8-Parter Project: Exploring Duets

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Having played with texture and voicing in arranging a single-persona song for a double quartet/chorus ensemble, I have turned by attention to double-persona songs, or duets as you’d call them when each persona is represented by an individual singer rather than a group. The structure of combining a male and female ensemble, each with a pre-existent and ongoing identity as a performing unit, maps very easily onto the classic girl-boy duet structure, and the practice of groups combining for numbers when they appear on shows together means there is a ready need for charts they can sing together.

The first two questions I’ve bumped up against are as follows.


The norm in barbershop writing is that women sing in a key about a 4th or a 5th higher than men would for the same arrangement. Duets, on the other hand, are typically written with both singers singing in the same key. In 8-part charts this often leads to the men being pushed a bit lower than is comfortable for them and/or the women being pushed a bit too high.

Different songs suggest different solutions, depending how exactly the melody lies, and its expressive character. I note that in ‘Summer Nights’ I kept the melodic lines an octave apart as in the original for the most part, but played around with both how I was deploying doubling (e.g. male lead and bari doubling the melody in the verses, as opposed to female lead and tenor) and approaches to voicing. In particular I note that only rarely is each ensemble required to present a complete harmonic texture, and those moments, fortunately enough, are where the melody lies squarely in the middle of its overall range, which mitigates (though doesn’t entirely eliminate) the sense of each ensemble being pushed away from its best range.

Other possibilities on my ‘available to experiment with’ pile include choosing keys where a melody works for male bass and female lead singing an octave apart, or for female bass and male lead at unison. I’d like, in principle, to keep the melody intact, at least throughout major structural sections of the song, rather than shuffle it off onto a different voice for a few bars when it starts getting too high or too low. I struggle with suspension of disbelief on that kind of hand-off at the best of times, and if we’re asking an audience to imagine that these 8 people are actually only two people, then melodic continuity seems useful to help preserve the illusion.

The other principle I’m working on is that compromises about key (or indeed about anything else) should impact both groups about the same amount. I am on record* for getting grumpy at the way that 4-part mixed barbershop very often puts the guys somewhere comfortable and makes the women move over, and I’m not going to start doing the same in these charts. Everyone should be able to sing at the pitch where they sound their best (that’s the whole reason we pick keys about a 5th apart when singing separately), and it’s my job as an arranger to make that happen as much as possible.

*Actually, it turns out I've not been very grumpy in my blog, but I do talk through some of the issues here.

How to handle turn-taking

Many duets are structured so that one persona sings a bit, then the other one does, then they sing together. The turn-taking may come every couple of lines, or over entire verses, but the question remains the same either way: when one persona has their bit, what does the other one do?

Available options include:

  • Silence – i.e. literal turn-taking
  • Intermittent embellishments/echoes – i.e. using the lyrics, but not presenting them in complete form as that would absorb these singers into the other persona. Expressively, this option may come over as either accompanimental, or as a form of response or commentary from the other persona in the dialogue
  • Textural accompaniment (vocables, neutral syllables) – i.e. becoming the band

Of these, I find myself wanting to be sparing with the first, given the way it results in stark blocks of quite different sonic envelopes, from the reduction in texture and the way the ensembles generally occupy rather different pitch-spaces. In the originals, you get the continuity of the instrumental backing to bind the different pitch-ranges of the singers into a single musical world. I feel (at this stage of the project – I don’t know how my opinions will develop through further experience) that the ear needs to keep in touch with both ensembles sonically, even while the attention is switching between them narratively.

Right, that’s enough chatting about the questions for now, I’m off to get my fingers mucky in some actual music.

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