Originating in polyrhythmic musical traditions primarily from Africa, rhythmic articulation is a foundational element in popular styles. American popular styles such as jazz, rock, and blues originated from a blend of African music, European music, and also Native American music; therefore, studying the rhythmic groove of a song is an essential way to understand how to sing it well.
Listen to the instrumentation of a song, from the bottom up. Listen to the drummer, to the bass. How are they synchronizing? What is the beat pattern? What is the smallest rhythmic value they need to lock-in on together to be well synchronized? When they are, we call that “tight” playing. Then, the keyboard and/or guitar add harmonies, melody, and sonic quality and rhythms. Other instruments add texture and melody. Let’s look at some examples.
In Ariana Grande’s song Dangerous Woman, the groove is sparse with even and steady downbeats in the 6/8 time signature, while her phrasing contains faster rhythms that contrast with this simplicity. She plays with rhythmic timing in her soulful delivery, weaving around the downbeats. The electric bass playing is also sparse; there is an electric guitar pattern that is sparse as well, while also adding a rhythmic subdivision to the downbeats. The song has plenty of harmonies, distinctive reverb added to the vocals, and strong drum sounds. It’s powerful; it is anthemic. Yet Ariana Grande is a soprano with a high-timbre tone. She works her instrument in pop songs by combining soft speech-like singing lower in her range, then at 2:42 she comes back belting high G5s in the background while her lead vocal stays low. She sings the verses very staccato and deliberately. Her diction is urban, yet very clear. This song was a huge hit for her and continues to be a song my students want to learn how to sing.
Bruno Mars’ pop ballad When I Was Your Man is also very rhythmic. He sings with a swing 16th pulse that overlays his slow, simple, piano-only accompaniment at 74bpm. What makes this song a huge hit, and another favorite for singers to learn, is his phrasing, emotion, and story telling. Mars has a gravely tone at times, and passion that comes through strongly. You can almost hear him dancing as he sings (he’s a wonderful dancer) and his understanding of subtle rhythmic subdivisions is clear in his phrasing. To learn to do this song well, one would start by learning Mars’ timing, and tone. Where does he speed up, where does he slow down? Where does he sound like he’s about to cry, where does he seem to yell in his belt, yet he’s singing? You believe him. He is singing your story.
If you were to sing this song, you could start by learning Bruno Mars’ phrasing, but ultimately you would make it your own. You would be telling the story now. We already have heard Bruno Mars’ famous performance of this song. What can you bring to it to make it new? Don’t imitate his voice, you have your own. Don’t imitate his phrasing exactly; instead, let us hear the melody but find your own way of phrasing it. How does the song make you feel as you sing it? Show us. Go there. Be emotional. Be real.
And, be sure you change the key of any popular song to fit your voice. I'll post a video on how to do that soon.