Music Theory

David Wright’s List of Key Changes

One of the subjects that came up at the arrangers’ day with David Wright back in August, unsurprisingly, was key changes. In fact, it came up each time we studied a chart that included one, and so David periodically gathered together the threads to give us an overview of the range of possibilities we had explored so far. And once I had likewise gathered them together in my notes, it looked like the kind of list to share.

So, here are four ways that came up that day to get into a new key:

Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

Gesturing with the A Cappella Ladies

InnigInnigWhen we planned our trip to Germany, the plan was to start in Munich and then travel up through the country by train to eventually make our way to Brussels for the Eurostar back to England. We were just dithering about which of the many possible routes we could take to do this when the A Cappella Ladies helped us into a decision by inviting me to coach them on the Wednesday after the Barbershop Musikfestival.

Their director since November is Stefanie Schmidt, who was one of the first friends I made at my first BinG! Harmony College back in 2015. I had worked with her in quartet, and it was a delight to work with her now in her capacity as a director.

On Doubling 3rds

doubled3rdIf you were brought up in a classical harmonic world, you will have been taught that, whilst you may double a minor third, you should never double a major 3rd. Then you go out into the world of real music and meet doubled major 3rds in repertoire by composers you were led to believe knew what they were doing. The story kind of changes then: well, yes you can double major 3rds if you really have to, but we don’t really want you to.

It feels confusingly like doubling 3rds is one of those adult activities surrounded by double standards, like drinking or sex. Grown ups can do it, but the circumstances in which it’s okay are shrouded in mystery, and children are encouraged not even to think about it. It’s no wonder we all go off the rails in our teens, as we try to figure out how we can do these strange adult things in the absence of a clear understanding of the rules.

Thoughts on Phnerting

swipeYou know when you wake up before your alarm, and it’s not really worth going back to sleep again but neither can you be bothered to get up just yet? That’s when thoughts turn to the curious expressive power of the phnert.

Regular readers may remember that phnert is the term coined by Lori Lyford to mean the sonority of a major 2nd and the particular effect it has on harmonic direction. It is useful to know as a singer, as it tells you how to relate to the other note in the phnert: you need to lean into it, and collaborate to make sure it’s balanced. It’s like squirting a lemon pip out between thumb and forefinger: both digits need to be equally and actively involved if you are to get any real propulsion.

My morning musings covered the following miscellaneous areas:

Harmonic Charge, Voicing and Gesture

Right back in the early days of this blog I spent some time thinking about a set of related concepts in close-harmony arranging and performing: harmonic charge, its relationship with voicing, and – more esoterically – the latter’s relationship with vowel sounds.

I have gradually observed over the years that these concepts have specific implications for conducting gesture: harmonies with a higher inherent energy (harmonic charge and/or tighter voicing) need to be squeezed.

I notice this most clearly when in trouble-shooting mode as a coach. Directors will respond to the energy in these moments whether or not they have consciously analysed the chords, but they run into difficulties when they translate this into action by making their gestures bigger. On the face of it, that would be the standard thing to do, following the bigger=louder metaphor* that underpins traditional conducting technique.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

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