On Echoes

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So, I mentioned in my recent post about phrase-boundary embellishments that I had a pile of thoughts about echoes I was trying not to get distracted by just then. I have saved them for today’s post, and actually find that some of them have come into focus in the light of that last one.

One of my earliest realisations as an arranger was that over-using echoes leads you to feel, when you sing the chart, a bit like a parrot. (I can date this as one of my earliest thoughts on the craft as I can remember where I was when I had it, and I moved out of that flat in 1998.) The thing is, echoes, are awfully tempting to use in rhythmic songs, as by their nature they give you rhythmic propulsion in a style and feel that fits the song.

Also, by definition, echoes are inherently backward looking embellishments, so there is something of a conflict of feel here already, asking a device that’s all about the phrase you’ve just left behind to give you forward motion.

Still, they are a major part of the general arsenal of arrangement devices we have to hand, so the question isn’t whether to use them, but how to use them in a way that doesn’t get distractingly repetitive. There are three approaches on which I seem to have acquired opinions:

  1. Go all-out and commit to a call-and-response texture. Jim Henry’s PhD places the origin of the barbershop echo in African-American call-and-response songs, and if you upgrade the echo to an inherent part of the musical discourse rather than just a bit of fill, it makes a lot more sense. The singers performing the echo - or rather, the response - in this world are fully invested with expressive force, they are not merely ‘embellishing’ the main action. This only works for some songs, but where it is appropriate, it turns the bug into a feature.
  2. Write an embellishment that, musically, behaves like an echo, but changes the words to comment on the foregoing phrase. You get this quite a lot in parodies, less commonly in straight songs, but in both contexts I often find it not as effective as the arranger probably hoped it would be. I think the issue is how it relates to the overall rhyme scheme.

    End-rhymes intensify the narrative-emotional effect of a melodic cadence by allowing the listener to anticipate to an extent what is coming. Sometimes it is obvious what rhyme is coming, other times you don’t know what the lyrics will say, but you know what they’ll sound like. The satisfying ‘ah’ when the end-rhyme arrives is because of what Roger Payne used to call its ‘retroactive inevitability’ - once it’s happened, you think, ‘But of course’. This is true in both straight and comedic contexts - the emotional reaction is different, but the pacing of the response patterns has the same structure.

    So, an echo that adds extra commentary - even though it may conform to the end-rhyme scheme - dilutes this response as it distracts attention away from the focal-point of the phrase. Part of the problem here is that the added rhyme is rarely as good as any the song-writer put in to begin with (song-writers unfairly tend to use up all the best rhymes in the song itself, leaving only the dregs for the arranger to play with).

    But I think it also helps to think of the end-rhyme as the punch-line. Joke-writers know to put the moment that articulates the joke at the end of the sentence, so that when the laugh is triggered, there’s no more narrative for it to get tangled up with. Adding a bit of commentary after a punch-line adds nothing, and just treads on your laugh.

    Thinking in comedic terms, however, shows what’s going on when this kind of gesture does work: when it acts as a topper. A topper is an extra punch-line you get out of a single set-up. It builds on and intensifies the main joke, but it also relies upon it. A topper that is merely as good as the original joke will feel a bit flat, but one which changes the meaning of the original, or connects it to a previous joke through a call-back will get a great laugh.

  3. Echo the lyric with a paraphrase. This strategy usually keeps the end-rhyme intact, and, more importantly, keeps the echo connected in meaning to phrase it belongs to. But interpolating words that inflect that meaning can intensify an adjective or adverb, whilst also giving an opportunity for some rhythmic contrast. The singers get the benefit of feeling more intelligently involved in the narrative than a straight echo, but without giving away the cadence-point’s power to organise emotional response.

    Of course, having given a glowing assessment of this technique, if over-used it will sound just as hokey as any other technique does when applied often enough to draw attention to itself!

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