Inspirational or Insipid?

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Inspirational songs present some specific and peculiar challenges for the close-harmony/a cappella arranger. But they’re challenges we have to meet, since the genre is popular with both singers and audiences, and people are going to keep asking for them. The basic problem is this: it is very easy to turn them into rather boring arrangements. So today I am going to try and figure out why this is, and how we can achieve the harder but more desirable end of turning them into interesting arrangements that live up to the passion people invest in the songs.

So, first, what I mean by ‘inspirational songs’: those songs designed to lift the heart and induce an idealistic swell of emotion. They may have religious content, but the more mainstream versions are more likely to celebrate perseverance, interpersonal connection, triumph over adversity and other such worthy values. Theme tunes from big movies will often fall in this category.

Now, while I’m defining the genre primarily by lyric content, there’s a clear common musical world these songs inhabit too. The main theme will usually be strongly diatonic (though there may more chromatic harmonies in the bridge), the harmonic rhythm will be quite slow, and there’ll often be a prominent use of the chords iii minor, IV and Vsus. The songs will usually be produced using singers with a very distinctive vocal timbre (and this is genre-agnostic: it may be Celine Dion or Aerosmith), and with instrumental sounds that carry a certain resonance or aura – violin descants later on are certainly to be expected.

You get the idea: ‘You Are the Wind Beneath my Wings’, ‘My Cup Overfloweth With Love’, ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’, ‘That’ll Do’, ‘Thank You Stars’, and so on.

Now the reason these are hard to arrange for a cappella groups is that the harmonic/melodic structures are usually deliberately quite simple to reflect the essential sincerity of the message, while much of the magic and emotionality of our responses comes from (a) the timbral envelope of the production and (b) the individuality of the original performer. A four-part ensemble has much more limited timbral resources to offer, and the requirements for blend can significantly inhibit the use of vocal embellishments of the type solo singers use to indicate individual emotion (especially where there is more than one singer per part).

So, if we approach the arrangement the way we would approach a tune from the 1930s, we’ll strip out all the elements that are most interesting, and leave behind what can sound like a rather hackneyed message. There’s a fine line between sincere and dull, and the difference often lies not in the content but in the manner it is presented. (This is true of people, too, of course.)

The challenge of inspirational songs is thus a subset of the arrangement challenges I discussed here and here. The solutions suggested there are useful in this instance too, and I’d add the following points – all illustrated in the example below, which will be coming in to my catalogue next year:

Don't Want to Miss a ThingDon't Want to Miss a Thing

  1. Be sparing with straight homophony – reserve it for (a) really important moments in the lyric such as the hookline and (b) places where the words aren’t flowing past too quickly. These songs can sound very wordy and choppy with too much rhythmic unison – as bar 35 did until I reduced the full homophony.
  2. But do make frequent small-scale variations to the texture. Starting a phrase with a melody and accompaniment texture, then bringing in an inner part to duet with the tune for key words at the end of the phrase enhances the message and stops things becoming too predictable. Bars 36-40 keep the lead in duet most of the time, but the duetting part flips between tenor and baritone.
  3. Pay a lot of attention to voice-leading. This is a very horizontal, rather than vertical type of song, and the more you have a sense of long-range direction within individual parts (so, over an entire phrase, not just note-to-note), the more you’ll facilitate that feeling of open-heartedness. Kinks in the musical flow inhibit the flow of emotion. Hence, the tenor moves almost entirely by step, and the bass works either by step or root movement by fifth. Note also how the baritone part in bars 37-8 has a compound linear motion – it spells out the interval of a third, then both notes of the interval move down by step.
  4. Be sparing with the dominant seventh sonority. These songs aren’t about that whole tritone tension thing, and whacking in big V7s at cadences brings things back to earth with a bump, just when things were getting uplifting. Things like V7sus and IV over V in the bass are much more common cadential signals – see the end of bar 35.
  5. Borrowing figuration from the original wholesale will usually produce too busy a texture, but motifs that recall that figuration make effective subtle embellishments – the baritone echo in bar 40 is lifted directly from the Aerosmith recording.
  6. Add more parts. But don’t add them to thicken chords, but to layer textures. Soaring countermelodies work in voices as well as in violins. Oh, this one isn’t illustrated in the extract – but I add a double descant for the final chorus.

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