Arranging non-barbershop music for barbershoppers

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Barbershop arranging benefits from a very clear-cut sense of method. There are well-defined procedures you go through that, operated with a modicum of intelligence and musicianship, will result in competent arrangements.

However, they only really work well on the kind of songs that barbershoppers traditionally sing: those with well-defined melodies and varied, functional harmonies – songs whose original form was written down. Songs whose original form was in recorded form – i.e. most pop music since the 1960s - don’t respond nearly so well to the barbershop method. But barbershoppers still want to sing them, so we have to figure out ways to make this work for them.

There are two sides to this: first, how to arrange in a way that works for the song, and second, making sure this still fits the expectations and performance habits of the singers.

Some of the issues we encounter include:

  1. Rhythm. Pop songs often have melodies whose rhythm results from a free delivery of the lyric within a metrical framework supplied by a prevailing beat. The notation will include lots of syncopation (which is often in effect written-out rubato), so the clear framework heard in the original recording is not audible from the melody alone. This is why setting these melodies homophonically doesn’t work so well: it elevates a decorative feature of the texture to the entire structure, and leaves the audience wondering where to tap their feet.

    Solutions include:

    • Defining a clear melody/accompaniment texture, in which the harmony parts provide the rhythm section, as I did in Get This Party Started:
    • Straightening out the rhythm of the lyric in the harmony parts, while keeping the lyrical content. This results in a texture I think of as ‘semi-homophonic’ – the chords line up for classic barbershop lock and ring some of the time, but the melody still plays off the rhythmic framework. Here’s an example from Cry Me a River:

    Actually, I’ll often use both solutions in the same song (for example, Happy Together) as a way of creating variety/contrast.

  2. Harmony. Pop songs sometimes have strongly defined chord structures (e.g. Don't Stop Me Now), but many have much simpler harmonic outlines than the songs of the first half of the 20th century. I think Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes was the first arrangement I produced that didn’t have any sharps or flats in it, and – while it glories in a few chromatic colours here and there – Get the Party Started was even tougher, as it only really uses chord I throughout.

    Again, the solution often lies in using rhythm and texture to create interest; here’s an example from Lady Marmalade:
    Alternatively, you can look at completely re-harmonising, as I did in this 8-part arrangement of Ferry Cross the Mersey:


    This one comes with a health warning, though: it’s no good if the intention of singing a pop tune was to have your audience immediately recognise it.

    Two other issues arise in dealing with harmony that can trap the unwary:

    • Largely triadic pieces. These are bizarrely difficult to tune in standard barbershop texture, and often lead to some clunky voicings, because the need to double the root sends the voice leading all over the place. Adding 7ths (the barbershoppers first solution to any harmonic problem) just sounds hokey unless there is some genuine root movement by fifth – in which case the original would be unlikely to be primarily triadic. Here I think you need to abandon the requirement to have four different notes in every chord, and arrange to make the voice-leading work. Think about detaching the bass into an independent line, leaving the upper three parts as a natural trio. Here’s the opening of Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes:
    • Diatonic dissonance. The barbershop chord vocabulary is very coy about chords that involve triad+another diatonic note. We can use added ninths, 6ths and 7ths, but their use is strictly regulated, to keep them as passing chords when required by the melody. They are not to be used as primary harmonies, and the sus4 is not to be used at all. When you’re arranging non-barbershop songs, you just have to get over this. If the song asks for prominent diatonic dissonances, you have to go with it and not try to convert it to a foreign vocabulary. Here’s the opening to Crazy for You:


As well as making it work for the song, you need to make it work for the singers, and the key thing here is I think not to stretch their expectations in more than one direction in any one arrangement. If you’re doing a wild reharmonisation, keep the texture simple; if you’re doing interesting textures, don’t mess with the harmonies. In all cases, take care with the voice-leading. Barbershop sometimes makes cruel and unusual demands on the harmony parts in the lie of the lines, and if you do this as well as presenting challenges in other dimensions, you are asking to have your music sung badly!

This is a great article! Very informative and relevant.

One other observation, especially when dealing with jazzy or swing-era songs, is that you can get a lot of mileage out of treating the major seventh chord as if it were an accepted chord in the barbershop vocabulary (even though it's generally not), and intentionally use it frequently like you would use any other seventh chord, so it feels like a natural part of the arrangement rather than something that stands out as unusual.

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