Space & Innovation

Prince: Why Tenors Rule in Pop Music

Legendary Prince, who died Thursday, was known for his high-pitched vocals. But a high voice may have been one of the few qualities that didn’t set him apart.

Singer Prince performs in a surprise appearance on the "American Idol" television show finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood in this May 24, 2006 file photo. | REUTERS/Chris Pizzello/Files
Singer Prince performs in a surprise appearance on the "American Idol" television show finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood in this May 24, 2006 file photo. | REUTERS/Chris Pizzello/Files

Prince brought joy to millions of fans with his infectious music, amazing guitar licks, cool dance moves, and of course, his voice. The falsetto he maintained on "Kiss," for example, or the deep baritone of "Daddy Pop," show how high and low Prince could reach.

In fact, a recent chart comparing the vocal range of contemporary pop singers put Prince at number one when it came to men reaching high notes, and number three for his overall vocal range. Like many of his contemporary male singers, Prince sang as a tenor, often in the higher vocal ranges that, well, sometimes sounded like a female.

Prince -- who died today in Minneapolis at the age of 57 -- isn't alone when it came to vocal stylings.

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It seems that nearly every one of today's male singers, from Charlie Puth to Justin Beiber to Usher and Bruno Mars push the upper limits of the vocal cords. The deep baritone voices of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop are rarely heard today online or the radio.

Vocal ranges are measured by the span of notes a person can sing from low to high in their chest voice, according to Stephanie Kellar, director of the music management program at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

Falsetto comes into play when tenors sing above their chest range using what is called head voice, which can extend their range upward by approximately an octave although in most cases the falsetto does not have the same power and tone.

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"Back in the day, the deep male voice was a sign and signal of manliness," Keller said. "Gender roles have relaxed. That is one of the reasons that particular voice, that male voice that has an exceptional range has become more attractive over time."

Prince appealed to both sexes, Kellar noted, much like his gender-bending forefather David Bowie, who died on Jan. 10 at age 69.

Kellar says the shift from deep baritone to higher-pitched tenor singers began with singers from the 1960s Motown, soul and R&B era. Singers like Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and others led to 1980s high-pitched megastars like Michael Jackson and Queen's Freddie Mercury.

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Prince came of age in the mid-1980s with his hit album and movie "Purple Rain," and remained a creative, inventive and evolving musician for the past three decades, according to Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University Steinhardt.

Miller noted that in the world of opera singers, heroes have higher tenor voices while villains sing in a lower baritone. A higher voice may also appeal to younger record or digital music consumers, Miller added.

"The higher register of voice sounds younger, whether it is or not," Miller said.

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Many contemporary rap artists often bring on female singers on stage to boost the vocal characteristics of individual songs, Kellar said. As they get older, pop, rock or rap singers all find that reaching the high notes does get tougher.

"Usually what happens over time, they will drop the key down so they can continue," Kellar said, "but not as high."