Managing Expectations in Vocal Arrangements

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Regular readers will have noticed that I like to draw on the ideas of Leonard B. Meyer when I think about music. I was first introduced to his work in my first year at university, and it had quite a big impact on me, as it was my first real encounter with the act of theorising music. Hitherto most of the writing about music I had seen simply described what was going on, whereas this introduced me to the possibilities of explaining it.

(This early encounter also provided the occasion for possibly the most useful thing anyone ever said to me during my education. My tutor, Alan Rump, had sent me away to read some Meyer, and I came back saying tentatively that I found it very interesting but wasn’t sure that I agreed with it. ‘Good God, woman,’ he roared, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them.’)

Anyway, some recent listening experiences got me thinking about his implication-realisation model of musical meaning again.

This was a startlingly original approach when it was first proposed in the 1950s because it analysed music from the perspective not of its construction, but of the effects it could have on a listener. It is based on gestalt psychology, and the basic idea is that our brains use their enculturated experience of the norms of a style to develop expectations about how music will unfold. The extent to which and ways in which these expectations are fulfilled is what determines the meaningfulness of the musical experience.

So, music that implies a certain continuation, and then does exactly that will be experienced as coherent but dull. Predictable is rarely a compliment in art. Music that either sets up no expectations or fails to realise such implications that it makes will be experienced as incoherent. Bafflingness is likewise more likely to annoy than to charm. Music that leads you in a certain direction, but which presents an interesting twist in the path, or fulfils its implications in a slightly unexpected way engages us, draws us in, and makes us care about what will happen next.

As is the case with all strong or innovative theories, it is open to critique on all sorts of grounds, but still retains a fundamental usefulness. And I revisited that usefulness just recently listening to a couple of vocal arrangements that I found rather mismanaged my expectations.

The first, an arrangement in 8 parts for combined male and female ensembles fell down by failing to confound my expectations. The lines of the song were set so that the two ensembles retained their separate identity, with the women presenting the tune and lyric and men accompanying in one line, and vice versa in the next. It didn’t take very long before I was anticipating where the tune was going and finding the predictability of the alternation irritating. It was like being told who dunnit when there were still 200 pages to go. If the arrangement had got the alternation set up so that we thought we knew what was coming, and then had done something different (such as reconfigure the ensemble so it wasn’t just girls vs boys), I would instead be raving about it.

The second was an arrangement of an Abba tune. (You’ll notice I am being vague about the identity of the arrangements and performing ensembles. My intention, you see, is not to be rude about other people’s work, but to share what I learned from it that can be applied elsewhere.) This did confound my expectations, but not in a comfortable way. It was moving long quite normally when it suddenly stopped using the harmonies from the original and stayed on chord I for a couple of bars where Abba used chord changes. Now, chord I went with the melody notes in theory, but the point about vocal arrangements of famous tunes is precisely their recognisability. Had the arranger made a point of re-harmonising the piece from the outset, they could have sold this departure from our prior knowledge, but because they had set up the general expectation that the chords matched our previous hearings of the song it was like having the musical rug pulled from underneath us.

These two listening experiences made me realise how much I implicitly draw on Meyer’s ideas in my own arranging. There is, on one hand, the attempt to set up a groove, find patterns that both singers and listeners will be able to use orient themselves to the song and find their path through it, and on the other, the desire not to slip into predictability. We could use the old-fashioned terms ‘unity and variety’ to describe this balancing act, but the dynamic, narrative approach of the implication-realisation model forces you to think in terms of the real-time, lived experience of the people who are going to interact with the music.

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