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When Should a Pick-up be Harmonised?

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'Sweet Adeline', arr. Jay Giallombardo: Jay's arrangements repay careful study for guidance on this and many other parts of our craft'Sweet Adeline', arr. Jay Giallombardo: Jay's arrangements repay careful study for guidance on this and many other parts of our craft

‘Pick-up’ is one of those informal but evocative terms people use to refer to a number of ways of easing into a phrase: one part coming in before the others, or an anticipatory propellant in the bass, or a melodic anacrusis. It’s the last of these I’m particularly thinking about here – as in the example above – and particularly in the context of ballads, where their role is much more about melodic and lyrical shape than rhythm.

So, the options with a melodic anacruses are:

  1. Give it to the lead alone, with the harmony parts coming in on the downbeat
  2. Harmonise it fully so that all parts sing it together
  3. Give it to a duet (or, more rarely, trio) as a kind of halfway house
  4. Have all parts singing, but in a reduced harmonic texture (unison or duet)

The first question to ask is why you might wish to reduce the texture at all. If we’re working in a predominantly homophonic close-harmony world, why are we contemplating leaving these notes out of the harmonisation in the first place? It seems an odd question to ask, given that the practice is well established, but it’s worth articulating the answers, as there are more than one:

  • Weight: the anacrusis is a light gesture that lifts the melody over the barline into the phrase. Having fewer than four parts can help give this sense of lift.
  • Flow: if all parts sing the anacrusis together, all parts have to breathe together before it. Sometimes this is a useful effect to draw attention to a particular moment in a song; other times we might want the parts to cover each other’s breathing to allow more continuity from phrase to phrase.

  • Harmony: Sometimes the notes of an anacrusis belong more naturally with the chord that follows the barline than the one that precedes it (e.g. a phrase that ends on V7 being followed by an anacrusis that starts on the tonic). In these cases, harmonising the pick-up risks bringing the new chord in too early for the prevailing harmonic rhythm, whereas leaving it as a solo or duet keeps the preceding chord in the ear for its full length.

So, that’s why we’re even considering it, and already there are some principles articulated to help decide when. Other factors to consider include:

  • Development: solo pick-ups in the early stage of a song giving way to duets then fully-harmonised ones later gives a sense of growth or progression to the arrangement.
  • Sense: sometimes the lyrics in an anacrusis can be omitted and the words still make sense; other times (especially where words are split over the bar-line) missing out the anacrusis makes nonsense of the words. In these cases, it is better to harmonise, as you get a more expressive performance if the line that each singer has is lyrically intelligible.
  • Message: most songs have a particular line that nails its message. It may be the line that states the title, or it may offer a twist on what has gone before, or act as the culmination/denouement of the story. However it comes, it’s the big pay-off that the rest of the song has been setting up. This moment needs to be clear to the audience, and will usually have all parts singing together (see also the point about flow above). Either that, or they have the melody alone not just for the pick-up but right through until the cadence, turning it into a more personal statement. In any case, the choices about texture need to make it clear that this is the key moment in the message.
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