Musings on Chord Voicings

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I've written before (here and, more tangentially, here)about the inherent energy implied in different chord voicings. I particularly like the way the Sweet Adelines manual recommends alternating tight and wider voicings. This feels to me like the voicings are being used to propel the music forward, like the pulsing of a jellyfish, or the pumping of bellows. Or indeed the beating of a heart.

Whichever your preferred metaphor, the pattern alternately allows more musical space into the texture, then squeezes it out again. When it happens suddenly, we get a 'dammit chord', as discovered with Silver Lining recently.

And it occurred to me that the balance between the two resonates with the homeostatic patterns of tension and release provided by the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system offers focus, narrowing of perception, energy; the parasympathetic nervous system offers relaxation, breadth of awareness, rest. We particularly notice when one or the other is more strongly in control, but both are on duty all the time, regulating a whole host of bodily functions we need to operate effectively in the world as we find it.

Now, what I like about this metaphor is that it carries beyond the bar-by-bar alternation of open and closed voicings. It also works on a larger scale.

Years before I even started this blog, I was telling students that the faster the tempo of your song, the closer you should keep the voicings. The reasoning at that point was entirely pragmatic: wider voicings take more careful balancing, as the singers are in more distant parts of their voices, and have to listen over a wider range. Therefore, if the notes are going to be rushing by quickly, you want to have a closer target to blend with.

But this works expressively with the metaphor of the autonomic nervous system too. The energy of a fast tempo is consistent with the inherent energy of tight voicings, while the care required to place widely-voiced chords is more consistent with gentler speeds. Again, you'll always need a mixture (both sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are involved even when one dominates), but it makes sense for faster songs, on average, to be more closely voiced than slower songs.

I have hunch all this is terribly obvious. It seems rather less exciting now I write it down than when it was sloshing round my head. Ah well, while I'm stating the obvious, here's another observation about arranging fast music:

The faster the tempo, the more static the lines need to be. Again, choose your metaphor: it is hard to drive fast on a bumpy road, you can run faster in a straight line than if you have to keep hopping sideways. It's not just a vocal thing, however, I think it is also an issue of cognitive speeds, a version of the Stroop effect.

I say this because of an experience I had recently at the polishing phase of an arrangement, where I was singing through all the lines to check for sense and singability, and at one particular passage, I kept losing speed. It wasn't the tempo per se - I had been happily singing along at that tempo for a good 32 bars by then. But the passage in question was more harmonically surprising than what had gone before, and the extra cognitive load just kept slowing things up.

My first instinct was to simplify the rhythm, which helped a bit but not as much as I'd hoped. But when I radically simplified the lines, it suddenly became possible to maintain the tempo. Interestingly, it was the bass line that made the most difference. A nice smooth run of the same pitch underpinning the unexpected chords made the upper lines also run more slickly.

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