Thoughts on Phnerting

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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:

How low can you phnert?

I have been thinking about this one on and off since I coaching Capital Connection in May, since Debi Cox’s arrangement that we worked on has a phnert between A flat3 and G flat3 (i.e. below middle C) in the tag. It felt like a daring move, and it was one that needed singing carefully to work – and then it was very effective indeed.

It occurred to me that you usually find phnerts in the middle-higher ranges, and it got me wondering why. It’s not just to do with the absolute pitch involved, as a phnert using those particular notes would be much less surprising in an arrangement for male voices.

The thing about the phnert is that it is a function of tight voicing. It takes the harmonic charge of the 7th chord, and super-charges it by folding the minor 7th up into adjacency. You find phnerts, after all, either at the top of Chinese 7ths or in chords voiced within an octave – close-voiced 2nd or 3rd inversions.

Only the first of these obeys the general principle of stacking chords so the wider intervals are lower down and the narrower ones higher up. This principle is less relevant to close voicings, of course, since the only intervals involved are 2nds and 3rds, but the general inhibition about small intervals sung low does still obtain to an extent.

Moreover, a low close voicing will bring all singers down into a part of the range where the expressive connotations tend to be more reflective than urgent. In much the same way that wide spacings of diminished 7ths give mixed messages, phnerty chords in low tessituras pull the singers in different expressive directions. So low phnerts can be used for dramatic effect, but they need careful handling by both arranger and performers.

Does it still work as a phnert in chords other than dominant-type 7ths?

A major 2nd is a major 2nd, right? So in theory the 7th in a minor 7th should work the same as one where the chord has a major 3rd.

But in practice, you wouldn’t lean into it in the same way you would for a barbershop 7th, and again I think it’s to do with harmonic charge. A dominant-type 7th has both brightness and tension, from its major 3rd and the presence of a tritone. A minor 7th chord has the softer minor 3rd and the relaxed feel of a chord without a tritone. Even if it voiced closely, you’re not overall going to be wanting to propel your lemon pip very far or fast. Actually, this is possibly why, now I think about it, you tend not to encounter minor 7ths squished into a single octave as often as barbershop 7ths – with a lower harmonic charge it doesn’t invite the tightest of voicings.

By contrast, the half-diminished 7th has the tension of a tritone with the softness of a minor 3rd. And you do hear these voiced closely to phnert – often appearing as iv6 chords – and this is done to add urgency to the natural yearniness of the half-dim. You phnert with this chord when you want to turn wistful into plaintive.

Phnerts work naturally on the piano

Singers have to cooperate consciously to match intensity for the phnert. (Or, more accurately, they need a high awareness of each other: the cooperation may be intuitive rather than conversantly aware.)

But when you play a phnert on a piano, your fingers are working together, sharing the same impulse of arm weight to land together. There’s a physical sympathy between the fingers sounding a major 2nd that would make not balancing it harder than balancing it.

If you like, you can now spend a few minutes thinking through all the plausible finger combinations for a piano phnert to check that generalisation, just as I did in bed this morning. Adjacent fingers – check. Two notes with one thumb – check. 2nd and 4th fingers to exploit similar finger lengths – check. Double-handed phnert between two thumbs – check.

For your bonus thought experiment – how many of your examples were from Debussy?

Okay, time to get up now.

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