Vowel Shape and Chord Voicing

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When I was playing about with the ideas that produced my posts on Harmonic Charge and Harmonic Charge and Voicing, I noticed something about the words I was using to describe parameters of musical energy:

High-low (tessitura)
Bright-soft (harmonic quality)
Tight-loose (voicing)

Do you see what I mean? All the high-energy words have an I sound in them, while the low-energy words are built around the letter O.

Now think about how those vowels sit in the mouth when we sing them.

‘I’ starts open and at the back (Ah), but closes the diphthong with the very forward and high-tongued ‘ee’. ‘Oo’ and ‘o’ (as in hot) sit at the back of the mouth, while ‘oh’ starts in the middle and closes the diphthong back to an ‘oo’.

That is, the vowels’ placements in terms of voice production have a kind of correlation with the expressive qualities of the words they are used in. Isn’t that interesting?

Moreover, the acoustic qualities of the vowels also match this pattern, as you’ll have noticed if you’ve ever experimented with overtone singing. The dominant overtones in ‘oo’ and ‘oh’ are lower than those in ‘ah’ and ‘ee’.

So, word sounds appear to be carrying musical meaning as well as verbal meaning. I mostly think about this as an arranger when making decisions for nonsense syllables (when is doot doot more musically appropriate as opposed to ba ba), but actually it has all sorts of possibilities for setting text too.

For example, think of Cole Porter’s song ‘Night and Day’. The title features as the key musical motif at the start and end of phrases, with bright, forward ee-ending diphthongs, and the highest notes in the phrase. The internal rhymes in the middle of lines, where the melody descends, feature more neutral or backward-placed vowels: ‘one-sun’, ‘far-are’, ‘so-go’, ‘boom-room’. The middle eight breaks this pattern with the very forward ‘hide of me-side of me’ rhyme, along with a shift in tessitura to a higher part of the range. Poetic and melodic structures work hand in hand, that is.

I notice, looking back at the arrangement I did of this song for Magenta in early 2008, that I appear to have matched this tessitura-vowel thing with my approach to voicing. The high, bright bits feature close voicings, while the darker vowels use open ones more often. Don’t you just love it when your intuition does things of its own accord that your intellect realises in retrospect were a good idea?

(Also of interest might be this post on Chamber Music Today, which talks about acoustic analysis of sounds to quantify the degree of jangle inherent in their sonorities.)

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