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Am I Arranging in Time?

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question markOne of the early topics I dealt with in this blog is to consider what arrangers can do to help people sing their music in tune. My listening experiences in recent years have had me thinking about the ways arrangers help or hinder singers in singing well in rhythm.

This is a particular issue for barbershop arrangers, who are working in a genre that on the one hand is quite self-aware about having a rather shaky relationship with rhythm and on the other has taken to syncopation and other forms of rhythmic complexity as an index of coolness. Arrangers pile push-beats on triplets to make the music wiggle its hips and thereby prove that they are sexy and clever rather than simply nerds (music theory geeks) amongst nerds (barbershoppers in general).

The singers learn this music parrot fashion from teach tracks and succeed to varying extents in responding to the momentary gestures of hipness, but largely without managing to project a consistently coherent metrical framework to make sense of these gestures. They then get coached on resonance and continuity of sound, safe in the knowledge that the audience they care about most – the contest judges – can’t count either but will enjoy the ping.

Um, that all came out rather less tactful than I intended. It’s not an entirely fair description of the situation, but not entirely untrue either.

But still, I suspect that arrangers are potentially being negligent about how possible it is to sing their music with good rhythm, in two specific ways. First, in their assumption that it is other people’s responsibility to teach the music to the singers. If you know that you are going to have to look the singers in the eye and help them if they are struggling with what you’ve written it doesn’t half keep you honest.

Second, people get used to hearing their music played back to them accurately by their notation software. Just because a computer can render it, you can’t assume that something is actually singable.

So, that’s the ranty bit. I may be attributing the causes to the wrong places, but it still remains that there are a number of arranging habits that get in the way of in-time singing, and we can enumerate them as a means to help each other produce charts that don’t, in their attempts to be rhythmically exciting, set our performers up to fail.

  • Excessive homophonic syncopation In a texture where all parts are singing the same rhythm, the framework of regular metre that the arranger can see on the page articulated by barlines is only audible if the arranger does things to make it so. The point of syncopation is to bounce off that regularity, so the arranger needs to do enough to establish the metre that the brain (singer’s brain and listener’s brain) is able to maintain that pulse internally through the syncopations.

    ‘Excessive’ in this context therefore means any syncopation that lasts longer than the maintenance of the pulse inside the singers and/or listeners. This is why mild excesses are often fixed by adding finger-clicks – that restores the metre to a perceptible rather than virtual form, allowing everyone’s brains to realign.

    But the length of time it takes to lose the pulse without it being sounded, and with full-texture syncopations audibly contradicting it, is much shorter than most people think. ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ is the archetypal example of this – the doo-wahs are just a bit too long to remain coherent in the absence of any audible assertion of metre. Pretty much every homophonic version of that song I’ve heard therefore don’t mean much by the end of the final ‘wah’ in each phrase.

    There are two things the arranger can do to fix this problem:

    1. Change the texture. The difference between homophonic and predominantly homophonic can rescue your audience’s perception of metre. Give the melodic syncopations something bounce off - a bass on the down-beat versus a trio of syncopators, say, or a metre-defining riff in the harmony parts for the melody to play against – and all can make a lot more sense.
    2. Straighten out some of the syncopations. You don’t have to turn many push-beats into on-beats for metre to become perceptible once again. They don’t all have to be on the down-beat either – a clear beat 2 keeps a preceding pushbeat over the barline making sense. But don’t shy away from using downbeats either, they’re very useful for getting all the tapping toes lined up together.
  • Not arranging in enough breath-points. I had started a draft of this blog post before our day with David Wright back in August. He was warning against inadequate breath-planning on the basis that the singers would have to change the arrangement to make it work. The other thing that happens is that singers try to sing the arrangement as written, but because it is impossible end up distorting the rhythm to breathe. This one is easy to fix.
  • Harmonic rhythm issues This is another consequence of the point above that you can’t hear barlines, you can only hear musical events that allow you to perceive where the barlines might be. So chord changes that draw your attention in places other than the start of the bar risk blurring the perception of where the barline actually is.

    In homophonic textures this often results from a melodic dissonance near a barline being harmonised using the primary harmony from the previous or following bar. A more thorough-going example is the way that the performance tradition of ‘Sweet Sweet Roses of Morn’ effectively changes the metre in the 3rd phrase when then circle of 5ths motion from D7 to G7 on the 3rd beat of the bar turns the first syllable of ‘Broadway’ into a perceived downbeat (e.g. at 1.45 on this performance.)(Of course, the fact that the poetic metre is confusing here is also a factor – in speech we usually make the first syllable of this word stronger than the second.)

Oh, this has turned into a bit of a monster post. But it is a bit of a monster subject, and the more I think about it, the more it feels like an elephant we have all become quite adept at ignoring for a good long while. One final thought for now:

If you hear an arrangement sung with dodgy rhythm for the first time, it may that the chart is okay but the singers are struggling. If you hear the same chart sung again with dodgy rhythm by other people, it is time to blame the arranger. We need to own this one.

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