Friday Song: “Motherless Child”

A master of manipulating tone, watching Prince do it live reveals some of how it's done

Friday Song: “Motherless Child”

Tone is a dimension of music that doesn’t get enough attention. We talk about keys, chords, vocal range, and tempo, but tone is the secret sauce. It can define genres — bluegrass and metal differ to some degree merely in tone. It’s how things like texture and color emerge in a musical landscape. Tone can be generated in various ways, and often connects emotionally because it hits something primal — a scream, a whisper, a roar, a cry.

This performance of “Motherless Child” by Prince is an exhibition of tonal control by an artist who knows how to manipulate vocal tone, instrument tone, and compositional tone. The same notes are played over and over again, but every time they feel different, things build and crash, and emotions are pulled this way and that by that magic ingredient — tone.

It’s fascinating to watch Prince manage the tone of the song throughout — asking the sound to swell, or everything to drop but the kick, or to back off a little. He even asks all effects to be taken off his mic at one point (“cold mic, c’mon”).  

Prince’s vocal tone control is a major part of what he brings to the execution of this palette. Silky smooth in some sections, full of fry in others, growling in still more, the emotions elicited by these changes wash over the performance.  

Organ stabs provide some overtones of religious revival, and the rhythm section’s tone is so clear and driving that it becomes the locomotive thunder and propulsion.

Enjoy this riveting performance!