Basses on the 3rd

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Or first-inversion chords as my classical friends will be accustomed to thinking of this. This is a sonority that is very normal in classical harmony, used frequently to help make the bass line melodic, and very unusual in barbershop harmony, where you can go entire songs without encountering it. (Conversely, the 2nd inversion – basses on the 5th – is entirely normal in barbershop, but hedged about with all kinds of voice-leading rules in the classical world.) One of the things this post will explore is the reason for this difference in frequency in the two worlds, as well as reflecting on the character of the sonority in itself.

In both worlds, the first inversion has a distinctive character, more poised to move on, than the settled quality of root-position chords. In part this is due to its melodic function – it often appears mid-way in a line’s route from starting-point to cadence. But it’s also about the sonority itself, and the acoustic needs for balance. This in turn will reveal why it is used so much less in barbershop music than classical, and why it therefore has a disproportionately significant impact when it is used.

The basic principle for balancing chords is that the lower down the harmonic series a constituent note is, the stronger it wants to be in the chord. Hence, you want roots to be strongest, then 5ths, 3rd, 7ths. This isn’t the only factor influencing relative volume of parts – you want the melody to be clearly discernible at any point, and closeness or spread of the voicing will also have an impact – but it’s a good generalisation to work from.

Hence, the basses are going to need to sing with a little more delicacy when they’re on the 3rd rather than the root in any music based on triads. Which is why, of course, composers tend to put them mid-phrase: you pin the phrase down at either end with a root position chord, and let the middle bits billow in the wind. (This is quite a free paraphrase of the book I used to use to teach Bach choral harmonisation.)

In barbershop, this is complicated by the tenet of pyramid balance. This is the principle by which the relative volumes taper upwards through the chord, with a much stronger bass than tenor, with bari filling out more when below the lead and lightening when above. The point of this is to maximise the opportunity for generating expanded sound, or ring. Choral balance is much more likely to based by default on equality of volume between the parts, possibly with a predominant soprano line.

So, if barbershoppers want their bass parts to be strong for pyramid balance, they’ll want to give them the notes nearer the bottom of the harmonic series – i.e. roots and 5ths – which need to be stronger for harmonic balancing. Which is our normal way of going about things, typically termed as ‘strong voicings’.

By contrast, to give a bass a 3rd in barbershop gives a mixed message. You’re a bass, so be strong to support the pyramid; you’ve got a 3rd, you need to sing this delicately. If the basses just galumph onto the 3rd as if it were a normal, foundational kind of note, it will sound cloddy, possibly even flat. (A lot of the time when people think 3rds are flat, btw, they’re actually just unbalanced – not just in the bass part, but anywhere in the texture. Get whoever is singing it to listen to whoever is singing the 5th and you’ll often fix it.)

So, a first inversion is very much a special-effect chord in barbershop because, by asking the basses to sing with more poise (‘like a chord standing on leg’ is a metaphor I find useful here), you are also asking everyone else to readjust their habitual relationships with the bass part. Balance is a team sport, after all. The overall result is not only a gentler, less brashly ringy sonority, but also an expressive attitude of care; everyone has to be more alert, sensitive, empathetic to make it work.

I love when you say 'galumph' ❤

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