Q&A: Running With the Melody

Dear Lis,

What’s the best way to learn to do vocal runs like Mariah Carey does?


Dear Angela,

Vocal runs  or riffs are groups of notes that move fast. Because they are quick and light they are difficult to hit accurately. The most complicated runs are in R&B songs. Listen to Mariah Carey’s “Hero”. Some of the runs at the ends of lines early in the song are simpler. As the song progresses, the runs get longer and more intricate. I hear a lot of singers slur these notes and slide through them or even skip some of them but to do them well requires that you sing them all with accurate timing.

To start, take a rock song where the runs will be simpler.

Here is a line from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:


There are two simple runs in it: the first is on ‘say’ and the second on the second syllable of ‘dreamer’. In this sound bite, I’m singing the whole line at tempo and then slowing each part down so you can hear the individual notes. Practice with the slower ones until you hit all the notes. Be sure to keep the timing, even though it’s slowed down. The first note of ‘say’ is longer; the two middle ones are short and light the last one is long again. The second run on ‘dreamer’ is only three notes. Like the first run, the first note has the primary accent, the middle one is light and the last note is heavier. I’ve sung it slowly and then a little faster for you to work on.

When you sing through the whole song, you’ll notice that these two runs happen over and over. Once you recognize them in “Imagine” you’ll start to notice similar runs in other songs. When you listen to more complicated runs, like the ones used in R&B songs, you will start to hear that they are combinations of runs strung together.