Music Theory

On Phrase-Boundary Embellishments

I have written about phrase-boundary embellishments before - about the kinds of harmonic behaviours involved, and thence the implications for voicing. I have been thinking about them again just recently while wrestling an arrangement into an interesting shape from a formulaic-sounding first draft. And in the process, I have stopped referring in my head to ‘phrase-end’ embellishments, and have started thinking more in terms of ‘phrase-boundary’ embellishments.

The point about these moments in a song, whichever term we use for them, is that the melody often comes to rest before the end of a phrase - it cadences onto the first beat of bar 6 in an 8-bar unit, for instance. If you had a band to sing with, they would keep the rhythmic and harmonic momentum going until the start of the next phrase, possibly with some extra twiddles as fill. But in the absence of instrumental colleagues, the a cappella melodist looks to her fellow singers to keep the music going until the next phrase starts. Hence the concept of ‘phrase-end embellishment’.

The Meaning of Keys at Green Street Blues


Sunday saw the LABBS Convention-preparation season continue with my friends from Green Street Blues. They are taking two of my arrangements to contest this year, one that they commissioned and first performed a few years back, and another newly arranged for them earlier this year.

As might be expected from this programme, we spent far more time on the new song, exploring its structure as a means to develop the expressive shape of the performance, in particular in relation to the pattern of tonal centres the arrangement uses.

(This is fun. I am always careful not to spoil the big reveal when premieres are coming up, so I won’t tell you what song it is. But I can tell you which keys bits of it are in, and leave you to try and guess what song it could be. The original song stays in one key throughout, so you’ll be guessing from the emotional content of the lyrics. If you don’t want to play the guessing game, of course, then just come along to Bournemouth next month and they’ll sing it to you.)

Structure, Ornament and Barbershop Arranging

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.

Phrase-end Embellishments and Voicing

swipeFurther to my post a few weeks back about phrase-end swipes, I was recently looking at some arrangements to offer advice on, and noticed that the categories of swipe behaviour I discussed there could offer a useful framework for making decisions about voicing. In particular, the shape and internal energy of the embellishment can usefully inform which voice(s) move, and in what directions at the ends of phrases.

My last post in this subject was specifically about swipes, but I think the categories work for the harmonic content for echoes as well. Indeed, the question of who is doing what, to what effect is more immediately audible in an echo, since the use of extra word sounds draws attention to the embellishing activity.

But (and here is a nice new little guideline that I have only really articulated to myself as I type here), the expressive shape of a phrase-end embellishment should make sense in a purely harmonic sense as a swipe, whether or not we decide to add extra texture or rhythmicising effects through added word sounds. (You know, in much the same way that the delivery of a melody should make sense even to someone who doesn’t speak the language it’s sung in.)

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend

Feeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guestFeeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guest


The weekend of 17-19 July was the culmination of my biggest project for 2015: planning and then leading a training weekend for the chorus directors of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. I didn’t do it all by myself - I had the support of the organisation’s fabulous events team, who managed all the logistics and communications with delegates, and of a glorious faculty drawn from LABBS’s most skilled and successful directors to help devise and deliver the curriculum. But, still, the project was my baby, and took up a lot of time and attention in the 6 months leading up to it.

Apologies if I sound smug at any point when talking about it. It is merely that I am immensely pleased by how it all went. The director education programme doesn’t get the budget for a big event every year, so it mattered to me that we made the most of it.

On Phrase-end Swipes

swipeSo, this is a fairly niche post. Not only are barbershop arrangers a reasonably niche interest group at the best of times, but to talk about one particular type of embellishment, in one particular point of the musical structure, is getting pretty specialised. But this post actually grew out of a conversation with a performer about issues they were having with a particular piece of music, so it matters. If in a rather niche way.*

For those dropping in from other musical traditions: the swipe is what we call it in barbershop where the chord changes within a held syllable. This may entail the lead holding a melody note while the other three parts change notes, or it may involve all four parts changing at once. In the latter case, the lead is often switching role from melodic focus to part of the harmonic background in the process, so these ones require rather more sophistication to bring off.

Musings On Key Lifts

If my mother were writing this post, it would be tagged under my Soapbox category, and it would be a vehement denouncement of the use of the semitone key lift as a device for adding interest to repeated material. There would be particular attention to the work of John Rutter, in which she contends that it is a formulaic trick, so over-used that instead of perking up her attention it makes her heart sink with a feeling of ‘Oh no, not again’.

However, I have not yet entirely turned into my mother, so I am not going to be quite so doctrinaire. But neither am I resisting the inevitable process of family resemblance, so I’ll say she does have something of a point.

I spend rather more of my time in a cappella, as opposed to accompanied, choral worlds than she does, and so my reservations about semitone key lifts are more based around how badly they are often sung. The standard quip is that their main function is to allow a flatting ensemble to end in the same key that they started in.

Training Conductors and Musicianship

Traditionally, conductors in the UK had very little training in actual conducting. The general belief was that being an outstanding musician was the prerequisite, and that those who were truly outstanding would rise into the profession by magic. (What in fact of course happened was that those with egos big enough to believe they were that special volunteered and learned on the job, while the more self-deprecating musicians let them get on with it.)

These days there is rather more opportunity actually to learn some conducting technique, which has to be good for the musical life of the country. (Though the infrastructure is still nothing like as developed as it is either in the US or northern Europe.)

But the old approach did at least have something useful to recommend it: the insistence that the central skill of conducting was in musicianship. Conductors were people with advanced training as instrumental performers and/or composers, which had necessarily entailed in-depth study of the stuff of music. They may have come to stick technique comparatively late, but had the foundation of aural, harmonic and rhythmic skills already built in.

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