Choosing Suitable Music

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This article was first published earlier this year in Voicebox, the magazine for LABBS members. I'm reproducing it here in the wake of a conversation with a friend from Holland who was developing a similar checklist for a workshop she'll be running. It was originally written for a barbershop audience, but generalises quite well to other genres if you subsititute their classic musical features for the style-specific ones mentioned here.

When people choose music to sing in contest, they think a lot about its suitability in terms of style – is it barbershop, in the terms defined by the contest and judging system we have adopted from the Barbershop Harmony Society.

But there is an equally important dimension to suitability, and this one applies to all the music we sing, not just for contest: suitability to performer. However great a song and arrangement is in itself, it will only produce a thrilling performance if it is a good fit for your quartet or chorus.

So, how do you decide if a song/arrangement is suitable for you?

There are two dimensions to consider:

1. Level of Difficulty

If you are choosing a song that you intend to invest a lot of rehearsal time in (e.g. for contest, or as a major feature in a show), you need to pick something that is within your group’s grasp, but that has enough substance to make you raise your game a little. The musical elements to consider are:

  • Range. If the singers can’t sing the highest/lowest notes of their parts with good quality, then there’s no point attempting the song – it will always show your weaknesses rather than your strengths.
  • Length. The longer a song is, the more musical and vocal stamina it requires. Also, the longer an arrangement is, the more likely it is to display complex embellishing devices as it progresses to sustain interest. So, medleys and arrangements with long repeated sections are inherently harder than those that present the song once through and straight to the tag.
  • Complexity of embellishment. The barbershop style features homophonic textures – that is, the chords result from everybody singing the same words in the same rhythm at the same time. Arrangers vary this texture to add expressive nuances or rhythmic drive to songs, but this added interest also adds performance challenges. The more often you see the different parts in an arrangement singing in different rhythms, the harder the ensemble will have to work to make the chords line up to produce the classic barbershop ringing sound.
  • Complexity of harmony. Barbershop music has classic harmonic moves that we respond to intuitively as a result of our performing and listening experience. Arrangers may also choose to use more unusual chords to play with our expectations and thus add emotional impact to our performances. However, these more unusual chords can be harder to tune, and indeed harder to understand, since we encounter them less often.

2. Character of the song

Every song has its own persona: the virtual character whose point of view it represents. The lyric tells us quite a lot about this – age, sex, situation in life. The music also tells us quite a lot – a swing tune gives a different feel of time and place from a Charleston rhythm. That persona is inevitably going to be different from the personalities of early-twentieth-century British women, so we have to make an imaginative leap to take on the role and make it – to use a Presentation turn of phrase – believable.

Song Persona

The success of that leap depends not only on our ability to enter into the spirit of the song, but also how well the song fits us as performers in the first place. We need to ask ourselves how hard the audience is going to have to work to suspend their disbelief as they listen. To give obvious examples, it would sound as odd to hear a quartet of seventeen-year-olds reminiscing about their past glories in ‘Back in the Old Routine’ as it would to hear a quartet of 50-year-olds singing the 1980 hit song ‘Grandma we Love You’.

A good rule of thumb for identifying how well a particular song’s persona overlaps with your own identity is to consider the karaoke test. Could you sing this song at a karaoke night without people laughing at you?

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