Making Parts into Lines

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I have written before about how I use the baritone line as a performance indicator for arrangement decisions. This is the part that is most likely to become counter-intuitive in shape as its role is to fill out the chord above and below the lead. Thus, if this line makes sense, it is a very good indication that the chord choices and voicings are good. If the line sounds illogical or bi-polar, it tells you that you need to rethink what you’re trying to do there.

I have been thinking a lot of late about the singability of all the harmony parts. This is something that all arrangers grapple with of course – both Paul Davies and David Wright have talked about it in their training sessions. But as I’ve been singing through the parts I write, I’ve been analysing both what it is that makes a part more or less singable, and the nature of the effect it will have on both singer and listener.

My conclusion so far is that, while each harmony part will always necessarily have its character defined by its function in the texture, it is possible to infuse each one with a sense of melody in the following three dimensions:

  • Prosody This is the sense of how naturally the line brings out the rise and fall of the lyric. In a homophonic texture, the rhythm is going to work (assuming a properly-written melody!), but the feeling of accented and unaccented syllables is made by contour as well as by durations. Clearly, the more natural the lie of the line, the more believable will be the delivery.
  • Integration of musical shape Lines need a sense of internal logic, a sense of travelling from one end of the phrase to the other, and from one end of the song to the other. This means they need a sense of pattern. Parallel phrases within the structure need a sense of equivalence, while shorter-range rhythmic repetitions need similar enough pitch-patterns to feel as if they’re motivically connected. Both of these will often be driven by analogous structures in the melody, and the structure of that internal logic needs to be transferred into the harmony parts - even while the actual pitch choices behave like those of a tenor line (i.e. operating within a narrow range) or a bass line (i.e. primarily roots and 5ths).

    Leaps are a particular feature that can either create or destroy a sense of musical coherence depending on how they’re handled. The bigger the leap, the more it needs a sense of being prepared for and being recovered from. One of the main ways to make retrospective sense of a leap is for the line to curl back in to fill the pitch gap it has opened up.

  • Expressiveness The first two items on this list were about syntax, about creating shapes that are meaningful from lyrical and musical senses respectively. This one is about how those two dimensions interact, how well the shape of the line reveals and inflects the meaning of the words. You need to have the most surprising notes in a line on the most surprising lyrics, for instance. This is both so that surprising lyrics stand out, but (possibly more importantly) means that attention isn’t drawn onto the less important moments by striking musical choices. (There’s a similar principle involved in writing: save the most unusual words for the ideas your readers are least likely to expect.)

    Leaps are significant here too: you need to reserve the most dramatic gestures in a line (so, biggest leaps and/or reaching the extremities of range) for the most dramatic moments in the song. The climax should be apparent not just from the musical structures used to articulate it, but from the intensity of vocal engagement required from the singers to bring it to life.

    It’s not just pitch patterning that affects the meaningfulness of a harmony part: quite subtle differences in rhythm or lyric placement can make the difference between a part that makes sense as a whole and a part that feels like a collection of random words.

So, those are the technical parameters I’ve been thinking about controlling, but I’ve also been thinking about why having more musical lines in each part makes a difference. It’s not just about difficulty level, though that is part of it of course. Rather, I think it’s about the balance of cognitive tasks the brain has to engage in when singing.

When we perform, we play two roles. Part of our attention operates as a manager, making sure we follow the instructions we have internalised during rehearsal: sing these notes and words at this pace, breathe here, move there. Another part of our attention is a communicator, thinking about the meaning of the song, making it live so that the listener can get its core message.

Now, the more singerly the lines are, the greater attention we can give to the role of communicator. If the shape of the line makes sense of the lyrical content, both in terms of its delivery and its expression, then the communicator can get on with their job with minimal overt interference from the manager. But a tricky note in the middle of line needs the manager on hand to help it, and the momentary switch of attention interrupts the singer’s own suspension of disbelief. And, since whatever the singer is paying primary attention to is what they express, enrolling the manager interrupts the audience’s suspension of disbelief too.

The Italian language does not have separate verbs for ‘to write’ and ‘to spell’. The relationship between sound and written representation is so transparent that if you pronounce a word correctly, you will have all the information you need to write it down, and vice versa. My ambition as an arranger to is achieve a similar level of transparency in the lines I write for singers, so that they don’t have to experience learning how the parts go as a separate activity from understanding the meaning of the song.

I've such a sheepish face on, but a long time reading Language Log means I can't not point out: Italian does have and use a verb for 'spell', I'm afraid! Me lo può compitare? It's a lovely use of the idea though, and you could keep this comment hush-hush if you like. ;) LL has taught me that language facts in circulation are often, alas, spurious or distorted - particularly the famous one about how many words the Inuit have for snow!

Ha! That'll teach me to believe what my Italian teacher told me at university, eh?

The metaphor still works, though - if rather more figuratively than I originally thought....

NB it's true that 'how do you spell that?' is 'how is that written?', but it's the same in French: comment ça s'écrit? And while in French there's a definite rhyme-and-reason to the whole system of orthography (or maybe that's just to me, obsessed with complex systems, and not to your average person!) there's definitely no transparent relationship between sound and symbol to such a degree.

Off to write a speculatory blog post about homophonies (= delightfully bonkers form of French humour)!

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