Vocal Variety: Improving Speeches with Help from Music

My brother was always better at the violin than me. We both started playing in the fourth grade. We both received scholarships to play in the orchestra in college. But he always sat in the 1st violin section, and I in the 2nd violin section.

There was never any rivalry between us, because he loved to play and I tolerated it.

Once I graduated college, I never picked up the instrument again. He now has a family and a great career, still practicing as often as he can and playing with the church choir.

by ancasta1901

by ancasta1901

Even though my love of playing music was minuscule, that’s not to say that I didn’t learn a great deal from it.

How a player dissects a piece of music is the same way an actor dissects a script. And, it is the same process a speaker can use to create specific, memorable moments in their speech.

In a previous blog post, I discussed how my development of communication programs have come from a wide variety of industries, inspired by The Medici Effect. There is no doubt that Music has influenced how I view speeches.

Music and acting have both taught me that you need to breakdown a performance (speech, sheet music, script) into its components. Then explore where you can create powerful moments.

Here are is a list of musical terms that I still use when writing a speech or coaching a client:

Crescendo and decrescendo: to get louder or softer. Usually marked with “<” or “>” In your speech it helps to have a variety in volume. It helps the audience follow along, noticing a change from one moment to the next. It helps you avoid being monotone. And, it helps give shape to your stories and characters.

Accelerando: gradually picking up the pace. This is very helpful in creating a moment of anticipation. If you are building up to a big moment, perhaps accelerando is a technique you want to incorporate.

Accento (accent): Putting emphasis on certain words or phrases will give a subtle hint to the audience that “this is important.” In coaching my clients, I usually tell them to put more emphasis on the verbs. Verbs create action in the story. They give motion to the pictures in the audiences’ minds. For whatever reason, we seem to glaze over verbs when we are speaking. Put some oomph behind those verbs!

Adagio: Slowly. Just as speed can give sensations of anxiety, exhilaration, or happiness, adagio can give your moments more weight. Adagio is helpful if you want to draw this audience in. It is also good for moments of sadness, anticipation, spookiness, or gravitas.

Allegro: Fast. One of the best examples I can give of a speaker successfully using the speech of allegro is my favorite bit by Victoria Labalme

You can see how her use of speed creates the feelings of stress and anxiety of a busy person’s day. Think about how this same bit would play out if she just talked at a normal pace. Loses its power, don’t you think?

Beat: Finding the beat is obviously important in music. Shakespearean actors also work hard on finding the beat in the script since the use of or break from iambic pentameter can tell you so much about what the playwright is trying to convey. Beats are important in your speech as well. Take time to find those important moments – when to land them and when to place pauses around them. Beat is also critical in humor. The same line will be funny if said one way and fall flat if said another way.

Legato: Indicates no break between the notes. They connect together without any space in between. People usually understand this concept when it comes to music, but never pay attention to how it can be used in speech. I find that legato is great if I’m creating a character. Usually it’s someone who is laid back, new-agey. Some regional speech also has legato aspects to it.

Staccato: Separation between the notes. Staccato is usually pointed and sharp. Again, this is great to use for characters in your speech.