Tags: a cappella, arrangements, arranging, barbershop, four part, harmony, ladies, music, singing, women
A while ago, I took part in the Goldsmith’s Earworm Project. I learned all SORTS of interesting things, including that I have a really good musical memory (I got 94% on their test for this. NINETY-FOUR. You’re DAMN right I’m proud) and that not everybody with an earworm hears the whole song playing from start to finish in their head with the backing band and everything, as if it’s on the radio. Until recently, the application of these niche skills has been restricted to correctly guessing the key for TV theme tunes before they start (nobody thinks this is clever, apart from me) and having this argument with my brother throughout our teens:
One of us: [sings pop song]
The other one: It doesn’t go like that.
I’m gradually getting used to the idea that barbershop provides the answer to all such pressing questions in my life. I’ve spent the last few months learning songs, and grumbling about bass lines, and weeping with admiration at clever arrangements (like GQ doing Samson, below). I start imagining the White Rosettes singing Two Thousand Miles, and a quartet doing Mad About The Boy (with me showing off on the bass melody, of course). Could I arrange something?
I usually give up quickly on anything that involves writing music down, because my theory is stupidly rusty. I have to count the lines to get the notes in the right places, and I’m never confident that what I’ve written is what I actually mean. Then Liz introduces me to MuseScore, which is AWESOME (and free). Put something in, play it back, see if it sounds right, adjust it till it does. Bingo. I’m OFF.
Suddenly, being able to hear all the instruments in my head, and remember exactly how everything goes, are skills that are massively useful. (The fact that I often have two earworms at once also turns out to be a plus when I start mashing up Christmas songs, but more of that another time.)
I don’t understand the technoshizzle of barbershop harmony yet (circle of fifths? Chinese sevenths?), so I start with what I know: pop songs. I tear through a couple of 70s hits and feel terribly pleased with myself. I do a bit of Louis Prima and make myself laugh.
But I also acquire a folderful of half-finished or started-but-not-really-going-anywhere stuff.
A good song turns out to be hard to find. Songs that’ll work well for the chorus need structure: verses and choruses and maybe a bridge or a middle eight, and a definite sense of drama, and a proper musical climax. I’m surprised how many of the songs I love just don’t have any of these. (Either that, or I’m turning into my Dad: ‘You call THIS music?’) Other things that make pop songs unsatisfactory include relying on an instrumental theme (Careless Whisper, unless you think your tenors will pull off saxophone impressions), having a crucially-important bass line (all 70s funk, unless your basses are happy to spend the whole song going ‘dum dum-bah dum, BAOWAH’), or featuring Inappropriate Lyrics (no sex* please, we’re barbershoppers). The range is a problem, too: I get all excited about arranging Things That Dreams Are Made Of until I realise it’s simultaneously too high for the tenors and too low for the basses.
I press on, missing lunchtimes and deadlines. Boyf: Shall we watch the cyclocross? Me: Yes! Well, give me a minute. I just have to do a bit more of this. I’ll be right there. Boys: Is tea nearly ready? Me: Um. It will be when I’ve started it.
It’s like crack. I give up on a difficult passage, then the answer appears to me in the shower and I have to run downstairs, dripping, to see if it works.
I find out that my ear plays tricks on me, not least by filling in harmonies that don’t actually exist in the song. This is excellent, as long as other people agree with me on what they are; less so if they don’t. (Liz, listening to one arrangement: Your chords are lovely, but they’re not the ones I hear. Me: Okay, here are the ones they give online**. Her: Those aren’t right either.)
In a flash of inspiration, I knock out an arrangement of the Spiderman theme over a weekend. (Me: Listen to this. I’m a GENIUS. Boiz: That’s AMAZING, Mummy.) My lovely quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, gamely agree to give it a go. They learn a little section with me playing snippets from my computer and trying to sing their parts to them.
The baritone has all the mad accidentals because that’s the Baritone Thing, and because Liz is awesome and can sing ANYTHING. (Her [looking at middle eight]: I thought you said this bit was easier? Me: Um… Her: I’ll get you for this, later.)
Then they sing the first four bars. It’s so exciting I could POP. There is NOTHING like hearing it come to life; the plinky-plonky version on the computer doesn’t prepare you for hearing people’s voices doing your stuff.
The basses get right into going ‘Spi-der, Spi-der-MAN!’, giving it some welly from the sofa. Our tenor’s stream of semitones sounds just as spooky as I’d imagined. The lead does a great job of holding all her posts. I sit there grinning my silly face off. Liz even starts directing it, which is a complete thrill: ‘Everyone needs to come in more quickly here. Let’s decide where we’re going to put the ‘t’ in ‘night’.’ We revoice the final chord. Me: ‘I want a massive great overblown glissando from this chord to that one.’ They do it. It is MAGIC.
* or religion, or politics, or innuendo
** Looking up chords online sounds like the answer, but it makes it slower; I have to look up all the notes that make up a Dm7 and write them down, then check that I have them all in the chord, then give them all to different parts because it sounds wrong, then add some other notes because it’s too boring. I go back to doing it by ear. (Chords picture is from this blog. I can’t work out how to link to it from the picture any more. Damn you, WordPress.)
Tags: a cappella, barbershop, harmony, if you think you need some lovin', ladies, music, pomplamoose, singing
My first bash at arranging (well, partly improvising) this marvellous song, for four parts. I couldn’t work out how to listen to something I’d already recorded while I was singing another part, so I just listened to a metronome to keep in time while recording each part separately. I’m quite ridiculously pleased with how it came out.
* I’m aware that this arrangement probably violates all the Rules Of Barbershop, but, you know. Baby steps