This is a story about whether men are singing higher in pop music.
This article has music, so you’ll want your audio, headphones, sound or whatever on.
This is the 2019 mega-hit “Sucker” by Jonas Brothers. It’s sung by three men at a very high vocal range with falsetto.
Fellow music nerd Estelle Caswell at Vox told me about one of her theories: men’s voices, in 2019, seem really high.
E.g., this year’s “If I Can't Have You“ by Shawn Mendes
Sure, today’s music isn’t full on Bee Gees.
But is 2019 a renaissance for men exploiting their upper register (i.e., singing high) in pop music?
When Estelle mentioned her theory, I asked Pandora for vocal register data of any song that’s charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
Pandora‘s data consists of one number for each song, on a scale of 1 to 10.
Currently playing is Ginuwine’s “Pony,” which peaked at #6 in 1996. In the data, it’s a 10 out of 10 on vocal register. Ginuwine hits very high notes and the song is at a high register.
So if Pony is a 10 on vocal register, most Barry White songs are a 2: the notes he sings are much lower.
Let’s build a chart with the vocal register for 248 songs that first charted in 2019.
We’re curious about men singing, so we’ll filter for songs with a male vocal lead and exclude any that are primarily spoken/rapped, which brings us to 80 songs.
The average register of these 80 songs, from 2019, is 5.95 (on a scale of 1 to 10). How does this compare historically?
Here is average register for the past 50 years. 2019 doesn’t look that impressive compared to the ’80s,
And I wasn’t expecting to see such a clear trend: rising register until the early ‘90s and then a drop-off. Let’s look at 1984 a bit more.
Here are the top 100 songs in 1984 (again, filtering for songs with male vocal leads).
I’ve faded out any song that is not labeled as high register (7 or higher). Songs still in bold are at a high register — tracks like When Doves Cry.
Here is how that compares to 2017, one of the years with the lowest average register in our dataset. Note how, in 2017, fewer songs have a register of 7 or higher.
It’s not surprising given what was percolating in the ‘80s. Let’s look at 1988, when vocal register, as measured by our data, peaked.
Bands like Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, and Poison were all charting, with lead singers who sang at their highest range. Good luck karaokeing any of these songs.
1977 was the year of “Stayin’ Alive”, so let’s take a peek there as well.
Besides the Bee Gees, we have high register hits from Marvin Gaye, like Got To Give It Up, as well as Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, and Queen.
Currently playing is “Sherry“ by the 4 Seasons from 1962, a low year for register. Their countless hits featured Frankie Valli singing at a impossibly high register.
So back to the idea that men’s voices are higher these days. 2010 seems to the last year with a register comparable to the 1970s.
This might have the been the result of Bruno Mars and Bieber hitting the charts.
Yet when it comes to 2019, men’s voices in pop music are much lower than the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But suppose we only look at songs that ranked in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Each circle is the average register for top 10 hits in a year.
2019 is the big circle on the upper right, the highest register in 60 years.
While it’s only the mid-point of the year, here are the 80 songs from 2019 with male vocal leads (with singing). Tracks with a register below a 7 are faded out.
If we remove any song that did not hit the top 10, we’re left with 5 songs, and four of those have a high register, such as Khalid‘s Talk.
So basically, 4 of the 5 songs that have hit the top 10 have had a high register. When it comes to huge hits, Estelle’s theory wins.
She even made a video about it and interviewed me about the data approach.
Data on vocal register is from Pandora and chart data is from the Billboard Hot 100. Additional data work was done by Kevin Litman-Navarro