A Musical Brief, in Brief

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I recently received an email asking if I would be 'willing to provide a 'musical brief' that will increase my understanding and handling of your arrangement'. I found this a somewhat baffling request, not least because the arrangement in question seemed to me relatively straightforward and I didn't know what it was that the person didn't already know. After all, isn't the performer's job to figure out how the music goes, and then perform that?

So my reply was to ask her to write what she thought it should be, and I'd tell if I thought she'd got the wrong end of the stick. This way, she'd get a brief that dealt with what it was she needed to know, and moreover, the knowledge would be stronger and more useful because she had generated it herself. (I am reminded of Nicholas Cook's point that reading someone else's musical analysis is a bit like asking someone to do your piano practice for you.)

But she got me thinking about how we make these interpretive decisions, and I thought it would be useful to post a few words about the process for future reference.

There are two basic sets of information:

  1. Internal evidence: the basic stuff of the music itself carries all sorts of clues, and I have written about the detail of these before. Exploration of the dots is a process of asking, 'what is this chart telling me to do?'
  2. External evidence: aka research about the music. This may include information such as the background to why the music was written or the occasion it was originally performed at, and will always include information about its performance history. Is there a single iconic performance that has shaped all subsequent renditions, or is it subject to frequent and significant re-imagining?

These two sets of information each help you understand the other. In particular, you may find that the detail of a chart tells you how the arrangement is positioned relative to different performances, whether it is straight evocation of a famous/original rendition, or whether it is deliberately treating the song differently.

And it strikes me that there are three basic musical decisions that you need to get right through this process:

  • Genre: to which musical tradition(s) does the performance align itself with? Which ears should the listeners bring with them to make sense of it?
  • Rhythmic feel, groove: this is a dimension that notated music can give strong hints about, but does not indicate directly, but makes such a difference to a performance. Is the pulse on the down-beat or the back-beat? Are quavers straight or swung?
  • Tempo: how fast does this want to go?

Now, these three questions are clearly interrelated - indeed, tempo and rhythmic feel are two of the main ways you make commitments to genre. And there are often multiple right answers - most music works at a range of different speeds, and some songs can shuffle between country and gospel and rock and be just as at home.

Once you have got these global musical decisions made, though, you have your framework to deal with the detail. Indeed, a good indicator that you have made appropriate decisions is that the detail just falls into place.

But there are also wrong answers available. Sometimes a genre and tempo approach may work for the song, but fights the commitments made by the arranger. (A good example would be Zero8's performance of Clancy's arrangement of 'You Don't Know Me' at the European Barbershop Convention in 2009 - so beautifully sung, so consistently bloody-minded in its handling of the chart.)

And that is why, despite forcing her to do her own research and analysis, I offered to look over my correspondent's brief when she has written it.

Hi Liz,

the interplay between the arranger's artistic contribution, the performer's personal interpretation, and the actual character and meaning of a song is something that's lately been on my mind quite a bit. I agree that they can all be pulling in the same direction or working against each other, and I'd be curious to hear in what specific way you feel that zero8's performance "works for the song, but fights the arranger's commitments". Could you clarify?


Hi Alexander,
Primarily it's the awkwardness of the duplets superimposed over the triplet division of the beat in the rhythmic framework they've adopted, eg at 'Know me well' and its echo a minute and half in. Very neatly done to be sure (there are not many barbershop choruses who could do it better), but very mannered, nonetheless. And happening repeatedly - a real indication of conflict with the chart.

In a broader sense, the drive they bring to the rhythm fights the emotional ebb and flow and reflective qualities of the phrase shapes - the embellishments are attenuated, with falling lines that evoke the backwash of regret as the reality of the narrative sinks in. Even where the chorus doesn't need to distort the timings to fit the rhythmic delivery, the embellishments aren't designed to throb, and trying to make them do so dilutes their poignancy.

I'm sure you could arrange that song to fit the performance and emotional shape Zero8 wanted to project, but it would need a significantly different strategy.

Hope that helps,

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