The Real and Ideal in Close-Harmony Arranging

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F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854)F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854)When I was doing my PhD I came across the ideas Schelling developed in his early-19th-century philosophy of art. At the time I found them interesting for the purposes of the obsessions I had at the time (to do with gender and discourse and suchlike), but largely dismissed the ideas as waffly romantic claptrap typical of their day.

Like good ideas tend to do, though, they stuck around in my head over the years that followed until one day I suddenly realised how relevant they were to something I was currently obsessed with.

(This is what educationalists refer to as ‘learning readiness’ – and as educators it’s worth us noting that it can take 14 years before a learner connects with an idea!)

Schelling saw the world – including art – as divided into two Potenzen, or potentials, the Real and the Ideal. The Ideal was concerned with the intellectual, the abstract, and the Real was concerned with the concrete and the corporeal. He saw these two potentials in a kind of organically proliferating structure, where anything might be considered as belonging to one category in its own right, but would contain within itself elements of both. So, Schelling considers music to be the most Real of the arts because of its concrete medium of sound, but within music, he regarded melody to be Real and harmony Ideal, and within melody itself, he sees pitch as Real and rhythm as Ideal.

Put like this, it does sound like high-falutin’ nineteenth-century nonsense, doesn’t it?

But the distinction between Real and Ideal suddenly became meaningful to me when I was thinking about how we harmonise melodies when arranging. The basic harmonic choice – that which would be represented by a Roman numeral – is Ideal. It is an essence, a flavour, that exists independently of its medium. You can busk it on the piano or strum it on the guitar, and so long as it has the right pitch-classes in it, its identity is clear.

Voicing, however, is Real. This is the choice about which of the pitch-classes each part is going to sing, and in which register. Is the chord going to be complete? Are there going to be any doublings? Is the spacing going to be tight or wide? Who’s going to sing the root? These are concrete decisions that are enacted physically by the singers.

Now, when we voice chords with a higher harmonic charge higher and tighter, that is effective because there is congruence between the Real and the Ideal aspects of the harmonisation. That is, the Ideal musical energy is matched by Real vocal energy.

In this sense, then our arrangement decisions are about choosing the Real elements that will make the Ideal content of the song audible. The chart is the interface, or the seam between Real and Ideal.

Musicianship in performance, conversely is about the ability to infer or intuit the Ideal content of the music through the Real clothes it wears. ‘Just singing the notes and words’ is what we call it when people simply obey the Real instructions without looking behind them to the Ideal that lies beyond.

You can see why I got excited when at last the penny dropped - suddenly this abstract theory was helping me to explain the quality (or lack thereof) of practical musical decisions.

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