Music Theory

Facsinating Melody


They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Tonality and Musical Architecture

Sometimes you get weeks when different areas of your life keep bringing you back to the same set of thoughts from different angles. Back in the summer I was thinking a lot about Schenker, in the context of a keynote paper I was writing on tonal integrity for the conference in Portugal at the start of November. In choral music we often think about tonal integrity in the simple, functional sense of not going flat, but Schenker is useful for standing back and considering tonality as both an organising principle for long spans of musical time and as a human quality: centredness, in touch with the true.

(I am aware that one of the reasons why most musicians avoid thinking too much about Schenker’s theories as metaphors for life is that he came out with some obnoxiously snobbish views in this mode. But you don’t have to agree with someone to learn from them, and I don’t mind too much if he ends up turning in his grave at the conclusions I end up drawing from his work.)

Basses on the 3rd

Or first-inversion chords as my classical friends will be accustomed to thinking of this. This is a sonority that is very normal in classical harmony, used frequently to help make the bass line melodic, and very unusual in barbershop harmony, where you can go entire songs without encountering it. (Conversely, the 2nd inversion – basses on the 5th – is entirely normal in barbershop, but hedged about with all kinds of voice-leading rules in the classical world.) One of the things this post will explore is the reason for this difference in frequency in the two worlds, as well as reflecting on the character of the sonority in itself.

In both worlds, the first inversion has a distinctive character, more poised to move on, than the settled quality of root-position chords. In part this is due to its melodic function – it often appears mid-way in a line’s route from starting-point to cadence. But it’s also about the sonority itself, and the acoustic needs for balance. This in turn will reveal why it is used so much less in barbershop music than classical, and why it therefore has a disproportionately significant impact when it is used.

Playing with the Icicle 7th

click on the pic to see it biggerclick on the pic to see it biggerAt the Telfordaires we recently spent a chunk of rehearsal exploring the sonority of the Icicle 7th. And since I had in the process ended up with a nice picture of it, I thought I’d share it with you as well. The original picture I drew of this on our flipchart in rehearsal wasn’t either as neat or as colourful as this, but since I forgot to take a photo of it for our weekly notes, I had to recreate it at home, and took the opportunity to spiffy it up a bit.

So, we started out by singing a normal barbershop 7th. (That’s a dominant-type 7th for normal musicians; we let you use them, because we like to share, but know that they’re ours.) Basses on root, baris on the 3rd, leads on the 5th, tenors on the 7th.

Building the Musical Toolkit with the Belles

bellesjul19I spent last Saturday with my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. On the face of it, we were working on the two songs they will be taking to LABBS Convention in October, but the more fundamental remit I had been given was to help their director Lucy develop the collection of musical concepts she uses with the chorus. It’s all very well feeling that the music should go a certain way, she pointed out, or even being advised to shape it like that, but she wants to know why.

In giving me this remit, she framed the goal explicitly in terms of extending her own skill set as director; if the chorus also understood the concepts, that’s great, but the main point was to leave her with ideas she could use to inform her musical decisions and judgements. As a result I found myself using more technical terms than I usually might, which was an interesting experience to come so soon after my post about rehearsal/coaching lexicons and my relationship with technical language.

On the Prosody of Twiddles

Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.


If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

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