Singing In Cursive: A Unique Vocal Choice or a Mistake?

Izzy Morris 

The term ‘cursive singing’ has become increasingly used on social media to define certain singers’ vocal style, but what does it mean? Impact’s Izzy Morris explores its origin, examples of ‘cursive’ singers, and its place in popular culture.

‘Cursive singing’ or ‘indie-pop voice’ probably isn’t going to be a term that your choir teacher would ever have been familiar with. Just as many neologisms that enter our vocabulary are born, the term was first coined on Twitter, describing a new and increasingly popular way of singing that has been adopted by a whole host of artists, for example, Lorde, Billie Eilish, Khalid… even Adele has been accused of singing in cursive in the past, particularly in her song Chasing Pavements.

Cursive singers love their diphthongs

So what actually is singing in cursive? Cursive script, as you’re probably aware, is where letters are joined together in handwriting. This approach to singing similarly joins vowels together in interesting ways. Cursive singers love their diphthongs (a sound that combines two vowels into one syllable), and they often invent new ones that aren’t usually in the words that they’re singing.

Perhaps the biggest user of the cursive style, American indie-pop singer-songwriter Halsey, has plenty of examples of this blending together of sounds in her work. For example, in her extremely popular 2015 Tumblr-core track Colors, Halsey sings the following line…

“Your little brother never tells you but he loves you so”

Except… it doesn’t quite sound like that. Halsey looked at the word ‘never’ and thought “you know what? It needs another vowel.” And thus, we get a whole new word: “n(æ)ver.”

Her Live Lounge cover of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself also reveals two brand new pronunciations, this time of ‘my’ and ‘much’. Halsey is instead goes for ‘m-ai’ and ‘muhyuch’, adding additional vowels in a process called diphthongization. Contextual clues of course make it easier to understand what she’s saying, but online influencers that parody the style on YouTube or on TikTok at times could genuinely be speaking another language.

While Halsey is the queen of cursive, and has since inspired a whole host of other artists in the indie-pop genre to subscribe to this school of sound, the style is also prevalent in mainstream pop too. Shawn Mendes adds an extra ‘ih’ sound to the word ‘touch’ (touihch) in Stitches, as does Selena Gomez in Good For You, also known as Goihd For You. Think back to 2019, when Dance Monkey was playing in every single supermarket in the country – Tones and I, was doing it too, transforming the word ‘before’ into ‘befouoi’. Inventive.

I’ve sounded pretty insulting towards these artists so far, but that’s not to say that using the cursive style is inherently bad. Sure, it gets a bad rap on social media sometimes by influencer comedians, and stan Twitter, but at the same time, this wave of ‘indie pop voice’ has been incredibly far-reaching in terms of success. The appreciation by some music fans for the style has propelled certain artists forward, as they are praised for their unique style – for example, Grace Vanderwaal, who made waves after her success on America’s Got Talent, or breakout star Billie Eillish who’s breathy, delicate style now dominates the charts. She probably wouldn’t have got where she is without her unique style, which does involve quite a bit of diphthongization.

Cursive singing can also be quite useful in articulating pain or high emotions, as it often involves vocal breaks, breathiness and different inflections. If that’s what you’re going for, this way of singing may be worth considering.

people love to hate what’s mainstream, so that is almost definitely a factor

So why do people mock these artists? There is almost always resistance to dominating ways of doing things; people love to hate what’s mainstream, so that is almost definitely a factor. What once a unique style of singing is quickly becoming one of the most popular vocal styles. There is then also the calls for better enunciation from some listeners, given that some of the words become indistinguishable with their cursive transformation. Schools have now begun to distance themselves from teaching students how to write in cursive, in order to make writing more readable for everyone, and so it sort of makes sense that there would be some resistance to cursive blending in singing too.

There have also been some concerns from vocal coaches and musical professionals over how healthy this style of singing actually is. The huskiness often associated with cursive singing, while borrowing in part from jazz, runs the risk of vocal fry, which can damage the voice if overused. That gravelly, breathiness versus open, clean vocals comparatively damages the voice and may not be viable long term, especially if artists are straining to reach this certain style.

What’s the verdict then?

Of course, it is up to the individual whether or not they dig the cursive style – it’s not for everyone, but it has shaped an entire genre of music. Maybe the best course of action is to enjoy your indie-pop faves AND laugh along to some of the incredibly funny parodies of cursive singing online. Who says you have to pick a side?

Izzy Morris 

Featured image courtesy of Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article videos courtesy of Halsey, Tones and I via YouTube.com. No changes made to these videos.

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