Music Theory

On Counterfactual Emotions

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

How (and Why) to Identify Melodic Dissonances

I wrote in general terms last year about melodic dissonances in barbershop arranging as part of a wider discussion about the relationship between structure and ornament. I’m coming back to a specific, practical aspect of this today to try and help out with a something I see people struggling with in the arrangements they send to me for advice.

It is a reasonably common error to make an inappropriate choice of primary harmony for a whole bar through mistaking a non-harmony note in the melody for a note belonging to the main chord. And it matters because, while a very easy mistake to make, it throws the whole musical narrative off kilter. However well-controlled your use of voicing, tessitura and voice-leading is, life is more confusing for both singers and listeners when you get this wrong.

There are two conditions that commonly inveigle people into this mistake; when the non-harmony note is:

When to Use (and When to Avoid) Minor 7th Chords

So, if you’re not interested in the nitty-gritty of barbershop arranging, look away now. We have a very specific question to consider today, vital for anyone who has to choose which chords to use in a particular context, but pretty irrelevant for everyone else. Though, it does have a wider context, which both gives it a broader applicability and risks muddying the waters.

Here’s the question, raised in a group of barbershop arrangers, that set me off:

Question; why is the barbershop style opposed (for lack of a better word) to the min7 chord? I personally love the sound of it, and yet I have been told by other barbershop arrangers to avoid it where possible. Just curious why?

As you can imagine, we had some responses leaping in to the defence of the minor 7th’s beauty and/or the arranger’s right to pick whatever damn chord they choose (it wasn’t clear exactly which they were defending, but it was clear that they considered the advice out of order). So we need to step back and ask: is the barbershop style opposed to the minor 7th?

Cheshire Chord Analysis

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The Thursday afternoon before the long Easter weekend is not a sensible time to drive up the M6 from Birmingham to Warrington. Possibly you knew that already, but when we agreed the date for me to go and work with Cheshire Chord Company on their new ballad, it had escaped my notice that Easter was so early. Just as well, I thought as I crept along in nose-to-tail traffic for 80 miles, that I was going to have such fun making music when I got there. Bright-siding is easy when you’re visiting a chorus with such a culture of positivity.

My remit was, as in my previous visits, to help them explore the music at an early stage of development, to deepen their understanding of what the song and arrangement were doing, and why they were doing it like that.

On Phrase-Boundary Embellishments

I have written about phrase-boundary embellishments before - about the kinds of harmonic behaviours involved, and thence the implications for voicing. I have been thinking about them again just recently while wrestling an arrangement into an interesting shape from a formulaic-sounding first draft. And in the process, I have stopped referring in my head to ‘phrase-end’ embellishments, and have started thinking more in terms of ‘phrase-boundary’ embellishments.

The point about these moments in a song, whichever term we use for them, is that the melody often comes to rest before the end of a phrase - it cadences onto the first beat of bar 6 in an 8-bar unit, for instance. If you had a band to sing with, they would keep the rhythmic and harmonic momentum going until the start of the next phrase, possibly with some extra twiddles as fill. But in the absence of instrumental colleagues, the a cappella melodist looks to her fellow singers to keep the music going until the next phrase starts. Hence the concept of ‘phrase-end embellishment’.

The Meaning of Keys at Green Street Blues

GSB2015

Sunday saw the LABBS Convention-preparation season continue with my friends from Green Street Blues. They are taking two of my arrangements to contest this year, one that they commissioned and first performed a few years back, and another newly arranged for them earlier this year.

As might be expected from this programme, we spent far more time on the new song, exploring its structure as a means to develop the expressive shape of the performance, in particular in relation to the pattern of tonal centres the arrangement uses.

(This is fun. I am always careful not to spoil the big reveal when premieres are coming up, so I won’t tell you what song it is. But I can tell you which keys bits of it are in, and leave you to try and guess what song it could be. The original song stays in one key throughout, so you’ll be guessing from the emotional content of the lyrics. If you don’t want to play the guessing game, of course, then just come along to Bournemouth next month and they’ll sing it to you.)

Structure, Ornament and Barbershop Arranging

On Sunday I visited my old chums from the LABBS Music Category at their September judging seminar. (Well, some of my old chums, plus a new addition since I moved on, which was fun.) They had invited me back to offer a session on arranging, following up on an exercise they had all undertaken as part of the process to recertify as judges back in the Spring. This was great, as it meant that not only did everyone have a common example we could work with as a central focus, but I could use their work as the basis for my preparation, as this told me exactly what they were already good at versus where help might be useful.

As I built up my list of useful things to discuss, I gradually realised that some things that - on the surface - look like different subjects are actually part of the same issue. And as we worked through the ideas together, it occurred to me that the way barbershop has traditionally theorised its harmonic language actually obscures this issue to an extent.

Phrase-end Embellishments and Voicing

swipeFurther to my post a few weeks back about phrase-end swipes, I was recently looking at some arrangements to offer advice on, and noticed that the categories of swipe behaviour I discussed there could offer a useful framework for making decisions about voicing. In particular, the shape and internal energy of the embellishment can usefully inform which voice(s) move, and in what directions at the ends of phrases.

My last post in this subject was specifically about swipes, but I think the categories work for the harmonic content for echoes as well. Indeed, the question of who is doing what, to what effect is more immediately audible in an echo, since the use of extra word sounds draws attention to the embellishing activity.

But (and here is a nice new little guideline that I have only really articulated to myself as I type here), the expressive shape of a phrase-end embellishment should make sense in a purely harmonic sense as a swipe, whether or not we decide to add extra texture or rhythmicising effects through added word sounds. (You know, in much the same way that the delivery of a melody should make sense even to someone who doesn’t speak the language it’s sung in.)

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