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Soapbox: Musical Emotion, Musical Style

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soapboxEmotion has a funny relationship with the nature/nurture divide. We tend to think of it as purely natural, since a lot of our emotional responses are involuntary. If it just happens to us without the intervention of our own will, it can't be a learned response, we assume. We categorise it more with digestion than with language acquisition.

And indeed, there is a substrate of primary emotional states that are cross-cultural. Joy, fear, anger, grief - we can recognise these states in people with whom we have nothing in common but our shared humanity.

But when we talk about feelings evoked by the arts, we are usually not talking about these pure forms. The emotions a novel or a symphony inspire are more subtle, mixed, contextual. And for all that 18th-century guff about music being a 'universal language', not everyone makes sense of an unfamiliar musical style on first acquaintance. Primary emotions, like the need to eat, may be universal, but the way we celebrate their full possibilities in culture develop local cuisines.

So, 'getting into' a type of music is a matter of developing a certain connoisseurship for its patterns of feeling as much as for its syntax and craft.

The reason I've been thinking about this is a recent blog post by a cappella hero Deke Sharon that has rather put the cat among the barbershop pigeons. I may yet comment on his central thesis that barbershoppers (and other a cappella groups) are too hung up on perfection of tuning. But for now I'd like to focus on his notion that this results in a deficit of emotional communication.

Now, this is really hitting barbershoppers where it hurts. Singing 'from the heart' is central to the genre's aesthetic, so to be accused of a lack of emotion when everyone is working so damned hard to emote - well, it seems hard. But Deke's point that to a mainstream audience it can look like just a load of vocal gymnastics is not entirely unfair either.

The problem, however, isn't a lack of emotion - it's more a case that the emotion evinced is overly specialised. The characteristic harmonic shapes and ringy sound of the style are bound together into an intense and precise vocabulary of shared patterns of feelings. This may raise questions about the relationship between 'insider' and 'outsider' (Deke warns that, 'any art form that caters primarily to its own will find itself dying off'), but I'll refer you to Chapters 4 & 6 of my barbershop book for more on this. But as any devoted insider will tell you, the musical emotions played out in the style really are like no other. There's a reason why people get obsessive about it.

And, climbing at last onto my soapbox, I'd like to make a more specific point the implications this has song choices and arranging choices. I would like to suggest that the specialist nature of barbershop's musical emotion means that appropriating songs from different strands of popular music and arranging them in the barbershop style is not necessarily a route to making the style more accessible to a mainstream audience, as is often claimed. Rather, it is a route to making widely-known songs less accessible.

Now, I love these emotional patterns as much as the next chord-worshipper. I have been inculcated into the style, and learned to feel in ways that no other music would make me feel. But they're not the only patterns of musical emotion available, and they're not always the ones that best fit the song. Ketchup is nice, but it doesn't go on everything.

So when I'm hearing a tune I know from another context, I want to know which emotional habits to bring to the experience: am I to listen as a barbershopper, or as member of the general public? Is the game to connect through to the original (which the contemporary a cappella world tends to take as its primary aesthetic), or is it to completely re-imagine it? I can live with either, but I like a clear message as to which to go for.

As a listener, I get cranky if a chart starts off taking me into the world of the original song, and then in the middle you suddenly get an archetypical barbershop swipe. It feels either lazy or parochial, like the arranger either couldn't be bothered to think of something that fits the song better, or is too closed-minded to hear the patterns of feeling other styles can offer. As a listener, I want to hear the song, not the style.

And this is why, as an arranger, I'll turn down arrangement commissions to shoe-horn a song into a contest-suitable arrangement if I think that in doing so it will over-write what is distinctive and beautiful in the emotional shape it already has. Suitability for contest is not just a matter of technical requirements - it's the implications those requirements have for the emotional coherence and integrity of the song.

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