Interval Class and Vocal Style

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One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

The conceptual tension shows most clearly in the back end of the barbershop chord vocabulary where there are listed all kinds of chords which can only be used in certain circumstances – the ‘not really consonant consonant chords’, so to speak. Triads with added 9ths, or augmented triads, or major 7ths, which you’re only really supposed to use when forced into it by the melody. You can’t usually make it through a whole song just on triads and barbershop 7ths, but please make your best effort, and only interrupt the expanded sound with these other chords for as brief a time as possible.

Some people regard these rules as a bit ridiculous, and rail against arbitrary boundaries in art. Personally, I regard this as one of their main attractions – it gives people something pleasantly abstract to rebel against and allows you to feel naughty singing jazz chords in a stairwell at 3am. Much cheaper and safer than turning to drugs.

Anyway, I was thinking about this again recently when writing feedback on an arrangement for mixed chorus that was not intended for contest (and so did not have to stick to the barbershop chord vocabulary), but was intended to be sung by barbershoppers.

It included some rather lovely extended chords, particularly some colourful augmented dominant 7ths and 13ths that included both the 7th in the bar and the 13th in the tenor. (I note that these kinds of voicings become more available with the wider range of the mixed ensemble.) It also included some dissonances that were more musical theatre than jazz in association, such as major triads juxtaposed on bass note a major second away from the root.

And it occurred to me that a group accustomed to singing barbershop were likely to handle the latter type of dissonance much more effectively than the former. You can sing a chord with an interval class 2 (i.e. major 2nd, minor 7th, major 9th) in it in full barbershop ringy mode, and it will rattle like billyo, but it will still be very pleasurable. It is the sensation for which Lori Lyford coined the term ‘phnert’.

But an interval class 1 (semitone, major 7th, minor 9th) doesn’t rattle so much as buzz. If you sing it with full ring it can be hard to balance the chord, and – if you are singing with people who have good barbershop skills but little jazz experience – you are likely to find other parts sliding aside to resolve it back to an interval class 0 (unison, octave).

Semitone (and compound semitone) clashes need a lighter touch vocally. They need to dangle into the chord, not stand there solidly asserting their presence. You get the major 2nd clashes in the loud, gang-singable tags via which young testosterone marks out its sonic territory while the afterglow is still in full swing. But you get interval class 1 in the quieter, late at night, tags because you need the hubbub to have died down before you can snuggle together in what in my chapter on tag singing referred to as ‘illicit dissonant intimacy’.

So, the practical take-aways from these reflections:

  • Be aware of who you are arranging for when choosing your dissonances. I’m not saying don’t give jazz chords to barbershoppers, but you need to have a teaching strategy in place to help them find the vocal persona they’ll need to create the expressive effect you’re after.
  • Barbershoppers are accustomed to worrying about what judges in the Music category will think about their arrangements. But actually, it’s the Singing Category you need to worry about with interval class 1 dissonances: will they miss the ring? (And possibly also the Performance lot too, as a different vocal persona may take you into a different emotional register…)
  • If you want to push the barbersop boundaries in your chord choices while still maximising your singers’ chances of success, play with interval class 2

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