Chords and their voicing

2nd tenor

Well-Known Member
For many years I was a ‘read it and play it’ type of ‘musician’ and certainly had next to no knowledge of music theory - my job was to follow the conductor, play my own part and to stick to just that, etc. Eventually a bit of music theory reached me and I began to get an improving concept of where individual players fitted into the collective ‘sound’ that we produce. One might say each section typically contributes certain things to a piece of music (say melody with the Cornets and rhythm with the Basses) but each section also, to a greater or lesser extent, plays chords too.

I think that it would be interesting to hear both about player’s experience of the ‘colouring’ that chords give to music and who they feel is part of chord production around them. For the Trombones it’s easy to see that they can produce the basic three part major and minor chords between them but who is added for the more complex ones? Similarly by splitting the Eb Bass line into two the Basses can produce three part chords, but I don’t recall seeing a split BBb part (beyond a simple octave split) for a more complex sound.

Comments please.
 

Anno Draconis

Well-Known Member
A good rule of thumb is the Denis Wright method of balancing a chord, which is to try and achieve a balance in every section and overlap them. In a hymn tune there are generally four basic lines reflecting the four main choral voices, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and it's better not to give specific lines to specific sections but rather to try and have a balance of at least two, ideally three for instance the three trombones could potentially play alto, tenor and bass notes (as you've indicated) rather than all being given the tenor line. Tubas generally don't have the 3rd of the chord, and aren't usually written in close harmony, because the combination of notes can sound very 'muddy' - this is to do with overtones and the physics of the instrument. In a hymn tune it's rare for them to be closer than a fifth.

I think it's very beneficial for players to know a bit of music theory and know 'where they are' in the chord. It can sometimes have an effect on how you play the note. For example on 2nd/3rd cornet (my natural home haha) a bottom line E could be the 3rd in a C major chord, or the 5th in an A major, or the tonic note of E major. If I know it's the third in a C major I'll make sure it's ever so slightly lipped up, because it can sometimes come out a touch flat in relation the mostly open notes in the rest of the chord.
 

John Morton

Member
I, too, try to get a good sound from each section because instruments of like kind have a tendency to cohere. The technique also applies to mixing saxes with brass in the big band ensemble, for example. But there is often a difference between a so-called 'special' arrangement and one that needs to be playable by various combinations and with members absent (it used to be due to industrial injury/illness or trade union meetings etc.) The hymn tunes are an example of this type of practical scoring with instruments in a similar register simply being doubled, an attempt being made to ensure that one group doesn't outnumber the others unfairly. This is why they work with just a SATB quartet. During my orchestral work for the Beeb, in the Seventies, I had to carry all this to new extremes. Another important point: although our most common system of harmony evolved independently, the vertical distribution of orchestral parts is governed by the influence of the harmonic series, with wider intervals lower down. There is also a limit to how far down you can place harmonic functions, again because of this influence. Because the lowest note for musical purposes is C = 16 cycles, even the humble third of the chord (in this case it will be a C chord) will not normally be placed lower than the E on the first leger line below the bass clef, unless special 'colouristic' effects are intended. I have not used numerical labels because my own method of identifying notes differs from the conventional method. An arrangement doesn't necessarily need to be complex and clever to be effective, of course.
 
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