On Phrase-end Swipes

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swipeSo, this is a fairly niche post. Not only are barbershop arrangers a reasonably niche interest group at the best of times, but to talk about one particular type of embellishment, in one particular point of the musical structure, is getting pretty specialised. But this post actually grew out of a conversation with a performer about issues they were having with a particular piece of music, so it matters. If in a rather niche way.*

For those dropping in from other musical traditions: the swipe is what we call it in barbershop where the chord changes within a held syllable. This may entail the lead holding a melody note while the other three parts change notes, or it may involve all four parts changing at once. In the latter case, the lead is often switching role from melodic focus to part of the harmonic background in the process, so these ones require rather more sophistication to bring off.

The point of the swipe is to embellish the music. Sometimes for the sheer harmonic fun of it all, but often as one of the devices by which barbershop fills the empty gaps at the ends of phrases where the melody has cadenced but the rhythmic structure isn’t ready for the next phrase yet. You know, where the band would fill in if you weren’t singing a cappella. It’s this kind of swipe in particular I’m thinking about today.

There are three basic shapes to the phrase-end swipe. I had thought I had written about this before, but a rummage in my back articles appears not to show it. About time, then.

  1. Holding pattern swipe: where the melody cadences onto the final chord of the phrase, and the harmonies swipe away and back again. It’s not going anywhere, but it keeps things moving. (In fact, when I went a-hunting for examples, most of those I found involved some kind of voice-exchange, so whilst the swipe isn’t going anywhere in terms of its harmonic content, the melodic shape of the parts gives a sense of direction.)
    From Tom Gentry's arrangement of 'Young and Foolish'From Tom Gentry's arrangement of 'Young and Foolish'
  2. Delayed arrival swipe: where the melody cadences, but before the final chord where the harmony will finish, an extra one is inserted to keep the tension going right through the melody note.
    From Jim Clancy's arrangement of 'You Don't Know Me'From Jim Clancy's arrangement of 'You Don't Know Me'
  3. Anticipatory swipe: where the melody cadences onto the final chord of the phrase, and then the harmony moves on herald what will come next. This usually entails moving to the dominant of the primary harmony that starts the next phrase. This creates forward motion (indeed, anticipation) and thus the chord the music swipes to would usually have a higher harmonic charge, and often also closer voicing, than the cadence chord.
    From David Wright's arrangement of 'Love Me Tender'From David Wright's arrangement of 'Love Me Tender'

All well and good. You’ll notice that all of these types of swipe end with the phrase. Even the anticipatory one, with its inherent sense of movement allows the phrase boundary to be articulated, it’s just that the music leaps across with rather more oomph than you’d get from the more languid delayed arrival swipe.

But there is another type of phrase-end swipe treatment that I am increasingly of the view is unhelpful to the performer. This is where it carries on over the barline to finish on the new primary harmony. (I am struggling a bit to think of examples I can show you for this because, while I am more than happy to point to specific charts for ‘here’s what we do’ type examples, I am less willing to point and say, ‘Hey don’t do that!’) It most often happens where the melody has a rest on the first beat of the phrase, so in an accompanied version the instrument(s) would play the chord that sets up the harmonic framework at the start of the rhythmic framework, and the voice would join in on beat 2.

Now, my guess is that people like to continue their swipes over onto the new phrase in order to create a sense of flow and connection between phrases. The problem is, it often results instead in a snatched breath after the downbeat, and/or or a bump in the swipe over the barline. I think there are both vocal and musical reasons for this.

Vocally, you are at the end of your breath at the end of a phrase. This is natural. This is why we write phrases of the kind of length we do; the physiology of our breath underpins our standard unit of musical thought. And part of the artistry of barbershop is maintaining the breath right through to the end of the thought, even where the original singers of the song might have stopped to let the band reflect on what they had just sung.

But then to extend it even further into the next phrase is possible, but arguably unwise. You may develop the vocal technique to make your breath last longer, but the breath you will be starting that next harmonic and rhythmic statement with will still be the end of your breath.

And this in turn points up the musical difficulty. A new phrase is a new idea, and gluing it to the end of the previous one muddies the conceptual structure. The difficulty in breathing a swipe like this is not just a matter of lung capacity, it is that the brain wishes to take stock and restart with the new concept. It is not just that it is vocally hard, it is that voice and musical shape are in conflict.

So, what to do in these circumstances? One option is simply to have all four parts have the rest. This works quite often, I’m happy to say. Or if you feel you need the chord on the downbeat, by all means give one, two, or all three harmony parts notes at the start of the bar, but let them experience them as a new phrase, not the end of the previous one. If you want to create connection and flow between phrases, then use a connecting embellishment such as a pick-up that gives the harmony parts a breath and a re-start to carry them over the barline into the new phrase.

I’m not saying don’t ever use this type of swipe. (Whilst I’m quite opinionated, I try not to be too doctrinaire.) But I am saying, think twice before doing so, and use it sparingly and carefully, having explored other options and thought through the implications for breath management and the creation of meaning.


* And then since writing this, but before scheduling its publication, I find that I my next arranging project presents me with *exactly* the issue this post is about. So I am feeling very glad I’ve already had a think about it.

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