The Expansive Vocal Range of Joni Mitchell: From the Early to Later Years

It’s quite a tes­ta­ment to Joni Mitchell’s musi­cian­ship that her “voice is arguably the most under­rat­ed aspect of her music.” So writes a con­trib­u­tor to The Range Place, an online project that ana­lyzes the vocal ranges of pop­u­lar singers. This is not to say that Mitchell’s voice is underrated—far from it—but her adven­tur­ous, deeply per­son­al lyri­cism and exper­i­men­tal song­writ­ing are how she is most often dis­tin­guished from the cohort of 60s singer-song­writ­ers who emerged from the folk scene. (She first became known as the writer of Judy Collins’ hit, “Both Sides, Now.”)

That said, there’s no mis­tak­ing her for any oth­er singer. “With very wide vibra­to, she would fre­quent­ly reach into her upper reg­is­ter com­fort­ably with a bliss­ful falset­to while still being able to reach some smooth low­er notes with ease.” You can hear exam­ples of her vocal range above, in excerpts from dozens of songs, both stu­dio and live ver­sions, record­ed through­out her career. “She was a mez­zo-sopra­no through the late six­ties and sev­en­ties, with her voice stand­ing out among oth­er singer-song­writ­ers due to its unusu­al com­fort in the fifth octave.”

There are many oth­er qual­i­ties that set Mitchell’s voice apart, includ­ing her incred­i­ble sense of pitch and rhythm. As ses­sion singer and vocal coach Jaime Bab­bitt writes, “singers who study singing and play instru­ments that make chords are bet­ter than all the rest. Joni Mitchell played many: dul­cimer, gui­tar, piano, and flute, even ukulele as a child.” Mitchell’s instru­men­tal skill gave her pre­cise vocal tim­ing, “a crit­i­cal and often over­looked singer-skill,” and one that con­tributes huge­ly to a vocal per­for­mance.

Her love of jazz infus­es even her folki­est songs with rhyth­mic vocal pat­terns that run up and down the scale. (Hear an exam­ple in the iso­lat­ed vocals from 1971’s “Riv­er,” just above.) Just as every singer’s voice will do, Mitchell’s range nar­rowed with age. “Her voice nowa­days,” writes The Range Place (though she no longer per­forms), “is clos­er to that of a con­tral­to than to that of a mez­zo-sopra­no, hav­ing low­ered sub­stan­tial­ly more than oth­er singers from the seventies”—a like­ly out­come of her life­long smok­ing habit.

It’s com­mon to say of an old­er singer that “she can’t hit the high notes any­more,” but this judg­ment miss­es out on the rich­ness of a mature voice. Mitchell’s “indomitable tech­nique” nev­er wavered in her lat­er years, Paul Tay­lor argues at The Inde­pen­dent. Her lat­er voice was “stun­ning (bereft, bewil­dered, sto­ical),” trans­formed from the ambi­tious, pierc­ing falset­to to “radiant/rueful” and wise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immac­u­late Ver­sion of Her Song “Coy­ote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gor­don Light­foot (1975)

See Clas­sic Per­for­mances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Ear­ly Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Wood­stock,” the Song that Defined the Leg­endary Music Fes­ti­val, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Nancy A Barnett says:

    thanks great piece on my favorite singer. Will for­ev­er feel 20 when I lis­ten to her sing. Her images of Cana­da draw me back to my youth when I lived there.

  • Paul McGrath says:

    That few singer sing as well as they did fifty years ago can be laid to entropy. But Joni destroyed an exquis­ite instru­ment by chain-smok­ing for decades (Gor­don ight­foot did it, too). She lost both the angel­ic top and rich bot­tom end of her range. Her melodies became less inter­est­ing over time, they too lost their range, because as any singer\composer knows, you can’t write what you can’t sing.

    That being said, the only singer I can think of who sings as well now 60 years ago is Ste­vie Won­der. Maybe even bet­ter. Dylan does­n’t count.

  • David Cox says:

    Very well done. where did you get the iso­lat­ed vocal on riv­er from?

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