Structure, Ornament and Barbershop Arranging

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On Sunday I visited my old chums from the LABBS Music Category at their September judging seminar. (Well, some of my old chums, plus a new addition since I moved on, which was fun.) They had invited me back to offer a session on arranging, following up on an exercise they had all undertaken as part of the process to recertify as judges back in the Spring. This was great, as it meant that not only did everyone have a common example we could work with as a central focus, but I could use their work as the basis for my preparation, as this told me exactly what they were already good at versus where help might be useful.

As I built up my list of useful things to discuss, I gradually realised that some things that - on the surface - look like different subjects are actually part of the same issue. And as we worked through the ideas together, it occurred to me that the way barbershop has traditionally theorised its harmonic language actually obscures this issue to an extent.

As the title of this post suggests, the big theme we looked at was the distinction between structure and ornament, the idea that the note-by-note content of the dots we see on the page isn’t a single layer, but consists of a simpler underlying framework that is decorated to produce the interest and distinctiveness of that particular piece. Those who have studied Schenker will recognise this notion, but you don’t have to get into the technical orthodoxies of method to benefit from his central insight.

Now, this is something that barbershop theory recognises to an extent already. There’s the basic sense of starting your arrangement with a simple harmonisation that you then go on to embellish. And there’s the notion that underlying the chord-by-chord homophonic texture there are pillars of primary harmony that organise the music in chunks of usually one bar at a time. There were two additional areas though in which it seemed that the distinction could be useful.

The first was harmonic rhythm. The tune they had been working with operated at a fundamental level in 2-bar units. The barbershop assumption of each bar needing a pillar, though, was quite frequently inveigling people into changing chord too frequently, which makes maintaining a longer-range harmonic arch much harder than it needs to be. There were places where an extra chord could be inserted for oomph, colour and generally barbershoppiness (all of which are Good Things), but we needed to recognise these as decorative rather than structural in function. The pillars, that is, aren’t the most fundamental structure of a song, we need to identify the foundations that the pillars are built on.

The second area was in untangling which notes in the melody were structural, and which were decorations of that structure. In barbershop terms, that is, which melodic notes were part of the harmony, and which were non-harmonic melody notes. The point is, if you’re working from a bare melody, if you mistake an appoggiatura for a harmony note (which is easy to do as by definition it falls on a strong beat), it becomes hard to make your primary harmony choices work.

Now, the way that I think traditional barbershop creates an obstacle here is that it talks about ‘a consonant chord for every melody note’. I’ve talked about this - rather anomalous - concept of consonance in my first book, but basically it’s a measure of ringability, and is the basis of the genre’s restricted chord vocabulary. But in the process it hides the fact that melodic dissonances are key to a tune’s shape and expressiveness.

Identifying melodic dissonance works in tandem with establishing underlying harmonic rhythm. In this case, a note that lasted a whole bar could not be identified as dissonant until you realised that the chord it crunched against and then resolved into lasted for two bars.

We talked through the different types of melodic dissonance you find, and how they behave: neighbour notes, passing notes, appoggiaturas, suspensions (we didn’t mention escape notes, but then we didn’t have any of those in our example). We had an interesting moment with a note that at the note-to-note surface of the music classed as an appoggiatura, but when sung as part of a deeper, simplified line through the tune functioned as a suspension. This was particularly interesting (to me, I realise my tastes are a bit esoteric) as you don’t get a lot of classic suspensions - as in prepared, struck and resolved - in the kinds tune that get barbershopped.

Oh, and we had a fun moment when talking through the structure of suspensions. Because, whilst you don’t hear them much in the surface of the music, you do see their structure in the choreographic traditions of comedy quartets. You know how it is when all four singers are doing a move, then three of them change, but the fourth doesn’t realise at first, but keeps doing the old one? That’s preparing and striking a choreographic suspension. And then of course when they notice and join in with the new move, that’s the resolution. It’s exactly the same structure as in species counterpoint, though to be fair it’s not often played for so many laughs in C16th polyphony...

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