By The Landlord
“Singing is like a celebration of oxygen,” said Björk. “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy,” said Ludwig van Beethoven. “The only thing better than singing is more singing,” said Ella Fitzgerald. “The human voice is the most perfect instrument of all,” Arvo Pärt. “The voice is the organ of the soul,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Hello, I’m Mickey Mouse,” said Mickey Mouse. “Hello,” said Mike Tyson. “Hello!” said David Beckham. “Ow!” said Michael Jackson.
So this week, we’re going to get high, higher than ever, with the help of some of the most superlative and special larynxs history has ever known, all to show how a song can soar with the help of the higher range. But while this is all about high voices, we don’t need to turn to the very highest voices. At the top of the range, the human voice can begin to turn into a whistle. If you can bear it, you might have heard Mariah Carey do this on the song Emotions. It might even have had some special production work going on. And the Guinness Record Holder for the highest note sung is actually by an Australian Adam Lopez who hit an Eb 8, also known as a D#8 – slightly above the highest note on a full piano keyboard. Listen if you can stand a little bit of pain, and that’s not only from the cheesy TV programme presentation:
But while such whistle notes (more suited for the dog, cat and bat range) may work for novelty, it’s not ideal for regular consumption. Most of us have a range of no more than two octaves – ie going up the scale twice – but many professional singers can stretch it much further with practice. Here is a table with a selection of a few well-known artists and how high (and low) they can go. If you want to see in what songs these ranges appear, this is a handy site.
But high notes aren’t merely about going high, more importantly they all about expressivity, quality, control, contrast and context, and that's what counts this week. If it soars up high in a good way, though may not be as high as others or hits the squeak range, then that's what counts. As Richard Strauss put it: “The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.” Singing squeakily high throughout a song can be horribly grating, but a sudden high note can be a powerful moment in a song. Minnie Riperton’s extraordinary Lovin’ You (previously selected for another topic), most famously does this successfully towards the end, where here voice really does sound remarkably like a bird:
By contrast, there's this. Is the squeaky female voice, as portrayed in this early Betty Boop cartoon cute and funny, or weirdly sexualised for a children's character? You decide:
So your choices might range from any number of female stars, from US classical and pop singer Jackie Evancho to the Philippines' Charice Pempengco, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kate Bush to Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and many more. But let’s not forget that some of the greatest singers have been backing vocalists. Here contrast and context also come into play big tie, such as the wonderful Carol Kenyon who sang with Heaven 17, or indeed the powerful and brilliant Rowetta Satchell from Manchester, who featured most famously on Happy Mondays hits, perfectly offsetting the grunty shouts of Shaun Ryder.
In the past the topics of low voices, and more relevant here, falsetto have been examined, but for male voices the issue is less whether the singer is using their “chest or head” voice, the key thing here is that the voice is high and has an effect to help the listener's experience soar and elevate. Male pop and rock singers by nature tend to have higher than average singing voices in order to be heard above guitars and bass, but who might be among your choices? Guns ’n’ Roses Axl Rose, or Yes’s Jon Anderson? Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler? Justin Hawkins from The Darkness, or of course Michael Jackson?
How about other utterly unique high voices such as The Associates’ Billy McKenzie? Or indeed Antony Hegarty, now known as Anohni, who doesn’t have the highest of high voices, but the quality and surprise of his vocal cords certainly have the same effect. Marc Almond? Jimmy Somerville? Texan singer Shamir? Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor? Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears? Perhaps one of the most uplifting high-voice examples, previously chosen for another topic, but could still be B-listed, is the glorious Yes, such by David McAlmont:
Or if you’re really looking to venture to higher, stranger plains, there is the eerily beautiful sound of Jonsi, from Sigur Rós:
Aside from Michael Jackson's hits, possibly the biggest-selling and best-known high-note hitting song was released in 1975. Bohemian Rhapsody’s operatic overdubs were truly innovative, but while Freddie Mercury took on the bulk of the singing, but the very high notes were in fact made by drummer Roger Taylor, who hit a falsetto B♭ in the fifth octave.
Freddie of course famously worked with Monserrat Caballe on the wonderfully ridiculous single Barcelona, but there is a whole world of opera singers, male and female, who can hit the heights and might surely feature in this week’s nominations including Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Jessye Norman, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kirsten Flagstad, and not forgetting of course those famous tenors from Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Enrico Caruso to Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti.
But in the classical arena and beyond, there have been many triumphant child performances too. Who sung Walking In the Air? It wasn’t, as some remember from Top of the Pops, the later TV presenter Aled Jones, but the lesser known Peter Auty:
History has sought to try and keep high voices in some men after puberty. Castrati singers, until late 18th-century Italy, didn’t sadly, as the name suggests get to keep all their marbles, but after such cruel practice was banned, the same vocal effect can be learned by training. Here’s a popular TV theme example written by Howard Goodall and sung by Jeremy Jackman:
And a more contemporary and also extraordinary example is Yorkshire countertenor Jamie McDermott, from The Irrepressibles:
And so then, please suggest your own high-voiced songs to help elevate our topic in comments below. I’m delighted to announce that lifting us even higher and soaring with energy and enthusiasm to create playlists from your suggestions is the high-flying and sublime Hoshino Sakura !!! Put forward your suggestions by last orders on Monday (11pm UK time – that’ll be 7am the next morning in Japan) for her playlists to be published next Wednesday. Laaaaaaaa!
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.