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On the Icicle 7th

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Chinese 7thRecently Sofia Layarda started off an interesting conversation on Facebook about the chord that barbershoppers have traditionally called the ‘Chinese 7th’. For those not familiar with it, it’s a particular voicing of the dominant-type 7th, with the root and 7th close together at the top, with 3rd dangling a tritone below and the 5th a 6th below that.

It’s a dramatic sonority when sung well, though it takes a bit of nous to balance correctly. Arrangers use it as a kind of ‘statement chord’, placing it strategically to attract attention at moments of heightened expression in a song’s narrative.

Sofia’s challenge was:

So, is there a concise, neutral, musically-understood way to describe that specific voicing of a dominant 7th chord (5-3-b7-1) without calling it the Chinese 7th? I only hear that term in barbershop circles.

It’s a good question. Barbershoppers need a term for that specific voicing because its usage has and continues to play a significant role in the expressive vocabulary of the genre. But the term we have been using is, frankly, off-putting. It doesn’t help to know that the most common explanation of its origin is a reference to the clashing major 2nd at the start of ‘Chopsticks’. It is genuinely as rooted in reductive racial stereotypes of yesteryear as you feared.

The discussion had a number of interesting suggestions, and the one that I am hereby announcing I’m going to adopt came from Karri Quan: the Icicle 7th. The reasons I like it are as follows:

  • It is vivid and therefore distinctive and memorable. The sensory qualities of icicles – cold, pointy, shiny, white – stand out from everyday objects. Neither are the occasions/places we encounter them everyday ones, and so they have an aura of specialness. You’re not going to get the icicle 7th muddled up with other chords, and its name is going to be easy to remember.
  • It is specific to the particular usage it refers to. We had various suggestions that described that voicing perfectly well (I had heard ‘inverted 7th’ for instance), but which could also describe other voicings. We needed a term that referred unambiguously to this chord and no other.
  • It captures important structural information about the chord. This voicing is distinctive for the way it dangles down from the root at the top rather than being built up from the bottom. The metaphor of the icicle captures this upside-down-ness perfectly. And as I wrote above about the specialness of icicles – we don’t meet them every day, but only in certain climatic conditions – I reflected that this also carries structural information about the chord’s usage. It is a special occasion kind of chord.
  • It has a pleasing onomatapoiea to it Bright vowels and sibilants have a jangle and spritz to them that mimic the sonic quality of the voicing.
  • It is accessible. You don’t need to understand other technical terms to understand it. Barbershop is full of people who are a bit scared of music theory, but who are totally capable of recognising chords by ear if they have a way to get a handle on them. You don’t need to know what a tritone is in order to be able to nail an icicle 7th in performance. (Indeed, I’d suggest that you are more likely to develop the confidence to discover what a tritone is once you’ve enjoyed the pleasurable sense of power that producing this sonority induces.)

It turns out, if you think about it, that these are all attributes that the term it replaces also had, which is no doubt why it served for so many decades despite its problematics. An interesting side-effect from working through this has been discovering what makes a useful music theory term: vivid, specific, structurally informative, evocative, and accessible.

So I’d like to thank Sofia for getting us all addressing this question properly at last – there was a real pent-up desire expressed in the thread to figure it out– and to Karri for coming up with something so elegantly fit for purpose. I am so looking forward to helping people sing this chord without any of us having to feel awkward about its name any more.

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