Analyzing Musical Differences

By Briaja Gilbert, Mikayla Reid, Sierra Simmons, Kaia Bruce, and Nichele Washington

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Though every good artist has the ability to individualize a song, these songs do not necessarily belong to the artist as they are only covers. A cover can be defined as being a remake or rendition of a song that has an original creator and/or singer. Sometimes the remake of a song can be so popular, we don’t even realize it’s a cover. However, in a society where white artists have historically plagiarized and stolen the original works of Black artists, it is important to be able to create a distinction between the two different sounds these racial groups produce. Below, you will find examples of both Black songs covered by white artists and white songs covered by Black artists. Despite the lyrics and the melody being identical, we often find that the two versions have very audible differences. 

Example One (Black Cover)

“I will always love you” By Dolly Parton, covered by Whitney Houston: Briaja Gilbert 

Example Two (White Cover)

“I Put a Spell on You” By Nina Simone, covered by Annie Lennox: Kaia Bruce 

The song “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton was a hit single released in 1974. This song was sung with a soft tone accompanied by instruments such as guitars and drums. This song was then covered by Whitney Houston in 1992. The cover was included on the soundtrack for the movie Body Guard. This cover had the same melody and rhythm but amplified it. In Houston’s version of the song there’s more use of saxophone and pianos than in the original. Whitney Houston took this soft spoken song and added more runs to it giving it a more soulful feel. Both Dolly and Whitney hit high notes throughout the song, but Whitney extended these notes in the cover. Overall, the cover had a thicker texture than the original. In an interview about Whitney Houston getting credit for the song, Dolly Parton stated, “She have the credit as long as I get the cash.” Furthermore, she confessed that the cover was spectacular and she wouldn’t have been able to sing it like that herself.

I Put a Spell on You by Nina Simone Nina Simone is an African American Jazz singer who recorded and sang the studio album “I Put a Spell on You” which was released in 1965. Later, the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” was released in 2015 with “I Put a Spell on You” in the soundtrack; however, it was sung by Scottish singer Annie Lenox. In Annie Lennox’s version of the song, she uses a more upbeat rhythm and includes the drums with the piano, unlike Nina Simone’s version. Other instruments included in Lennox’s version are the violin and the guitar which helped her achieve a faster-tempo and energetic rhythm. Comparatively, Nina Simone uses the piano but with much softer notes. In singing the lyrics of the song, Nina Simone and Annie Lennox both show attitude and fierce during their performances. The similarities and differences are evident in listening to their performances and how they each structured and added rhythm to the song.

Example Three (Black Cover)

“Hello” by Adele, covered by Taps Mugazda : Nichele Washington

Example Four  (White Cover)

Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, covered by Soft Cell: Mikayla Reid 

Released in 2015, the pop song “Hello” by Adele can be argued as having a smooth, yet passionate timbre. With alto-typical notes, this song is accompanied by a piano and sung by Adele in ways that are emotional and personal. At the chorus and climax, the song changes pitches and incorporates higher notes, rifts, vibrato, etc. This further deepens the passion that listeners are able to identify with while simultaneously changing the feel of the song from quiet and neat to loud and creative. In Taps Mugazda’s cover of the song, he keeps the piano as the primary instrument, however, its presence sounds “further away” in order to draw listeners to Mugazda’s voice. He also changes the primary instrument to a guitar halfway into the song, giving it a more upbeat tempo. In addition to a softer piano and the use of a guitar, Mugazda also lowers the octave of the song so that it fits his voice type as a tenor. Though, even as a tenor, Mugazda hits all the same high notes as Adele using primarily his chest voice. In the spirit of improvisation, Mugazda also allows the raspiness of his voice to become audible whereas Adele’s voice was more “clear.” 

Despite both the original song and its cover being of the pop genre, these two artists are able to create sounds that not only differ from one another, but create an entirely new way to experience the song. 

Tainted Love by R&B artist Gloria Jones is an upbeat, fast tempo song. It uses drums, guitars, horns, and clapping. The introduction of Tainted Love starts with a crescendo. Gloria Jones confidently leads the melody with a strong timbre while the background singers respond with harmony and the chorus. Like Gloria Jones’s version of Tainted Love, Soft Cell’s version is upbeat and energetic. However, this version of the song uses synthesizers and drum machines like an 808. The electronic instruments are a crucial part of the song because it was popular in the 1980s. The way Soft Cell uses the electric instruments gives the song a unique sound. For example, The first beat instantly starts synthesizers and uses them in different pitches to create syncopations in the song. There is also a key change to the piece, which gives it an ominous feel. The tone of the lead singer Marc Almond has a softer timbre compared to Gloria Jones. Both songs are similar in how the lead singers and background singers deliver the lyrics and carry the rhythm. However, the use of instruments draws the two versions apart. Soft Cell turned Gloria Jones R&B Tainted Love into an electro, pop song.

Example Five (Black Cover)

“How Many Times” by Jordan Hill, covered by Aretha Franklin: Nichele Washington 

Example Six  (White Cover)

“Waymaker” by Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu (a.k.a. Sinach), covered by Leeland: Sierra Simmons 

In this pop song, Jordan Hill utilizes the piano and a steady beat to create an overall timbre that is soft, passionate, and almost pleading. By allowing her voice to glide into each note, she is able to manipulate the ears of listeners so that her song sounds like a steady stream of diversified notes that bleed into one another. Hill also exercises the full extent of her vocal range by singing notes as low as tenor and as high as soprano. Throughout the entirety of the song, Hill remains in her chest voice which aids in creating the songs passionate timbre. Conversely, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “How Many Times” is sung with a more soulful timbre which gives the illusion that the song is sung in a lower key. Like Hill, Aretha Franklin utilizes the full extent of her vocal range. However, she incorporates rifts, a raspy undertone, and vibrato which makes the song sound less like a plea and more like an individual who is remembering a pain that has already taken place. 

While both of these artists are successful in conveying a strong sense of emotion, the different ways they choose to do so is what ultimately leads to the individualization of the song. 

The gospel song “Waymaker” originated in Nigeria by a singer songwriter by the name of Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu, or sinach her stage name. The song was originally released in 2015. The song in her original version had emphasis on string instruments such as the violin and cello. The song was then covered by Leeland in 2019, the rhythm of the song was slowed down with more emphasis on the guitar.