Great singing possesses a moral dimension—that is, maxims of right and wrong always color and guide a singer’s artistic choices and expressions. Singing embodies moral ideas in two ways: in the meaning of a song’s lyrics, and in the literal sound of the voice that is singing the lyrics. Ideas of right and wrong, as well as judgments as to what is good and bad behavior, if not explicitly stated, are always implied in the words of song, whether it’s finding true love, for example, confronting loneliness, or coming to terms with romantic or sexual feelings. These actions are motivated by moral sentiments; and every song has moral sentiments of one sort or another that make the lyrics come to life. That is simple enough.
More intriguing is the notion that ideas of what is right and wrong also flow into and out of the emotional colors and textures of a voice and give meaningful feelings to singing. Although it is not true that all emotions have a moral component, those that are expressed in singing always do. Tenderness, for example, is a deeply felt emotional state that could be easily heard in the gentle, whispery tonal quality of a singer’s voice. The emotional singing of legendary singer/songwriter James Taylor, for instance, is often colored by extreme tenderness. What is not so obvious is that tender emotions in singing embody moral perspectives such as: it is good to care for someone you love, and it is good to be gentle, kind, and affectionate to that person. Emotional states have clear expression in the tonal qualities of a singer’s voice, and all of us, in fact, are intuitive geniuses in quickly deciphering their moral meanings. This is precisely why we often respond so quickly and strongly to the sheer sound of a singer’s voice. We instantly feel morally what the sound of her voice is saying.
Passionate voices like Whitney Houston’s or Sam Cooke’s are highly prized in the world of singing because they perform with strong feeling—that is, they express with the aggressive emotional colors and textures of their voices the moral values that give purpose, meaning, and intensity to the lives of their devoted fans. Because singing is inherently moral, singers need to recognize the influence that they may have on their listeners and ask: Which virtues or ways of behaving am I promoting in my singing? Honesty? Courage? Independence? Or am I advertising life-negating values and behaviors such as cruel deception, hurtful carelessness, and gratuitous violence? Singers should pose these questions to themselves before opening their mouths.
Under ideal circumstances, a singer should believe in the ideas and ideals that define the songs that he sings. This is where the singer’s real power as a teacher exists. This is also why the singer/songwriter is in such an enviable position. He could say exactly what he wants in strict accordance with his own personal values. For other singers, choosing the right material that closely approximates their moral point of view is the best they can do. Finally, there are singers who are not married to the messages in their singing, but rather sing for the sheer fun of it, or for simple entertainment value. But it is important always to keep in mind that singing is an expression of the celebration of life, and that’s what matters the most. Nothing less will do. A simple dictum that applies to the art of singing, or for that matter to any art form, is: great art offers and frees; bad art takes and controls. Singing could go either way.
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