The Meaning of Keys at Green Street Blues

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Sunday saw the LABBS Convention-preparation season continue with my friends from Green Street Blues. They are taking two of my arrangements to contest this year, one that they commissioned and first performed a few years back, and another newly arranged for them earlier this year.

As might be expected from this programme, we spent far more time on the new song, exploring its structure as a means to develop the expressive shape of the performance, in particular in relation to the pattern of tonal centres the arrangement uses.

(This is fun. I am always careful not to spoil the big reveal when premieres are coming up, so I won’t tell you what song it is. But I can tell you which keys bits of it are in, and leave you to try and guess what song it could be. The original song stays in one key throughout, so you’ll be guessing from the emotional content of the lyrics. If you don’t want to play the guessing game, of course, then just come along to Bournemouth next month and they’ll sing it to you.)

The start and end of the arrangement are in the same key, with the middle sections exploring two contrasting tonal areas. There are two salient points here. One is the continuity across the whole song - each of the first two sections start and end in G major, whilst the penultimate section starts elsewhere, but cadences back to G at the transition into the final section, which stays in G until the end.

To get the sense of this continuity, we sang the opening and closing tonic chords of each of these sections - experiencing the identity between them, but also the sense of ebb and flow as they progressed from closed voicing, to voicing at a 10th, then a 12th, and back to a 10th. Readers who know my propensity for Schenkerian analysis will recognise the experiential world I was hoping to evoke here, plugging into the concept of Klang - the underlying, tonal glue that gives music its sense of wholeness and coherence.

This is the kind of concept that, when you are doing analysis as a papery exercise, seems fanciful and irrelevant. When you are working in a genre that celebrates the generation of audible overtones as central to its aesthetic, though, placing this ring at the heart of the song’s expression is expressively meaningful, and gives a context to understand and value integrity of pitch.

Loss of tonal centre is often and issue for a cappella genres, and with Green Street Blues I was faced with an ensemble who often maintained their pitch, but did not do so absolutely consistently. So placing tonal integrity at the heart of the song was a strategy to hook up their commitment to expressive communication with the musical and vocal skills that are involved in maintaining pitch.

Because, you see, the reason tonal integrity matters is that it betokens expressive integrity. Many audience members won’t consciously notice a dropping key centre, but they will experience a slight dulling in their emotional response to music that slips. Believability is compromised when the tonality wanders; a group that stays true to their pitch, on the other hand, we takes as true to their word.

The second point about the key structure was the significance of the contrasting keys. The first diversion was into E major, chosen specifically for its association in western art music with the celestial, the heavenly. Again, it’s not something that you’d expect audiences to be explicitly aware of, but the traditions of expressive association with key work because we get used to the kinds of music usually written in certain keys, so in turn composers (and, in this case, arrangers) tend to tap into those keys when they have those kinds of expressive worlds to evoke. As in many of codes of musical expression, tonal associations work by a process of self-fulfilling prophecy.

After E major the arrangement sidesteps into C major, home of purity and innocence, to signify honestly and sincerely held beliefs. This key shift also involves moving down to a major 3rd, to the flattened sub-mediant, a tonal shift documented in listener-response experiments to evoke goose-bumps. Put it that way, and it sounds like a cheap trick done to manipulate the audience, but in the context of the song’s narrative, it is an appropriate to feel that way - I like to think that the arrangement is showing empathy with the song when it uses these shifts.

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