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22 March 2021, 17:27 | Updated: 22 March 2021, 19:52
80s synth sounds and a ‘chameleon’ tenor voice – we put The Weeknd’s impressive range, and the earworm that is ‘Blinding Lights’, under the musical microscope.
An R&B star for a decade, The Weeknd has reached astronomical heights since 2020.
His fourth album, After Hours, featured the chart-topping singles ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’. Both have been foot-tapping staples for any TikTok scrollers, during the long lockdowns of the past year.
In interviews The Weeknd, born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, has listed Michael Jackson and Prince as the inspirations of his vocal style. And you can really hear this in almost every note.
His voice type is that of a lyric tenor. His ‘chest voice’, or lower and natural range, spans from low at the low bass F, rising to a tenor G sharp.
You’ll hear him sing higher though, using what’s called his ‘head voice’. Here he can rise out of his natural range and belt out high, resonant notes within the fifth octave – territory usually reserved for countertenors and sopranos.
Creating a seamless link between the chest and head voice often requires years of vocal training. The Weeknd’s ability to find a bright, focused and consistent tone throughout his range, is part of what makes his voice so distinctive, versatile and striking.
The Weeknd has also cited East African influences in his voice. “My natural singing voice was inspired and shaped by Ethiopian music,” he told TMRW magazine. “The older I got, I was exposed to more music, and my voice became a chameleon going into different characters with each album. By following my own path and breaking industry norms, it seems to be influencing others.”
Music critic J. D. Considine sees the similarities to Michael Jackson’s vocal style, but also notes those things that make The Weeknd his own. He highlights the use of highly ornamented “Arabic-influenced” melismas. This is a term for when several different notes are sung on one syllable.
You can hear his use of these distinctive melismas in an early song like ‘High For This’, and subtly in downward steps at the end of phrases in his 2017 song ‘I Feel It Coming’.
While we’re on ornaments, in the verses of ‘Blinding Lights’, you can catch the use of an ‘upper mordent’, or a little flick to the next note of the scale. This gives the music drive, tension and character.
These ornaments and melismas, though subtle, demand a high degree of control and pitch accuracy. And he really has it down.
There’s the instrument – and then, there’s how it’s used. Here’s an interesting observation about why his songs are so catchy and singable.
The very fine Facebook page Top40 Theory takes a thorough look at chart-topping songs, through a geeky music theory lens. They took a dive into what, from a theory point of view, makes a song like ‘Blinding Lights’ so catchy.
They cite a technique called “previewing a hook”, in which an instrumental variation of a song’s melodic hook is started early, meaning that when it comes at the climax of the song, it’s already familiar, singable and even more catchy.
And there’s more. These song de-constructors note that in ‘Blinding Lights’, the opening instrumental hook can be found lurking in the pre-chorus, too. This one’s really subtle, and likely subconscious for many listeners, but further explains why the whole package is just so catchy...
Interesting, huh? Here’s a helpful diagram.
THE WEEKND - BLINDING LIGHTS: SPLITTING THE PREVIEW Previewing hooks is one of the most prevalent hitmaker techniques,...Posted by Top40 Theory on Tuesday, April 14, 2020
With some helpful music notation at hand, take a listen to the song, and spot those hooks coming in.
And can we just appreciate the overall musical quality of that instrumental intro, 80s synth sounds aplenty? Epic.