On Phrase-Boundary Embellishments

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I have written about phrase-boundary embellishments before - about the kinds of harmonic behaviours involved, and thence the implications for voicing. I have been thinking about them again just recently while wrestling an arrangement into an interesting shape from a formulaic-sounding first draft. And in the process, I have stopped referring in my head to ‘phrase-end’ embellishments, and have started thinking more in terms of ‘phrase-boundary’ embellishments.

The point about these moments in a song, whichever term we use for them, is that the melody often comes to rest before the end of a phrase - it cadences onto the first beat of bar 6 in an 8-bar unit, for instance. If you had a band to sing with, they would keep the rhythmic and harmonic momentum going until the start of the next phrase, possibly with some extra twiddles as fill. But in the absence of instrumental colleagues, the a cappella melodist looks to her fellow singers to keep the music going until the next phrase starts. Hence the concept of ‘phrase-end embellishment’.

But if you think of these twiddlies (to use the technical term) as specifically about phrase ends, it encourages a perpetually backward-looking approach: you’re forever echoing or commenting upon what has been going before. (I have also a pile of thoughts about echoes, by the way, but I think I’ll try and corral them into a separate post rather than get diverted here.)

Sometimes, this is what you want at a cadence-point, to get a proper sense of closure. At other times, though, you want the music to look forward into the next phrase, to see what’s coming next. This push forward may come from the lyric, but its real oomph comes from harmonic shape. So, if your chord progression is anticipating the next phrase, but the content of your embellishment is looking back to the previous one, the arrangement risks giving mixed messages to both singers and audience.

So, one thing I started doing whilst grappling with the chart that got me thinking about this was to go through logging forward-looking and backward-looking embellishments. I was looking for a balance between the two: too much pushing on would make it all a bit headlong and breathless, too much looking back would get it bogged down.

Two useful tricks for forward-looking phrase-boundaries, in case you’re wondering, are:

  1. Instead of echoing the lyric from the previous phrase to rhythmicise the embellishment, use lyrics that lead into the phrase to come
  2. Mess with the melodic phrase structure with patter effects so that it doesn’t cadence right until the end of the phrase (or if you’re feeling really daring, so that it spills into the next harmonic unit)

Neither of these are original, of course - just things I’ve noticed other musicians doing to interesting effect.

And when I’d been thinking about this for a bit, I remembered the distinction that Beethoven scholar Michael Broyles makes between the phrase behaviour of two distinct instrumental styles of the late 18th century. (Oh, I feel old now. The book I’ve just linked to counted as recent research back when I read it!) The ‘sonata style’ was associated primarily with small-room genres - solo keyboard, or keyboard with one or two other instruments - and was characterised by more intricate, ornamental melodic activity, and separated phrases. The ‘symphony style’ was associated with orchestral music, and featured more directional melodic activity and phrases that join from one to the next. ‘Rushing forward passions’ is the phrase used to describe this by one of the 18th-century theorists he quotes. (If I could be bothered, I’d climb into the cupboard behind me to dig out my PhD notes and tell you who it was, but I’m guessing you probably don’t really care.)

Of course, if you are now busy thinking of solo piano music with rushing forward passions, and orchestral music with space between the phrases, this is because musicians of that era were forever making reference to one musical context from within another. (Leonard Ratner and Robert Hatten are the folk to read on how this works.) You can evoke a social space, and thus an expressive world, from within a different one, by indexing musical gestures associated with repertoire played in that space.

The distinction between sonata and symphony styles has helped inflect my sense of an arrangement needing a balance between forward- and backward-looking phrase-boundaries by putting this in a more global context of melodic and expressive behaviour. For sure, contest barbershop isn’t evoking the 18th-century drawing room, but there is still a clear sense of referencing different implied social contexts and their concomitantly distinct expressive registers. And I think the generalisation that more intricate, intimate melodies invite more phrase-separation, whilst simpler, more direct tunes invite more connection transfers pretty well too.

These thoughts are primarily about arranging, but there is one particular take-away I’d like to add for my fellow barbershop coaches. I have observed a tendency over the years to coach phrase-ends in terms of ‘forward motion’, encouraging singers to ramp through their held notes right until the end. Now, I’m not going to argue with the need for continuous breath support and expressive intention right to the end of the note. But it’s not always about forward-motion; sometimes it’s about creating stability or closure. You get both a more coherent performance and a more natural singing experience if you’re clear about when you’re looking backward to the phrase you’re finishing, or looking forward to the phrase to come.

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