Expressive Modes and Musical Shape

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When coaching a cappella groups, I’ll often point out a basic distinction build into popular a cappella styles that encodes information about how the music is communicating. When only one part is singing the words, with the others accompanying, the intent is usually narrative, telling a story. When all parts are singing the same words (and this usually implies at the same time – homorhythmic or nearly so), the intent is usually declarative, making a statement.

Of course, there are intermediate states - accompanied duet, or trio plus neutral bass-line for instance – but they slot in quite happily on this continuum between the more discursive and the more emphatic.

This of course raises some interesting questions about a cappella styles such as barbershop that define themselves as being thorough-goingingly homophonic. If the default texture is everyone singing the same words together, does this mean that you’re in the declarative mode all the time? Well, if you listen to some performances you might think that of course – the wall-of-sound ideal of continuous ring can get a bit overwhelming.

But you’ll also often find traces of this distinction maintained within a barbershop texture. A couple of bars melody+backing oos at the start of a verse, or some between-phrase snippets of independent bass-line are cues that signal ‘sing this as if we were in the narrative mode’. Likewise, a switch from predominantly homophonic to pure homorhythm will often come at a key moment in the lyric to signal, ‘make no mistake, this is the key message’.

I have been thinking recently about how this useful distinction interacts with another that operates in popular vocal tradition. I have written before about Heather Lane’s concept of communication and vocal register. When the tessitura of a melody lies low, the communication is often more personal, intimate or introverted. When it rises to the higher parts of the voice, it becomes more outward-looking in intent.

So, both of these distinctions share a contrast between more thoughtful versus more urgent modes, but they operate using different musical dimensions, and serve somewhat different emotional functions. So it is, in theory, possible to operate them independently of each other. The range of combinations looks like this:


The usual route of an a cappella chart is to alternate verses in the lower part of the voice with not everyone singing the words with choruses in a higher register with more parts on the lyrics. From my own work: Happy Together, One Day Like This, If I Were a Boy, Moondance. The song-writers provide the tessitura contrast, and the arranger unfolds it into textural contrast.

The unfolding can quite naturally go in two stages: becoming homophonic before the tessitura rises, or staying in melody and accompaniment texture once it has done. Both of these routes deliver an increase in emotional intensity.

The one route that seems counter-intuitive to me is the other diagonal, between Internal Declarative and External Narrative. The problem here is that one dimension is increasing in urgency, while the other is decreasing, giving mixed messages to both performer and audience about the shape of the communication. It is a similar problem to that presented by a wide-voiced diminished 7th, only on a larger scale: does it want more energy or less?

So, there nice clear implications here for arrangers as to how to plan textures to make sense of melodic shape. You were probably doing this already anyway, as part of your practical consciousness of how music goes (turns out I have been too). But making this kind of implicit knowledge explicit is useful for those times when something’s not quite right and you don’t know why. Or when you’re feeling indecisive – sometimes asking, ‘well, what would be normal here?’ is a good way out of an impasse.

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