The Tea-Towel Test
One of the minor peculiarities of barbershop culture (as opposed to its various major peculiarities) is the way it uses the word ‘theme’. Generally, if you ask someone what a song’s theme is, they’ll either give a poetic or literary response – love, loss, nostalgia, that kind of thing – or point to the primary identifying melodic idea as you would to identify themes in a Beethoven symphony. But what barbershop judges (well, specifically Music and Presentation judges) mean when they say ‘theme’ is the primary musical element in that particular arrangement.
Now, this can be quite a useful question to ask. The term is odd, but the concept is serviceable. One of the main differences between a performance that sounds like people just obediently singing the notes and words and one that carries musical meaning is a clear sense of what the song’s main musical strength is. What a song is primarily ‘about’ does not always lie in the lyrics: if the thing that stays with you days later is the shape of the melody or the groove of the rhythm, then that should be your starting-point for interpretive decisions.
The thing about a song’s theme, then, is that it can stand alone. The main test for if a song has a lyric theme is if it makes sense to print the words on a tea-towel.
Now, like all good and useful concepts, as soon as you get this one established, lots of ifs and buts start to come out of the woodwork. Some songs are strong in more than one dimension; some songs seem to have different themes for verse and chorus. These caveats to my mind aren’t a sign of the weakness of the concept, but of the limitations of its usefulness according to level.
Theme is a great concept to get people from a literal and basic relationship with their music to a more investigative and thought-through approach. It gets people looking below the surface to think about structure and meaning and trajectory. But it remains an analytical construct; it is an abstraction that strips away detail in order to present a way to organise and make sense of detail. But it does not substitute for the song. If you are learning to draw people, you need to sketch the shape of the skeleton to get the proportions right, but you don’t consider yourself to have finished until you have (literally) fleshed it out. You take the scaffolding down once you’ve built the house.
So, once a group is reliably achieving a musically-coherent approach to their songs, the concept of theme has little further use for them. It can remain a useful reference-point to articulate and resolve differences in vision between different members of an ensemble, but you wouldn’t use it as a central focus for coaching any more.
Consequently, I find its persistence in the highest levels of barbershop judging structures rather incongruous. If I’m contemplating giving a quartet a score of 90+, I am just not thinking about theme, I’m thinking about the song. If the concept of theme wanders through my brain during a performance, that’s a sign that the workings are showing and I should be wary about giving a score in the top level at all.