Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

New Project for 2017


On the eve of this year, I confidently predicted I’d be engaging in some musical feminism during 2017, and that forecast has come true already a couple of times in January. It’s not just that, in depressing contrast to the expectations people have of ‘progress’ over time, our musical lives aren’t immune to the upsurge in misogynistic discourse in culture at large. It’s also that I’m finding the analytical tools vouchsafed by writers like Daniel Kahneman are use proving useful to understand the manifestations of unconscious prejudice that seem to be swamping us.

A perennial case in point for musicians is the way our musical canons are constituted as exclusively male. Whilst the profession remains open to female musicians to make their careers (merely strewing the passages into it with lots of hidden obstacles whose existence is strenuously denied by those who don’t stub their toes on them), the history books remain resolutely closed. In contrast to the consistent tokenism of subjects like English literature, we still have people studying music for A level who encounter not a single woman in the syllabus.

Performance with a Blank Mind

I had an email at the start of the year from a reader discussing an aspect of the experience of performing that struck me as one that many other performers would empathise with. As well as being something I wanted to reflect on as well. It came in response to my post of November 29 about Rehearsing Performance.

When rehearsing, we are often asked at the end of a run-through of a song whether we remembered to implement one or two techniques on which there is a current focus. If I have remembered I'll say yes, if I haven't consciously thought about them I'll count myself as having forgotten.

On stage, particularly in competition, all techniques are ideally implemented at once and there is no space in my brain to do this consciously. I know the answer is that by now they should be embedded and automatic, but instead, despite not feeling unduly nervous, I always come off stage concluding that my mind went entirely blank and I therefore probably did nothing I was supposed to. I feel very down on myself and don't enjoy the occasion at all. I'm not quite sure what the answer is.

On All-Woman Shortlists

Well, all-woman anythings really. Shortlists are the famous example from the process of MP candidate-selection that really delivered, briefly, a more representative set of parliamentarians to the UK. But the reason I've been thinking about this again recently was my conversation with that outraged man who couldn't enter competitions for female composers.

I'm going to begin with a critique of his objections to this method of encouraging female talent, which were entirely typical of the genre and thus worth discussing in general terms that go beyond this particular instance. This will be the grumpy feminist bit. If you prefer, you can skip ahead to the more cheerful part later on where I discuss the very positive experiences this approach offers, which aren't necessarily apparent until you've participated in them.

Constructing Medleys

Putting more than one song together to make a bigger structure is a standard part of the arranger’s craft. There are all kinds of interesting things to think about the how you join the songs together, but today my interest is on the more fundamental level of how you choose them.

I think about medleys in two types. One is a collection of tunes that share a common origin or set of associations. Say, selections from a show, or songs by (or made famous by) a particular artist or group, such as my Madonna Medley or Meatloaf Medley. I tend to think of these as show pieces, useful as they offer a longer span of musical time without a break than single songs would, in much the same way that classical concert programming places more substantial works as focal points amongst the shorter items.

On the 5% Rule, and Other Errors of Thinking

Joanna Russ, whose detailed analysis of critical strategies that thwart female artists I have had reason to cite before, makes an observation about the constitution of anthologies and curricula in the study of English literature. Quite reliably, about 5% of the writers represented will be female. It won’t always be the same women listed, as different editors bring different interests to the task, or focus on different nationalities or time-periods, but the proportion is remarkably stable.

You can check this if you like. After all, Russ was writing back in 1983, surely things have got better now? I did with The Oxford Book of English Verse, published in 1999, and it is up to about 6%, so that gives you a measure of historical progress. Ahem.

Anyway, I have been aware of this form of tokenism for some years, but have only recently started getting an insight into how it works, thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Rolf Dobelli, who have done such sterling work in diagnosing habitual errors of thinking.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksMy current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksIt is the time of year for surveying past and future in the manner of Janus. About whom I realise I know absolutely nothing except that he inspired the name of the first month of the year by his capacity to look forwards and backwards at once. I expect he was good at three-point turns. (Though now I think about it, he must have found the introduction of car-seat head-rests to prevent whiplash both inconvenient and uncomfortable.)

Anyway, do you realise it’s just over eight years since I started this blog? That sounds like a significant chunk of time to me. Part of me is surprised to find I’m still going with no signs of letting up, but then again, I have found it an excellent form. I look back to my early twenties and see that even then, what I needed was a genre of short-form writing that is both intelligent and informal. And for six years before I started blogging, I was journaling regularly in what I have always referred to as my ‘Thinking Book’. Many of the early posts came straight out of those early-morning jottings.

Happy Holidays!

ChristmasCandlesOne of the things I find difficult to get my head round these fractious political days is how people can take offence at being wished 'Happy Holidays'. It seems a cheerful and emotionally uncomplicated message, which has needlessly acquired uncheerful and contentious baggage. Merry Christmas is another pleasant greeting, as is Happy Hanukkah. If people are worried about not mentioning which religious festival they're celebrating, why is Season's Greetings not equally suspect? It all seems so strange and arbitrary.

Living in a culturally varied city, as I do, I enjoy opportunities for mutual goodwill at various points throughout the year: Diwali, Eid, Chinese New Year are all focus of public celebration.

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