that any specific movie character’s emotional state is static for the story’s duration; we know that a film’s story arc requires the characters to grow, or at least to survive hardships affecting their moods).

One can be sure only that again, no hard and fast rules apply in the quest for emotional accuracy. One can only imagine what most inspired the ‘classic’ female vocals of our genre. I’ve been told some good tales by more experienced singers, and every approach is valid. (This fact serves as impetus or excuse for us to lend our best efforts and skills as needed for this film.)

Is the dichotomy between putting our own stamp on a vocal part, or focusing on a valid portrayal a mere quaint artifact of some curious logic? Perhaps. But I suggest there’s more to it. Modern screenplays depict an increasingly broad and diverse range of humanity, in all of its incapacity or capacity to grapple with the emotional implications of the characters’ stories they drive. Again, characters aren’t merely stuck in one mood. They evolve with (maybe antithetically to) the movie’s story.

To put a blunt tip on one’s emotional tone fencing foil toward (aka in the cliché line used by actors addressing directors, “What’s my motivation here?”) the right emotional tone, Dear Actors, “Please, don’t pose that numb inquiry—even if it’s truly a mystery!” —A little-known film director.

No, maybe the closest we can get to perfecting our takes on the songs we’re given to sing is to zone in upon the characters’ state of mind. But one playback singing rule applies: the director is the final arbiter of what the dialogues and lyrics mean, and how they’ll land in (be mixed into) final-cut song takes.

Please remember: filmmaking remains an art form. As a vocal artist, you yourself are your ultimate best calling card. A singer tends to be judged by how often their songs land well on the largest-possible audience. In other words, the magical combination of great song (generally also meaning great lyricist plus great composer!) with great singer, along with great film and its context, in tune with society’s response to what seems timely plus enjoyable can produce a hit song. Anything failing in the preceding chain of requirements can lead to a song (and/or film) being largely panned. Truly, exceptions do occur, but who ever built a career on them alone? (No one I know.)

Of course, it’s rarely a mystery how the singer (really, the character they portray) feels. That’s certainly an early point of departure or cue in planning your own version of a song. “How do I feel about what I’m singing (saying lyrically)?” is a valid way to approach the subject.

Again, one is well advised to consider both the momentary and life-course contexts within the larger stories and communities within which the song is meant to operate. Every character, and obviously every song can be viewed through such micro and/or macro lenses.

Two key admonitions remain: 1) Don’t try to pigeonhole the characters in pat, stereotypical ways. Likewise, 2) Don’t allow the sense of mystery to so predominate one’s approach to a song that it’s impossible to grapple with their most-appropriate emotions (as if no one could know them, leaving the audience emotionally adrift—or, fully “out-to-sea” and so, clueless as to how they feel about the scene’s or story’s action). Singers who have a gift for playback singing (so I’m told by experts I’ve met) seem to have a gift of empathy (for the characters in the movies for which they record) that informs their takes each time they sing. Singers who lack compassion tend to struggle with creating believable sync-to-picture performances.

Bottom line: I like to take my briefs and apply my best understanding of the story arc and this/some/all of the characters populating it. If all goes well, it’s a wrap. But I’ve even had a session or two where it went to a few additional takes to dial in and to capture my best performance, or to be offered as options for editing (yes, this occurs rarely).

In the digital domain [especially in the high-tech field of 21st-century movie audio], the possibilities are virtually unlimited. But that’s no excuse for a bad take! Better to cook with the most-natural recipe, as we say (capturing usable audio). If we must struggle to get vocals on track, the notion of fixing it in the mix often isn’t viable.

Part of doing music professionally is a willingness to grow as an artist, and to remain open to learning more ways to get what we (or ultimately the directors) want. This is simply part of what keeps it interesting for me! I hope aspiring singers here also feel an éclat for greatness (that is perhaps nowhere more possible than in cinema theatres; producers, I assert, surely believe so, isn’t it?).

Should you, Dear Music Lover, find yourself possessed of the belief that your vocals might be best suited to filmi song, I salute you! Welcome to the field (one never too crowded to be open to incoming authentic talent)!

Without suggesting a sort of cynical take on the vocation, just strap in for an untamed (really, unmatched) road. Let your experience (and obviously, the film’s artistic direction) guide you where it does. Trust your instincts. You’ll need the moral grounding they often provide. This is not to suggest that some inherent controversy will inevitably loom large over the project. Where your musical ability takes you is, in the end anyhow, your own choice!

Thanks so much for reading this, yet another long, rambling playback singing blog post; I sent it to my web team with my usual minor imperfections (so they could enjoy touching it up a bit; we all need some sense of accomplishment; I mean that).

As it turned out, the digital domain was even for a few days unkind to my manuscript, but in the end, time and substantial efforts on their part resolved the technical issues. I have at their behest agreed to somewhat diminish my use of text formatting for emphasis in future here. My equally-fervent hope is that my vocal tracks remain far less prone to any need for tweaking/editing, lol. It’s not always easy.

So far, I’m not at all inclined to abandon my day job! Voicing the complex feelings of a heroine or supporting role can be tricky, yet rewarding if done well! (I hope my web crew found some images for this post. My time is [happily] so crushed these days, I’m increasingly reliant upon their judgment much like directors tend to trust my approaches. Also, guys: When we’re working, how about blocking spam phone calls?)

Quiet please! (It’s paid work!)

Now, to my colleagues in Bollywood: Let’s promptly wrap up the post-production on the new raft of coming attractions, and get our industry closer to back on track, as it were.✨

This pandemic business is clearly in no one’s best business interests!

Hope springs eternal.Alexander Pope.

My love to you all, and PLEASE STAY SAFE.

Namaste,

AM

PS: My dear web team had temporarily mangled this post, but I insisted they make it whole again—for you and me.

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