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Compared with the rest of the band, lead vocalists are getting quieter


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, a-bless my soul, but what's wrong with me?


On Elvis Presley's 1957 hit "All Shook Up," you can hear his voice floating above the rollicking sound of the band.


PRESLEY: (Singing) I'm all shook up, mm-mm (ph).

SUMMERS: It was a common feature of music back then - vocals in the foreground, band behind.


But acoustic scientists in Germany have found that lead singers have been getting quieter over the years in relation to their bands.

KAI SIEDENBURG: We find that vocal levels are decreasing in popular music.

PFEIFFER: Kai Siedenburg and his colleague analyzed hundreds of chart-topping songs from 1946 to 2020, and when they compared the loudness of singers to everything else - guitars, drums and so on - they found that trend was particularly true for certain genres.

SIEDENBURG: The differences across musical genres are quite substantial, so rock and metal have really much-reduced vocal levels, especially metal.


CODE ORANGE: (Singing) The guinea pigs of a generation.

SUMMERS: One example from the study - the 2020 track "Underneath" by the group Code Orange. Here's guitarist and singer Reba Meyers.

REBA MEYERS: So it's a different style. It kind of treats the voice slightly more as an instrument as opposed to the lead.


CODE ORANGE: (Singing) I was just too deep in to fail.

SUMMERS: She says modern recording technology could be a factor.

MEYERS: In rock music and metal music, a lot of bands are writing songs in digital workstations, on the computer where you have an endless amount of tracks to use, so it's really easy to use a lot of layers that then end up competing with the vocal.

PFEIFFER: Another song that exemplifies the trend is Beck's 1996 track "Where It's At."


BECK: (Singing) Where it's at. I got two turntables and a microphone.

PFEIFFER: Beck had several songs in this analysis, all of which have vocals about the same loudness or quieter than the instruments. And he said for him, lowering the vocals was a deliberate act.

BECK: Like, I came up more in the indie rock genre, alternative music. And the ethos of that time was to really bury the vocal. People - you didn't want people to hear what you were saying.


BECK: (Singing) And your whip-flash tones. Members only, hypnotizers. Move through the room...

The track and the rhythm has to be at the forefront if you want to move people. As soon as you put the vocal up at the forefront, the track loses its energy and its immediacy.


SUMMERS: Not that the scientist behind the study, Kai Siedenburg, expects artists like Beck to be reading the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, where his research appeared.

SIEDENBURG: They should just do what they do and generate the music they love.

SUMMERS: Even if that means the lead vocals aren't leading the way as much as they used to.


BECK: (Singing) And we're gone. It's nausea, oh, nausea, and we're gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
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