Cheshire Chord Analysis

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The Thursday afternoon before the long Easter weekend is not a sensible time to drive up the M6 from Birmingham to Warrington. Possibly you knew that already, but when we agreed the date for me to go and work with Cheshire Chord Company on their new ballad, it had escaped my notice that Easter was so early. Just as well, I thought as I crept along in nose-to-tail traffic for 80 miles, that I was going to have such fun making music when I got there. Bright-siding is easy when you’re visiting a chorus with such a culture of positivity.

My remit was, as in my previous visits, to help them explore the music at an early stage of development, to deepen their understanding of what the song and arrangement were doing, and why they were doing it like that.

We unpicked the way the melody evolved out of single motivic idea, unfolding outwards, then rolling back in on itself. We charted how the emotional shape of the song was structured through using different parts of the vocal range. We teased out the colour and meaning of individual chords, and the expressive shape of embellishments. We noted the implications of certain voicings for tone colour and dynamic.

In short, it was an evening of live music analysis. I love doing this stuff. When I was a student, analysis assignments were always the ones I looked forward to doing, and when I was a lecturer I could never understand why some students came in to my classes expecting it to be a dry academic exercise. (Though on reflection, I’m not sure they would have been greatly encouraged to think of the exercise as moist...)

But this was even better, as instead of having to write the ideas on paper using grown-up words I could act the ideas out and invent metaphors. It is much easier to communicate what the difference between a chromatic lower neighbour note and a passing note implies for how you sing them using your feet and your hips than it is to write it in words. And if you want the second degree of a scale tuned a perfect (rather than equally-tempered) fifth above the preceding anacrusis on the dominant, tying the string of an imaginary helium balloon to your finger is more meaningful than talking about cents. Left-brain thinking isn’t a lot of help in fine-tuning pitch.

One technique we used several times was to create counter-factuals. What if the composer/arranger had done this instead of that? Demonstrating what would have been a valid musical choice, but is different from the one actually made, puts the material we have in front of us into perspective. When you are presented with a finished product to perform, it can feel inevitable that it goes like that - in Daniel Kahneman’s terms, it’s a case of ‘What You See Is All There Is’. So exploring how a different decision would have changed the expressive effect of the music is a really useful way to gain insight into the choices its creators actually made.

The wonderful thing about working in this mode is that you don’t have to collect a shopping list of techniques that people have to then remember to apply. Instead, you are changing their internalised picture of how the music ‘goes’, such that their singing is inherently shaped by their understanding. Our singing is always inherently shaped by our understanding of course; this approach is just exploiting that fact.

Not knocking the conscious application of techniques, by the way. There’s lots of that to be done in rehearsal too. But it’s not the only way of working, and it carries you further when it is enriched by a substrate of musical imagination.

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