Analysis of R&B Vocal Lines
Part 1. Tonality
R&B music (from 1995 to now) mostly uses the natural minor scale and less frequently the major scale. The roots vary from song to song. The root is the note you hear in the bass. For simplicity, I’m going to use the notes of the A natural minor scale for my examples. Its notes are the white keys, and it doesn’t use any sharps or flats in its key signature. Think of it as the right hand playing the white keys while the left hand repeats the note A. So this is my starting point.
Sometimes a leading tone 7th (G# here) can also enter the picture, so we expand our collection of notes to
An R&B melody will be a sequence of these notes. Melody moves up and down in steps and leaps. A step is when you skip over one or zero notes to get to your next note (e.g. b->c and c->d are both steps). A leap is when you skip over more than one note to get to the next note.
Part 2. Modes
In R&B melodies certain types of melodic movements are common. The movements that are not common stand out more when surrounded by the more common movements. This can be good or bad. But the more uncommon movement you include in your melody line the less it will sound like R&B.
I hear two styles or modes of R&B melody that remain more or less in place for entire songs. They differ slightly in their common melodic movements and in their tonal centers or tonics. A tonic is the note that a phrase of melody most often ends on. The mode that resembles “minor key” music has as its tonic, the root of the natural minor scale. Also important is the “dominant” note, the note of melodic tension, which usually precedes the tonic. The “minor key” mode’s dominant is the second scale degree (B in A natural minor).
The best way to think of melodic movement is to look at each note of the scale and then determine what notes commonly follow it. For example the root of the natural minor scale can step up to the second scale note and leap to the third scale note. It can step down to the seventh scale note and leap down to the fifth scale note. These movements are shown in the following diagram.
As you can see, the movement away from the root note in this mode is pretty restricted. For example, you can leap down to the fifth scale degree, but not up to it. What follows are similar charts for the other notes in the A natural minor scale. I’m including movement to and away from the leading tone 7th scale. The way I came up with these charts is by transcribing vocal lines from 26 R&B songs recorded between 2000 and 2002, and cataloging melodic progressions. If it’s not in the chart, its probably not in the 26 songs I transcribed. 26 songs is not a lot, and I don’t want to say that no singer ever leaps up from the root to the fifth. But I think I can reliably say that it won’t happen more than once or twice in most songs, and when it does occur often in a song, it will usually be part of a hook – something that is meant to stand out.
Now some of these movements shown above are more common than others. Usually (but not always) the larger intervals are less common than smaller intervals. Also, because of the limited movement away from the sixth scale note (F), you find that this tone is not used as much as the others, and is sometimes missing from songs.
The second mode which is more “major key” sounding, also has a rare note, the second scale degree. The dominant and tonic of the first mode are avoided here (hence the need for a new mode). Instead, the tonic is the third scale note and the dominant is the fourth.
Following are the common melodic movements away from the notes in this mode. The leading tone 7th is not used here.
Notice that the limited movement associated with the second natural minor scale degree means that it will be used less than the others.
Mode 2 also suggests a natural minor scale minus the second degree:
You can build common R&B harmony passages off of this scale:
Part 3. How to use the charts
You can use the charts shown above to write melodies. Basically, you pick a note from the natural minor scale, pick a mode, and then choose one of the options available for the note you can move to next. This note is also a note from the natural minor scale and there are available options under the mode you have chosen for where to go next. Don’t mix modes within the same phrase, and also bear in mind that R&B phrases are not very long and not very complicated. Your sequence of notes won’t sound like very much because you still need to add rhythm, but that’s a subject for another time.
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Alex Tate Copyright 2017. Last Update: 10/3/2017