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How to Harmonise Missing Downbeats

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One of the niche challenges of a cappella arranging is how to handle melodies that feature a rest on the first beat of the bar. The reason this is an issue is that the change of harmony at the start of a bar not only plays a role in supporting the melody and shaping the phrase, but is also the primary means by which we perceive metre.

Interestingly, this is a melodic feature that appears in a variety of rhythmic guises. I’ve come across it arranging in stylistic contexts from reggae tunes like One Love to ballads like Someone to Watch Over me.

In melody-and-accompaniment textures this isn’t so much an issue, as you just treat the accompaniment as the instrumental backing the original had and the melody slots right in. But in more homophonic contexts, in which all parts participate in the delivery of the lyric in the same rhythm as the melody, this can need some careful handling.

There are a number of things you can do to create the harmonic rhythm, and my experience to date suggests that you get best results when you use a good variety of them. Repeating the same solution too often sounds formulaic and starts to draw attention to the problem.

  • Bass gives the root on the downbeat, with other harmony parts coming in with the melody afterwards. This is nice and clear and simple and a good way to set up your framework early so that your listeners get the hang of how the phrase structure works from the get-go
  • All parts except melody asserting the harmony on the downbeat, with melody joining them afterwards. This gives a fuller texture with a richer impact, so is one to use where the emotional content has escalated beyond your starting point
  • All parts silent on the downbeat and coming in with the melody This is one to use sparingly, for the reasons I’m writing this post at all, but can be very effective in either of two contexts. In a ballad it can ease you into the very start of your narrative; in any rhythmic profile it can set the main statement or hook-line up where you already have the overall phrase structure well-established. The down-beat silence in this case functions as a dramatic call to attention, while the ear fills in the harmonic implication by continuation from what has gone before
  • Some kind of linking subsidiary melodic activity in one or two parts that carries over the barline. This turns the downbeat from a place of melodic absence to a point of arrival with its own interest
  • Just hold the last chord of the previous bar over to fill the rest. This is one of the solutions that shouldn’t work (it distorts the harmonic rhythm, right?) but sometimes does. Not always, so be careful and use sparingly, but it can provide a useful sense of connection and forward motion when you’ve got the phrase structure established and you’re well into the flow of a song

There is also one particular solution that I find myself trying to avoid, having heard it sung unsatisfactorily often enough to think it’s an arranging problem rather than the fault of the singers:

  • Swiping from the primary harmony in the previous bar onto the new chord on the downbeat on the same syllable The problem here I think is the mixed message: the new chord on the downbeat wants to call attention to itself both harmonically and metrically, but the back end of a held word sound is a lyrically weak vehicle. I talked about this practice a few years back when I was discussing different types of swipe, and I’m still bothered by it. My thinking then was about the vocal experience – length of breath, and starting a new idea on nearly empty lungs – but today’s thoughts about the musical structures are entirely compatible with that argument.
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