Music Theory

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.

Miscellaneous Barbershop Arranging Thoughts

swipeOn reflection, these are all specific examples of general principles I have written about elsewhere. But they are points that have come to my notice through listening to performances and working with ensembles as details with which arrangers can help singers produce better performances with less rehearsal time.

  1. Keep the lead off 7ths. Obviously, if the melody is on the 7th of the chord, the lead will sing it. But if you want to write a swipe that involves the lead coming off the melody note, you have a choice. If you have them move upwards onto the 7th of a barbershop 7th chord, especially if it is in the mid-upper part of their range, my observation is that they will almost invariably treat it melodically, and swell into it. As a result, the 7th will pop out of a completely unbalanced chord.

    This is the case even with really quite good groups. I heard several instances of this with quartets scoring in the 70s at BABS Convention this year. Indeed, it was here that I spotted it as an issue: one unbalanced chord from an otherwise good quartet is just a momentary distraction, but three in an afternoon is a pattern.

On Counterfactual Emotions

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

How (and Why) to Identify Melodic Dissonances

I wrote in general terms last year about melodic dissonances in barbershop arranging as part of a wider discussion about the relationship between structure and ornament. I’m coming back to a specific, practical aspect of this today to try and help out with a something I see people struggling with in the arrangements they send to me for advice.

It is a reasonably common error to make an inappropriate choice of primary harmony for a whole bar through mistaking a non-harmony note in the melody for a note belonging to the main chord. And it matters because, while a very easy mistake to make, it throws the whole musical narrative off kilter. However well-controlled your use of voicing, tessitura and voice-leading is, life is more confusing for both singers and listeners when you get this wrong.

There are two conditions that commonly inveigle people into this mistake; when the non-harmony note is:

When to Use (and When to Avoid) Minor 7th Chords

So, if you’re not interested in the nitty-gritty of barbershop arranging, look away now. We have a very specific question to consider today, vital for anyone who has to choose which chords to use in a particular context, but pretty irrelevant for everyone else. Though, it does have a wider context, which both gives it a broader applicability and risks muddying the waters.

Here’s the question, raised in a group of barbershop arrangers, that set me off:

Question; why is the barbershop style opposed (for lack of a better word) to the min7 chord? I personally love the sound of it, and yet I have been told by other barbershop arrangers to avoid it where possible. Just curious why?

As you can imagine, we had some responses leaping in to the defence of the minor 7th’s beauty and/or the arranger’s right to pick whatever damn chord they choose (it wasn’t clear exactly which they were defending, but it was clear that they considered the advice out of order). So we need to step back and ask: is the barbershop style opposed to the minor 7th?

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