Her Vocal Range

New guest blog by Ruddy Adam about Janis Joplin.

One of the Rare, Rare Talents That Janis Joplin Had, and Her Vocal Range Note By Note, Plus, Your Comments

One thing I did not mention in the first write up to Janis Joplin is that she sang polyrhythms and polyphonic overtones, in that she occasionally mixed rhythms and sometimes sang two notes at once. You will hear that in the video of her vocal range, and also in the one song at the end. This latter talent comes from her church background, where old-fashioned choirs often sang polyphonics — which is, specifically, one person singing two notes at once. Which is a rare, rare talent that is practically unheard of nowadays. Other than musicologists and critics, few people knew Janis sparsed her music with polyphonic overtones.

The practice of polyphonic singing has faded away in America, but some European choirs still do it, mainly Russian and Eastern Orthodox Khristian Churches. It is rare in blues or any other music outside of choir music. It is even rarer that anyone can sing polyphonically (or polyharmonically). The best way for me to understand polyphonic overtone singing is to think of two people singing two different notes at once, which is commonly called counterpoint — yet in the case of polyphonic overtone singing, it is one person singing two notes. The key to doing this successfully is the notes must harmonize even though they are different in tone.

No use to write in and ask me how a singer can accomplish this feat. Understanding how a singer can do it is far beyond my little brain’s reach. Sixty-years after first hearing it, I have no idea how they can do it! I can hear it, and I can enjoy it. That’s enough for me.

In the old southern church choirs, they usually had one singer who could sing polyharmonic overtones. I imagine it has faded because it’s an acquired talent — that takes a lot of time and effort to develop. With ease JJ slides a few polyharmonic overtones in here and there, however. Something I know of no other singer doing in the US, outside of those old church choirs.

Comments on Janis from the Folks

As several of you have written in about Janis, “She could have sung with Dave Brubeck.” Exactly! Which means these few folks heard Janis changing rhythms and singing polyharmonic overtones, both of which Brubeck’s groups were famous for, though they played counterpoint by instrument rather than one person singing it.

My favorite write in on Janis: “Janis Joplin rose out of nowhere like a comet, burned brightly for a short while, then disappeared.” Perfect! (Lil’ S, NC)

The following will often occur when folks listen to singers who can effectively manipulate their voices, innovate lines and words, and they first realize what the singers are doing: “After listening to Elvis and Janis Joplin singing (with all they do with their voices), especially Janis, we’ve found that listening to singers we once liked bores the everliving daylights out of us. This new knowledge has changed our listening ears forever and we’re going to be harder to please in singers. We are not complaining. It’s just changed our ears.” It happens! (R&M, TX) The best way to overcome that syndrome is to think like Miss Buck taught me to: Appreciate talent in all forms.

Just because a singer can’t use vibrato or doesn’t have the ability to innovate lines and words doesn’t mean they don’t have some talent. Straight-tone singing can be beautiful and pleasant to the ears. Just because a singer didn’t have much to do with the song other than having their name on it doesn’t mean a studio producer can’t make it a wonderful piece to listen to. For instance, although it’s a studio-done piece and orchestra-backed and most likely the producer used a studio singer to hit the majority of the notes, I have Sinatra singing “Summer Winds” on my favorite list. It’s a beautiful song, whether Frank did much of the singing or not. The orchestration is wonderful, and whoever it is singing did a good job, though they are talk-singing, which is all Sinatra could do after his vocal cords ruptured in 1949.

“I’m sure I’ve never heard anybody put so much of their heart and passion in a song as Janis Joplin does. Thank you for ‘Summertime.’ She made it a totally different song, and my favorite of all the songs you’ve sent us. I never knew a human could put that much into singing a song, but I love it. I just wish it was longer.” You said it, Sister. (SJS, CA)

After Janis finally got to make a live appearance on TV in 1969, the Tom Jones Show (or at least it’s the first one we saw), Miss Buck said of her singing, “Janis sings without a net.” That just about says it all.

Neither did Janis always sing intone. You will hear that in “Mercedes Benz” — but she’s doing it on purpose, and it makes the song. Like Elvis, that shows how confident she was of her voice, which in turn means she had to have an excellent ear, because except for a few occasions when she was drawing attention to a word or line, Janis was intone at a fairly high level.

Here, in this excellent montage, you will hear Janis singing every note in her range (almost all of her range), plus head-, throat-, and chest-singing. I personally am a fan of Janis at G5, because I think she’s most comfortable there, and it’s most pleasing to my ear. It’s a gift to hear her at G#5. What’s your favorite?

Watch the notes on the screen and listen a couple of times to Janis change from one note to the other, and you will have stimulated your right-brain in a most drippingly succulent manner — and you will get a better idea of Janis’ talent to boot.

Janis Joplin’s Vocal Range, Note By Note: E3-G6 (4:45)


For our brains and enjoyment: Ruddy Adam & Co.

One Last Song by Janis, Which is a Soulful, Bluesy Prayer to the Lord

The following song was written especially for Janis, a forlorn, lonesome soul who wanted so terribly bad to find someone to love and to love her. She never did. I suppose we can think of “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places,” in her case.

Here she passionately begs the Lord not to forget her, because it’s hard trying to live all alone and she has no one down here. She sings it with quite an unusual seriousness and aplomb, yet as always, she is passionate and innovative. You will hear her singing the word Lord with polyphonic overtone the first time she sings it in the first line of the intro. Quite an introductory first line!

We believe her when she sings this song, because she’s begging the Lord in the most passionate manner imaginable to help her in this prayer that fits her life perfectly: to use her, not to forget her, to find someone she can love. As much as I’ve prayed in my life, I assure you that, though I suppose I should have, I have never prayed this hard — ever! It’s beautiful and wrenching both at once. May the Lord bless her with all His finest spiritual blessings, and may He console her tormented soul with His special love.

Also notice that, say what you will about Janis, she knew how to finish a song. And like Elvis, as a rule, once Janis did a song, very few people were foolish enough to cover it.

James Gulley again is the sharp guitarist, who has no doubt listened to another great guitarist, BB King, who loved to play that low-burn down in the same key. Nice baritone sax, too, talking along with her in certain spots.

“Work Me Lord,” by Janis Joplin, 1969 (7:15) Live & Raw

The lyrics.

The scream starting at about 6:11 is the fourth octave for Janis, and it’s perfectly intone.

You might give it another listen, if you missed it, because it’s practically impossible for a singer to nuance all the voice manipulation she’s just sung and then all of a sudden blast out of nowhere the high note in their vocal range and still tag it perfectly without the least bit of build up to it.

There may be someone somewhere who can, could, or has done it. I just don’t know of them.

She holds it about 4-seconds without the slightest strain. Shows again the girl’s extraordinary talent.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.