8-Parter Project: Managing Texture

Texture has been a recurrent question in my various musings so far on arranging for combined male and female barbershop ensembles, as it is implicated in so many different aspects of the craft. How you conceive the ensemble, for example, and how you manage the mapping of song persona(s) onto performing people.

But it is also presents questions in its own right: beyond how it contributes to the way you make musical meaning, how do you make it sound any good?

Having eight parts of course offers textural opportunities you don’t get with only four. I would not have attempted to arrange Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here Right Now’ for a normal barbershop ensemble, but have had a lot of fun exploring the layering, and antiphonal interchange, of different motifs for a version that is singable live and unamplified.

8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

8-Parter Project: Exploring Duets

Having played with texture and voicing in arranging a single-persona song for a double quartet/chorus ensemble, I have turned by attention to double-persona songs, or duets as you’d call them when each persona is represented by an individual singer rather than a group. The structure of combining a male and female ensemble, each with a pre-existent and ongoing identity as a performing unit, maps very easily onto the classic girl-boy duet structure, and the practice of groups combining for numbers when they appear on shows together means there is a ready need for charts they can sing together.

The first two questions I’ve bumped up against are as follows.


The norm in barbershop writing is that women sing in a key about a 4th or a 5th higher than men would for the same arrangement. Duets, on the other hand, are typically written with both singers singing in the same key. In 8-part charts this often leads to the men being pushed a bit lower than is comfortable for them and/or the women being pushed a bit too high.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs


After my evening of quartet coaching, I spent all of Saturday and until early afternoon Sunday with The Rhubarbs, the chorus from which Note-4-Note had originally formed. Two of the singers are still with the chorus, and there was a strong continuity of culture between the two ensembles. In particular the sense of everyone taking individual responsibility for her own voice, and the use of a common gestural vocabulary for musical thought was a shared strength.

Striking in both was also the capacity to keep applying a concept or technique once learned: there was still the need for periodic reminders (they are much like other human beings like this), but you could also see people continuing to work with the ideas between mentions. One of the advantages of a culture of using gesture to think is that not only I can see what people are working on, but they constantly reinforce things for each other too.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

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