Am I Arranging in Time?

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question markOne of the early topics I dealt with in this blog is to consider what arrangers can do to help people sing their music in tune. My listening experiences in recent years have had me thinking about the ways arrangers help or hinder singers in singing well in rhythm.

This is a particular issue for barbershop arrangers, who are working in a genre that on the one hand is quite self-aware about having a rather shaky relationship with rhythm and on the other has taken to syncopation and other forms of rhythmic complexity as an index of coolness. Arrangers pile push-beats on triplets to make the music wiggle its hips and thereby prove that they are sexy and clever rather than simply nerds (music theory geeks) amongst nerds (barbershoppers in general).

The singers learn this music parrot fashion from teach tracks and succeed to varying extents in responding to the momentary gestures of hipness, but largely without managing to project a consistently coherent metrical framework to make sense of these gestures. They then get coached on resonance and continuity of sound, safe in the knowledge that the audience they care about most – the contest judges – can’t count either but will enjoy the ping.

Um, that all came out rather less tactful than I intended. It’s not an entirely fair description of the situation, but not entirely untrue either.

But still, I suspect that arrangers are potentially being negligent about how possible it is to sing their music with good rhythm, in two specific ways. First, in their assumption that it is other people’s responsibility to teach the music to the singers. If you know that you are going to have to look the singers in the eye and help them if they are struggling with what you’ve written it doesn’t half keep you honest.

Second, people get used to hearing their music played back to them accurately by their notation software. Just because a computer can render it, you can’t assume that something is actually singable.

So, that’s the ranty bit. I may be attributing the causes to the wrong places, but it still remains that there are a number of arranging habits that get in the way of in-time singing, and we can enumerate them as a means to help each other produce charts that don’t, in their attempts to be rhythmically exciting, set our performers up to fail.

  • Excessive homophonic syncopation In a texture where all parts are singing the same rhythm, the framework of regular metre that the arranger can see on the page articulated by barlines is only audible if the arranger does things to make it so. The point of syncopation is to bounce off that regularity, so the arranger needs to do enough to establish the metre that the brain (singer’s brain and listener’s brain) is able to maintain that pulse internally through the syncopations.

    ‘Excessive’ in this context therefore means any syncopation that lasts longer than the maintenance of the pulse inside the singers and/or listeners. This is why mild excesses are often fixed by adding finger-clicks – that restores the metre to a perceptible rather than virtual form,