On Singing the Post

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No, I don't mean the musical equivalent of a stripogram; the post I am talking about here is that particular feature of barbershop arrangements when a song is finished with a long (sometimes very long) note.

The post is nearly always the tonic note, and its origin is as the final note of the melody. In traditional short-form barbershop songs such 'Heart of my Heart' or 'My Wild Irish Rose', you can hear this very clearly - the post is simply a matter of sustaining the end of the melody through a short embellishment that tidies up the end of the song and finishes it neatly.

In the longer forms of contest barbershop that have developed over time, the post takes on more a life of its own, becoming a particular feature of the tag (and indeed also the end of introductions these days too - though this is more likely to sustain the dominant rather than the tonic) as an opportunity for virtuosity and excitement. Insiders will think I'm stating the obvious here, but there are some interesting corollaries that arise once you have stated it.

First: while it is tempting, from the perspective of musical structure, to compare the post to a pedal point, this is only really the case in the dimension of chord choices and tonal stability. In classical music, long held notes (usually in the bass, but sometimes higher in the texture as an 'inverted pedal') with faster harmonic activity over the top are a way of signalling long-range tonal architecture, prolonging the dominant just before a recapitulation, or the tonic towards the end of a piece.

The term 'pedal point' derives from the organ of course, an instrument on which you can sustain a note as long as you like just by keeping your foot down. A pedal point played on an organ pedal note acts as a force for stability, not just from the perceptual clarity of allowing the ear to catch hold of the main points in the key structure, but physically too. For an organist, playing a pedal point is probably the easiest bit of the piece as they can keep their feet still and just twiddle their fingers instead of all that shuffling about they normally have to do play different notes with their feel while also keeping their hands on the go.

For a barbershop quartet, though, the post may give clear structural signals, but it is not the easiest bit. The barbershop post is all about jeopardy: will the singer's breath last until the end of all the business? Even quiet, gentle posts have this quality of danger - possibly even more so as the singers are arguably more exposed. A significant part of the expressive charge in these moments is the audience's empathy with people taking risks, whether the adrenaline-fuelled recklessness of a screaming tag, or the emotional vulnerability of a quiet one.

Again, barbershoppers are nodding and saying, 'Yes we know all that'. But what about in chorus, eh? The massed-voice form of the style is derived from the one-a-part version, and has traditionally used the same arrangements, eschewing the chance to do things you couldn't do on quartet.

But many chorus performances don't celebrate the jeopardy of the post. In the hands of a chorus, the post often becomes a background feature - more like a pedal point - across which all the business of the other parts is paraded. People I have coached will know that I often make the whole chorus sing the post together to draw attention to the way it should be the centre of attention.

But I think we need to go further here. The other thing we need to do to make the post work in chorus is to stop the business of choral breathing through it. If there is a whole section singing the post, then, yes you can in theory all choose to refresh your breath whenever you like and know that the whole will get to the end with good quality.

But where is the excitement in that? If you are comfortable, where's the jeopardy? And without the jeopardy, where's the audience investment? Particularly with the big, ringy tags, we need to feel the singers digging deep to get the full emotional impact of it. (I can see an argument for not being so hard-line about choral breathing in quiet tags, as the jeopardy of exposure still obtains here.)

This may well have implications for choreography. The people singing the tag need to behave vocally as they would in quartet, with no chance for a rest in the middle of a post, which means that they shouldn't have any moves that a quartet singer wouldn't realistically have at this point. This in turn will help make the post the focal point and feature that it should be - so often the sense of the business over-powering the post is exacerbated by the busy-ness of the moves layered across it.

Oh, I seem to have ended up being quite opinionated on the matter. Maybe I should have framed this as a Soap-box post. Hmm, no it's only the last bit that's ranty, I'll pass this off as a spot of music theory...

I like the idea of a choir just going for it at the end of a piece, instead of playing it safe with stagger breathing.

I also hadn't used the term "post" before, only pedal tone. I learned something from this! Thanks. :)


You're welcome, David, and thanks for taking the time to say so.

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