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Bob Dylan's voice, explained

What's going on with your voice, Bobby?

What's going on with your voice, Bobby?

Nobody can deny that Bob Dylan’s voice is iconic. Rolling Stone called him the seventh-best singer of all-time, despite the fact the legendary musician doesn't have what's considered a traditionally good voice. 

So how did a folkie from Hibbing, Minnesota, with a voice like Shredded Wheat accomplish so much? Musicologist Steven Rings has been analyzing Dylan’s vocal practices for awhile now, and he hopes to shed more light on Dylan’s unique voice.

For Friday's “No Success Like Failure: On Bob Dylan’s Vocal Schemata” lecture at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music, Rings will discuss Dylan’s uses of vocal schemata and how his voice has changed through his career.

Rings says a schema, the singular form of schemata, is a scholarly term for a commonly used melodic idiom or riff — stock progressions like 12-bar blues, for example. 

In his lecture, the University of Chicago professor talks about Dylan’s use of what he calls the "shout and fall" vocal schema, where one line of a phrase starts high on the scale, and quickly descends. Think Dylan’s voice in the chorus of no, no, no's in "It Ain’t Me Babe.” 

Another of Dylan’s most often-used vocal schemata Rings calls the "chant-escape." “[It’s] where he has a chant but then breaks out at the end,” he says.

Plenty of Dylan’s signature vocal rhythms follow a standard pattern before breaking off at the end of a verse. Take one of his most famous songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” wherein the first four lines of every verse follow the same beat before the fifth line dives off the sequence.

“All of these dense end rhymes, ‘time,’ ‘dime,’ ‘fine,’ ‘prime,’ are all on the same note. And then when he changes the vowel format, the pitch changes,” Rings said. 

Rings compares these schemata to Dylan’s later-career style, examining how the singer’s ravaged voice affected his delivery and changed the schemata foundations in his live performances.

“What happens is, they become alarmingly unmoored from musical structure,” Rings says. “He uses [schemata] in this avant-garde, combinatorial way. He starts putting them together very often with little or no regard for the original melody of the song.”

That might explain why many fans feel let down by 21st century Dylan shows. 

Rings also talks about a live style Dylan fans dubbed "up-singing," where the gravel-voiced songwriter starts low in his register then finishes each line an octave higher — like in this 2002 performance of “All Along the Watchtower” in Brighton, England. (Listen closely to how Dylan’s voice jumps an octave when he sings “said the joker to the thief”).

“When it comes to bringing to life lines of these songs that he’s sung thousands of times, he has to become improvisatory, and I think what he’s doing is searching with his voice to find which of these vocal shapes he can land on and make something happen,” Rings says. “Very often, it fails; it’s a misfire. But there’s also something about it that’s continually experimental.”

It’s a complicated ethnomusicology analysis of the man whose voice is always changin’, and you can see it for free in Ferguson Hall on West Bank. 

No Success Like Failure: On Bob Dylan’s Vocal Schemata

With: Steven Rings, University of Chicago associate professor of music

When: 4 p.m. Fri., Jan. 29

Where: Ferguson Hall, Room 280, 2106 S. 4th St., Minneapolis

Tickets: Free; more info here.