Monday, April 27, 2009

The barbershop overtone, and other music stuff

There's an organization, called "Sweet Adelines International", of choruses of women who sing barbershop quartet-style harmonies. On Saturday the member choruses of Arizona and southern California had their annual competition, and I went to see them (a friend was performing.) The two biggest choruses amazed me. I'd never seen performances at that level before. Sound and choreography were so good. And the members are all amateurs, mostly older women who finally have time in their lives to do it.

The winning chorus was a group called Harborlites, and after they got their award they sang us an encore. The final big chord they hit had a vibrant high note that sounded different, almost alien. As we all applauded, a knowledgeable women in front of me turned around and said, "That high note wasn't a sung note; it was an overtone!"

I had no idea what she was talking about. Have you all heard of this phenomenon of overtones? Somehow I lived thirty years without knowing about it, though I must have heard it often unawares. Overtone "refers to a psychoacoustic effect in which a listener hears an audible pitch that is higher than, and different from, the four pitches being sung by the quartet.... The barbershopper's overtone is created by the interactions of the overtones in each singer's note (and by sum and difference frequencies created by nonlinear interactions within the ear)." Barbershop quartets often set up their chords to create this overtone, which explains why their harmonies sound so rich and ringing.

So I tried to find YouTube videos with the overtone and it turns out there are lots of guys who record themselves singing different parts and combine the parts into a chorus. Here's 25 seconds of Scarborough Fair in eight different parts, and here's Sweet Hour of Prayer for which the man recorded 27 tracks: seven bass, seven lead, seven baritone, and six tenor. I believe both of these videos have some kind of overtone, but I'm certainly no expert in identifying it-- at any rate they've got the nice ringing sound.

I enjoyed the chorus competition so much that I toyed with the idea of joining Harborlites. You have to be able to sing on key and hold your own part while hearing other parts, but I think I could do that. What decided me against joining them, though, was the music they sing. It just isn't inspiring. Same with all the choruses at that competition. About three-fourths of the songs were about love, which themes like My Heart's Broken, or Don't You Dare Break My Heart, or My Guy Is Better Than Your Guy, or Everything Is Different Now That I'm In Love. I was quickly bored with it. But whenever they sang about something different, like "Consider Yourself One of the Gang", the subject didn't seem important enough for all the harmony and movement they were giving it.

It's just my own preference; I think everyone else at the competition was loving it. Well, I loved it too! But I realized I can't really get into singing, at least not enough to go to rehearsals and want to perform well, unless the song's about God. That's why when I sang in Women's Glee Club in college, I would join for the Christmas term and then quit-- because Christmas was when the songs were nearly all religious. In the other terms the material didn't interest me enough.

So the kind of thing I'd really enjoy is, say, the schola that sings at the traditional Latin Mass at St. Therese every Sunday. They sing Gregorian chant, Palestrina, St. Thomas Aquinas' hymns, classical Mass settings, all sorts of great stuff, mostly with beautiful harmony and mostly in Latin. A week ago a soloist sang Mozart's Laudate Dominum, and yesterday I heard Handel's He Shall Feed His Flock (the Gospel was Jesus saying "I am the good shepherd") and then Thomas Tallis' quiet and incredibly beautiful song, If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments. And I'm always hearing other ridiculously good stuff that I don't recognize.

But if I joined the schola-- and that's assuming they'd even let me in; they're not hurting for more members, at least not on the women's side-- that would mean I'd have to always be at St. Therese at 1 pm on Sundays, which would stop me from occasionally visiting other great churches around the area. And it would also mean I'd have to focus on singing during Mass just when I'd want to be praying. I'm not sure it would even feel like I'd been to Mass. Maybe if I stayed and prayed afterward.

Yesterday I was doing just that-- praying after Mass at St. Therese. They have a nice little adoration chapel, but for some reason I felt like staying in the big church, and the organist stayed too and was practicing a dramatic piece that filled the whole nave. Let me tell you, my prayers have never felt so... important! Then on came a trio with guitars to practice what sounded like some music for a teen Mass, and the tone of my prayers really changed. Ah, music.

EDIT: Here's the clearest overtone I've found. On the last note I definitely hear it:


Anonymous said...

I knew about overtones in general, but not how they use them in barbershop. Cool :)

(If you want to play with overtones, and you have a piano, very softly push in a key so that the damper is lifted off the string but the hammer doesn't hit, then hit a tone an octave (or octave+fifth(+fourth(+etc.))) lower. You will hear the tone you pushed in singing along.

I think what you said about those texts just not being worth all the musical effort is very well-put. I will have to remember that.

As someone who sang in church choirs for, gulp, 15 years now (and one month, and 23 days), I can relate to the idea of being "tied up". I am lucky to sing in a church with a very good music director who has several high-level choirs lined up, so none of them sings every Sunday. This also gives us time, theoretically, to rehearse and go a bit above and beyond the standard. (His biggest insult to us is "you sound like a parish choir!")

Maybe there's a church like that somewhere around, although it most probably would not be TLM.

As a final word of warning: singing in the choir changes your participation with Mass. It can either reduce or improve it. It took me 14 years to get to the point where it improves it, but that can also be an age thing. :)

Rachel Gray said...

I read that the barbershop overtone has a different cause than all the others phenomena that are also called overtones. Anyway, I want to try that piano thing! Thanks for sharing your experience with singing in the choir.