On Balancing Chords

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When we talk about ‘balancing’ a chord, we usually think of this as a metaphor to express the optimum volume relationships between its constituent notes. I’ve been thinking recently, though, that we could take the metaphor a little more seriously and replace the discourse of amplitude with that of whose job it is to anchor the chord in place – which is the load-bearing part, perhaps.

My starting point was the voicing that barbershoppers call the ‘Chinese seventh’. This is one of those chords that has a whole load of genre-specific connoisseurship attached to it. It can be tricky to balance, but when you nail it, it has a very striking sonority. Hence, arrangers tend to place it strategically within songs for dramatic effect.Chinese 7thChinese 7th

For a decade or so now, I have been helping ensembles balance this chord by explaining that it is a kind of cantilevered chord. Most chords build up from the bass, with each part resting on the one below, but this one hangs down from the top part (which may be either tenor or lead), each part dangling from the one above. You learn how to do this by singing it as a top-down cascade: everyone starts on the top note as a unison, and sings down the chord, until they reach their part’s note, which they hold.

Now, the point about this is that, whilst it produces the correct volume relationships for good balance, it doesn’t do it by manipulating the volume relationships. Rather, it raises awareness of the whole chord and the way it needs to operate as a unit. People naturally sing at an appropriate volume (and indeed tone colour) when they grasp the musical context. Conversely, if they just obey an instruction about volume levels, you hear four parts at different volumes rather than a balanced chord. If the goal is to work on something that is an aggregate of all the parts, you need people to be thinking about that aggregate, not just their own little piece of it.

The Chinese 7th is a special case, but the same idea works for other chords too. I have started to think of the first inversion as a chord balanced on a point. With the bass on the 3rd, the bottom of the chord is narrow, so that the upper parts need to make the effort to keep the whole from falling over. And when the bass comes on the 7th, that’s like putting a chord on rollers – it is moving somewhere, and the other parts need to move with it if it is not to fall over.

In all these cases – and in more normal chords too - the root is reliably the note of the chord that is key to the process. Hence, if we follow through the metaphor of balance, we can ask the people who sing it to take responsibility for keeping things stable – and we can ask the other singers to connect with them so they don’t fall off the chord.

The idea of balance thus starts to become a way to get individual singers really working together as an ensemble – and once this happens, of course, we find we need to spend less time finding technical solutions to individual chords.

I like to balance this chord somewhat differently from other people.

In a "normal" chord, the root is predominant but this chord has equally competing partners with each one serving an equal responsibility. Let's see if I can show you my logic:

1. Root is made strong. No-brainer, right?

2. The Seventh is a very-near neighbor (whole step above) and will be easily overshadowed by the root, so the seventh's volume is made equal to the root's volume. Now the tension is shared.

3. The third lies in the big "hole" between the fifth (bass) and the root; therefore, there's a lot of territory to fill. Additionally, the third of any chord is what gives it its flavor. So increase the third's volume to match the root.

4. The Fifth (bass) needs to be supportive especially on the more "open" chords such as this, so more volume is needed than you think.

I know it may seem funny, but all four parts of a Chinese Seventh work best at equal volume. Note that the third's tuning may need a little tweaking since it is so rich being buried in the middle of the sound. In other chords, most thirds we hear are above the other parts and are tuned even sharper.

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