Hints for Interpreting Barbershop Ballads

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One of the interesting features of the barbershop tradition is its approach to the delivery of ballads, described various as freely, rubato, ad lib, conversational, or - most circularly, but in the context of the style, most accurately - balladized. I wrote about this in Chapter 6 of my book about barbershop, which discusses variations in approach over the history of the style, and the various ways that insiders and outsiders understand the treatment.

I would say, indeed, that there has been a certain amount of change in the general performance style in the twelve years since I was first writing that chapter, but it probably won’t be clear how much change until we are looking back on today from a vantage point in the future. It’s hard to pick out the signal from the noise when you are living through what will eventually become history.

So, the following remarks are intended as useful rules of thumb for singers making performance decisions today. They articulate some of the hidden grammar of ballad-delivery that is buried in barbershop arrangements to help you make decisions that work with the musical material rather than against it. My guess is that these principles will remain valid over time in the way they relate to expressive shape as encoded in notation, though the gestural style and pacing of how that sounds in practice may continue to change. They have all been derived from the process of working through songs with performers to work out why some of their choices were more convincing than others.

The fundamental principle is this: there are many different ways you can shape a lyric, but the melody, harmony, voicing and prosody of the harmony parts will limit which of those choices will work in the performance of any given chart. I have written before about this in general terms, and so don’t need to repeat the global advice, but here are some things to look out for specifically in ballads when deciding when to flow through, and when to linger:

  • Smoothness of line: passages that work in scales invite you to flow through them to the point the scale stops, whereas interruptions of that shape invite you to ease round the interruption. Lingering on a chord in the middle of a bass run wastes the bass run. Think of the vocal lines as the song’s terrain, and take the bumpier, less predictable ground in a lower gear, while letting yourself gain momentum as you freewheel through the clear stretches.
  • Surprisingness of harmony: the more colourful the harmony, the more it is inviting you dwell on the detail. This is often signalled by accidentals in the harmony parts. Conversely, there is rarely any reason to hang about that much on a syllable that has the same chord as those immediately before and after it.
  • Gratuitously surprising harmony: this is a subset of the previous point. If a repeated melody note is harmonised by a different chord mid-bar (i.e. not at the point where the primary harmony changes), then this is a choice that the arranger has made which wasn’t required by the song. This is a huge hint that the arranger is telling you to do something expressive with it. Don’t just sing through it as if it were an unsurprising chord; at best that wastes it, at worst it confuses the listener
  • Rhythmic notation: because the ballad style largely ignores the exact durational values of notes as written, people forget that that rhythmic notation can still be useful. There is still a general sense of proportion such that if a note is written as longer, it needs to last longer than notes written as shorter - just not in the calculated proportions of up-tunes. In particular, in a song notated mostly in crotchets and minims, a dotted crotched is often a specific instruction from the arranger as to which syllable to hold out of two choices that, melodically or lyrically, would be equally valid, but where harmonically one is the better choice.

I have couched these in terms that don’t require depth of analytical skills to apply. Yes, the last point needs you to know how rhythmic notation works, but the points about surprisingness of chords and shape of line can be done entirely by ear. And once you’ve grasped them, they make sense of why some performances sound well-intentioned but not entirely convincing, while others sound just intuitively right.

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