Soapbox: On Arpeggiation

‹-- PreviousNext --›

soapboxYes, I know that the broken chord is a rather niche subject for an opinion-piece to start the year, but just because a subject is a tad obscure doesn’t mean you can be vehement about it. So, here goes.

You will have noticed that a lot of pieces of music involve as part of their texture the sounding of chords a note at a time rather than all together, typically as accompaniment to a melody, though sometimes as primary thematic material. It offers a sense of flow, and a more transparent, less assertive effect than sounding all the notes at once.

You will also have noticed the kinds of instruments that these effects are typically written for. They feature a lot in keyboard music, where you can hold your hand in the chord shape and press down a finger at a time quickly and easily. (Though of course, if you are writing after the invention of the sustain pedal, you may go for a bit more extension and lateral arm movement to get from one end to the other of a chord that’s spread wider than your hand can reach all at once.) They also turn up in plucked strings such as guitars, where again you can hold the chord shape with one hand, while the other picks out a note at a time using one finger per string.

The thing these instruments have in common is multiple parallel points for emitting sound; they are really built for arpeggiation.

Now imagine playing these kinds of motifs on a saw or a slide whistle. On these instruments, there is only one point where sound is emitted, and you have to change the shape of that sound source for every different pitch you play. These are great for melodic activity that involves stepwise motion, but larger intervals present challenges. The bigger the jump, the bigger the change to the sound source, and the harder it is to effect the change cleanly at speed. You’ll obviously still want to include larger intervals in music for these kinds of instruments, but the logistics of executing them make them a bigger deal, used for more dramatic and/or virtuosic purposes.

Consider which kind of instrument the voice is. Sound is made by the vibration of air as it passed through a single valve, with pitch changes made by changing the length to which that valve is stretched. Does that sound to you like an instrument designed for arpeggiation or for melody?

So, this is a plea to my fellow a cappella arrangers to stop transferring piano or guitar parts directly onto a single voice part. Of course it sounds fine on your notation programme, because that can emit any sound you ask of it: with no moving parts, getting from any pitch to any other pitch presents no technical obstacles. But voices have to change the length of the vocal folds for every pitch change, so they’re just not really built for singing successive large intervals at speed.

And if you are going to ask singers to do something that’s technically demanding, it’s really not fair to just make this the background wash to the main act. Make it the centre of attention and let everyone marvel at it as they do at the Queen of the Night.

What to do instead is of course the next question. The answer comes from thinking about what makes pianos and guitars good for arpeggiation: having multiple sound sources operating in parallel. If you’re writing for an ensemble, the answer is therefore to treat a group of singers as a single instrument, giving them a note at a time each as if each were a single string on the same ukulele.

This, to be clear, is what the bell-chord is for.

I recognise that bell-chords present their own challenges in performance, requiring greater coordination within the ensemble than homophonic writing, but there are ways to negotiate these challenges that don’t require vocal gymnastics that are disproportionate to the expressive context. I’ll write about these another day.

But for now, if you didn’t have a New Year’s resolution for 2022, you will live a better life if you vow to stop treating voices like they’re pianos.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content