~ Or: ASMR Reactions Without the Need for Mouth Noises and Peacock Feathers

The term “close harmony singing” might evoke some different things depending on your musical background. Gospel.  Choral.  Jazz.  Barbershop.  Country (yes, country).  Possibly nothing at all if this isn’t a concept you’re familiar with.

Close harmony singing is a practice that goes back more than a couple of moons.  Each style with its own distinctive history and evolution.

Anyone who knows me by now knows that I am utterly obsessed with the Barbershop arena of this category.  What might not be as widely obvious is that my father was a seminary and academy trained choir master in the Russian Orthodox tradition.  Composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninœff have contributed incredible choral writings to the order of services in their time, many of which are still sung in worship to this day.  Growing up in the house of a properly trained choir master is a clinic in how melody and harmony can be learned by osmosis.

That’s too much personal history.  Let’s look at musical history.

For this entry, I’m diving into some technical explanations and into a few of the styles listed for their histories and the things that make them different from each other.

Hopefully an effective treatise on the subject!  Please enjoy an attempt at æffable writing on one of my favorite things: close harmony singing.

(please note: not every style is included today.  I could write an entire post on the impact Pentatonix has made on the a cappella world just by themselves.  maybe a follow-up entry for more modern stuff!)

Definition of Close Harmony Singing

Definitions of close harmony singing can vary.  Examples are:

  • Vocal lines where the top parts are all very close together – within an octave – and the bass can be wherever it wants because who’s gonna tell the bass otherwise?
  • Notes in a very narrow range where the top and the bottom are no more than a octave apart.
  • Melody and harmony where no two parts are further than a sixth apart from each other.

The only thing that those definitions agree on is that there are going to be notes that are close to each other.  The parameters are different depending on the context.  The sound is also different depending on which definition is applied.  As far as close harmony singing is concerned, they really do all apply within the genre that they are portraying to.

On with the show and specific examples!

American Gospel

Like many things in history, the origins of the term Gospel Music come with some fluidity.  Thomas Dorsey claimed to coin the term in 1921.  On the other hand, a Baptist evangelist by the name of Philip Bliss got Gospel Songs: A Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes published in 1874.

Going further back into the wayback machine to a time of unfortunate shame, the concept of gospel singing can be traced to the 17th century.  African American slaves would gather in church to sing praises – often in a call and response fashion – as well as for the purpose of stealthily trading messages.  I wanted to dig more into these specific origins and find out if my suspicions that a cappella singing was the norm in these scenarios due to lack of instruments, but written materials were difficult to find in time for writing this post.  At least not without becoming a student at a small variety of universities.  Since I’m pretty sure I’m all done with formal education, I’ll have to rely on my Google-Fu for filling in the gaps.

One thing that most sources seem to agree on: what we know of now as gospel music evolved from those original African American worship sessions and singers.

Following emancipation, a cappella worship music spread like wildfire into many parts of the country, adopting different nuances depending on the region it landed in.  Churches in Chicago vs those in New Orleans had distinctly different musical flavors based on the region but the worship was the same.

The Farfield Four are an incredible example of this tradition.  A quartet started in 1921 and still performing – albeit with a slightly different roster – can be heard in examples like their version of Children Go Where I Send Thee.  While there are no shortage of examples, this is one that I enjoy very much.

Barbershop Harmony

Full disclosure: I’ve been involved in barbershop singing for going on 22 years now.  This style of music makes all the hair on my body stand up on end when the vast majority of chords are sung.  Penultimates and final lock destroy me every time.  I’ll try not to get too boring but dangit I love how it sounds.

Discussion of African American roots in gospel music is absolutely vital to the discussion about barbershop harmony.  There is much to be read on the subject that I won’t go too deeply into now for the sake of actual brevity but it’s worth knowing that Barbershop harmony does not exist without those gospel roots discussed above.

The short version: African American singers were so astoundingly good at what they did that it was ripe for the picking of imitators.  Eventually, the imitation evolved into a style of singing popular music of the day in what we now know as the barbershop style.

What makes a song “barbershop” though?  It’s an excellent question with a complicated answer.  The late Everett Nau once told me in conversation that asking someone to sing barbershop by telling them about it was pointless.  How do you use words to describe a 7th chord and make it interesting?

Jokes aside, he has a point.  Describing chords to hobbyist singers isn’t useful.  Or helpful.

I could tell you on a scale that the notes are 1 3 5 and 7.  The end.  But hearing what it sounds like is where stuff gets real interesting.

Short answer: barbershop harmony is based on close, tight-knit chords.  This is the example with notes no more than a 6th apart. Very close, very tight.  When they lock into place, they feel like a buzzsaw.

There are incredible examples of stunning barbershop singing available to be found.  In lieu of those, I’ll share a couple of “tail ends” of songs – or tags – as examples of the style that I threw together.  Because I’m that guy.  A quieter classic here from a much older song, to a more relatively recent hopping tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald.  The hallmark of the style is copious amounts of 7th chords and extraordinarily tight harmonies in four-part singing.  Close harmony singing personified.

Some would argue that singing more modern songs in the style is a violation of a form of “barbershop code.”  My argument against that is the style was leveraged against popular songs of the era when it started.  Why should that practice change?

Vocal Jazz

Oh my goodness gracious, here we go.  With its roots in blues, vocal jazz is an a cappella evolution of jazz music.  Similar to barbershop, I’m not sure I can come up way a way to describe a 9th chord and make it interesting.  Definitely linking some fun examples below.

One of the things that separates vocal jazz from something like barbershop is improvisation.  Barbershop as a style is very rigid in its performance.  Which is funy because it used to be all improvised in the early days and now is all structured.  Vocal jazz, on the other hand, takes a lead from the music it emulates and allows for plenty of play.  Bending notes, pop outs, anything you could see in an instrumental jazz performance can pop up in vocal jazz.

For a much more detailed read on jazz chord progressions, this is a good place to look.  Just for fun.   Smack me later if it makes your head spin.  Mine will already be spinning with you.

Vocal jazz chords are also, like previous styles, very tight.  There they differ is the way they move around the scale.  Barbershop is a bit more rigid while Jazz will go all over the map and sometimes forget to come home for dinner.

Names worth mentioning where vocal jazz is concerned: Manhattan Transfer.  The Real Group.  New York Voices.  There are plenty of fantastic jazz singers from over the decades. They and their backup bands are legendary.  A cappella vocal jazz singing though? That’s next level stuff. Complicated beyond measure.  Fascinating to listen to.

Almost makes me miss being in a vocal jazz ensemble once upon a time.

While accompanied by instruments in this example, the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet brings down some stunning tightness in harmony that is the hallmark of vocal jazz.  Jazz Lines Vocal Quartet has a fun example from their web page as well.

That ASMR Reaction Thing

I mentioned the ASMR reaction to close harmony singing earlier.  I don’t know about anyone else but when the human voice locks into certain chords and progressions, it melts me completely.  Tuning a chord with the voice is very different from tempered – or tuned – instruments.  Instruments like the piano are tuned quite well and sound amazing.  They cannot adjust a few cents up or down to perfectly lock into another voice based on where it is in a chord.  The result?  The human voice can cause all kinds of wild things to happen.  By itself, the voice creates overtones.  Harmonics or frequencies above or below the note being sung.  Mix those notes and their harmonics together, and they intertwine like vines merging.  Get four of those together?

Absolute magic happens.

Some chords and progressions cause a tingle and shiver to start at the tip of my bald head and slowly work its way down to the base of my spine.  Every hair stands up at attention.  At least, the ones I have left.  Sometimes it’s very emotional!

As an aside, I’d love to hear if this is something that happens to you too.  It’s certainly not the conventional ASMR thing where you hear quiet breathing and mouth noises really loudly.  Half the time I think my own blog post audio versions are too “clicky” but so far nobody has said anything,  Ya’ll’re too polite.

Anyway!  My efflorescent reaction to music is not surprising given how often I talk about it, even here in this blog.  Music and the ASMR relationship sounds like a much more thorough topic for another day.

Shutting ‘er Down After Scratching the Surface

Close harmony singing comes in all shapes and sizes.  And styles.  A little bit of something for everyone.  The possibility for a spiritual experience.  An old American art form steeped in history and still kicking.  and, er, jazz.

What more could you possibly ask for?

My æffection for vocal music knows no bounds.  It’s one of the few things that give me what I think people call an ASMR experience as discussed above.  That tingling is the best!

It’s an incredible feeling and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I can’t even be embarrassed by releasing singing videos.  Even though it goes against my better judgement.  What can I say?  I enjoy it!

So yeah!  Send me an email if you get that reaction and let’s trade notes.  It’ll never be boring!  I can bring cookies!  Or little triangle sandwiches…

I hope you enjoyed a not-nearly-thorough-enough surface-scratching ineffective read on some close harmony singing history.  It’s a fun topic to both read about and listen to!  So much more to say but we better stop here.  I still have sandwiches to make.

Until next week.

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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