The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #137785   Message #3152753
Posted By: GUEST,highlandman at work
12-May-11 - 11:10 AM
Thread Name: Harmony Singing
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
In general -- and of course all generalizations are false -- four part vocal harmony may be acapella or accompanied, more or less indifferently.

Now in broad terms there are two ways to accompany a vocal ensemble -- one is for the instruments to simply duplicate (double) what the voices are doing. This is the normal modus operandi for hymn book arrangements. In that case, whether the parts are doubled or not makes no difference harmonically, as long as they are all present one way or another, but obviously the *sound* will be different.

The other general way is for the instruments to take parts that are not present in the vocal music, and vice versa. These arrangements require that the instrument be present. Many choir anthems are arranged this way. Also, think about groups which have 3- or 4-part vocal harmony plus have instruments playing complementary but necessary parts, like bluegrass, or swing (Mills Bros for example). In those cases dropping the instruments out will definitely leave something missing (usually the sense of rhythmic drive, or movement in between phrases). (BTW their studio recordings may or may not have been tracked, but I guarantee those Mills Bros arrangements were performed live, many many times, just the same way.)

But isn't the devil in the details? In the first case, where you have a harmonically complete 4-part arrangement, like a hymn, if you try to double the parts it has to be with an instrument (and a player) that is capable of doubling the parts precisely (think piano or organ) and not approximately (guitar, in most cases). Playing cowboy-style guitar chords to accompany a fully-harmonized hymn tune is barbaric. On the other hand, a guitar accompaniment carefully worked out to complement and not clash with the vocal lines can be delightful.

And as you (Sandy) suspected, there are types of vocal music that resist accompaniment by instruments. Barbershop is one -- that has to do partly with stylistic matters but also with the intonation (scale temperament) the singers use vs the temperament of the instruments. Chant (generally) rebels against instrumental accompaniment. And Sacred Harp tunes, for some reason, seem to defy all attempts to accompany them instrumentally.

Fun stuff. (And here's a guaranteed argument starter:) neither studying theory nor wide listening/performing experience is the best way to understand these matters. Each approach informs the other. Application without theory can be limiting and frustrating; theory without application can get too far from the realities of what the stuff actually sounds like.