Miscellaneous Barbershop Arranging Thoughts

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swipeOn reflection, these are all specific examples of general principles I have written about elsewhere. But they are points that have come to my notice through listening to performances and working with ensembles as details with which arrangers can help singers produce better performances with less rehearsal time.

  1. Keep the lead off 7ths. Obviously, if the melody is on the 7th of the chord, the lead will sing it. But if you want to write a swipe that involves the lead coming off the melody note, you have a choice. If you have them move upwards onto the 7th of a barbershop 7th chord, especially if it is in the mid-upper part of their range, my observation is that they will almost invariably treat it melodically, and swell into it. As a result, the 7th will pop out of a completely unbalanced chord.

    This is the case even with really quite good groups. I heard several instances of this with quartets scoring in the 70s at BABS Convention this year. Indeed, it was here that I spotted it as an issue: one unbalanced chord from an otherwise good quartet is just a momentary distraction, but three in an afternoon is a pattern.

  2. Voice diminished 7ths closely. The diminished 7th chord has the greatest harmonic charge of any chord in the barbershop vocabulary. With its two tritones, its sonority is rattly and edgy, and with its structure of equal intervals its narrative connotations are full of ambiguity. (Having said that, it does usually resolve where we expect it to - but it always has the potential to surprise us.)

    If you have all that inherent musical energy at your disposal, the last thing you want to do is deploy it in an open voicing that gives all the energy away. That would be like getting a really tightly coiled spring to power a clockwork machine, and then unwinding it before fitting it.

    It also makes life hard for the singers. Wide-spaced chords need placing carefully, with a certain delicacy of touch. But high-energy chords need singing with oomph and intensity. So - with a wide-voiced dim7, which do you choose? Do you balance the chord, but sing it with the wrong expressive feel, or do you go for the narrative shape and take your chances with balance and tuning?

    No wider than a 10th is what I’d suggest for diminished 7ths, and, so long as they’re not too low in tessitura, within an octave usually shows them to the best effect.

  3. When the melody goes elsewhere, keep the leads on roots and 5ths. Looking back, I see this is actually exactly the point I made in my post about arranging in tune all those years ago. It’s still true, though, and I’m mentioning it again because it makes everyone’s lives easier, for several reasons.

    First, there’s the point about balance I made before (and, indeed, above). Leads are used to coming through the texture to be heard, as this is what you need from a melody. Thus, when they are not on tune duty, the music will balance best if they have the notes that, from the perspective of harmonic structure, want to be strongest in the chord.

    This point has two corollaries. On the positive side, everyone else is used to tuning to the leads, so if they have a line built on the harmonically strong parts of the chord, they will act as a glue to bind the chords together. If the leads are voiced well, everybody else can sing better.

    On a less positive, but realistic, side, leads aren’t terribly practised at singing awkward intervals, and lines based on roots and 5ths tend to be simpler and thus less likely to expose their weaknesses than the kind of lines that baritones handle routinely. Even if you don’t care about the feelings of leads, if they are feeling anxious it won’t sound as good, and time spent on tricksy, fiddly bits is time wasted for everyone.

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