Earlier this August, amateur choirs from 10 different countries competed in the second biennial Eurovision Choir competition, hosted in Gothenburg. After two rounds of compelling performances, Danish a cappella choir Vocal Line pulled through and won the competition and a spot at the 2020 World Choir Games, to be hosted in Belgium. Today, we will take a deeper look into the choir and how arrangers helped to lay the structural groundwork from which choirs such as Vocal Line spring and create synergic vocal art, from the original songs to the presentation shown internationally on SVT. In this article, we will focus on the beginning of “True North”, the first of two selections performed. Terminology from the previous series of articles will be used and briefly explained as a refresher; details about form and instrumentation, rhythm and timing, and harmony and production can be found in the first, second, and third articles, respectively.
We will start with the song that propelled them to a spot in the final three. “True North” was a song originally written and performed by Danish singer-songwriter Tina Dico (born Tina Dickow Danielsen), later arranged by soprano Tine Fris-Ronsfeld of the Postyr Project, another a cappella group. The arrangement of this song serves as the title track for Vocal Line’s album released in 2018 (source).
The song is mostly two chords, Ebmaj9 (Eb major triad with a major seventh and major ninth on top, which in this case are the notes D and F, respectively) and Gm (G minor triad). The unsettled feeling of the Ebmaj7 chord, when combined with the constant emphasis of the root and fifth of the Gm chord, suggests that this song is in G Aeolian for lack of the V-i resolution as previously mentioned. Due to the dearth of harmonic movement, the intrigue of the track falls on the hands of the other parts of the song: mainly rhythm, timbre, and instrumentation. We will first study the path the original song took to understand the changes made from version to version.
Original Tina Dico version
The instrumentation of the original song (available on Spotify) is divided into four parts: synthesizers, percussion, vocals, and symphony orchestra. The beginning includes synths that pulsate quickly due to a relatively high tremolo rate. Only reverberant vocals, the tremolo, and two types of drums – bass drum and tom-toms – begin the song, with some electronic programmed noises joining halfway through the first verse. After the first verse, the acoustic guitar comes in to provide most of the harmonic skeleton of the song, with the orchestra joining in the pre-chorus (“we never…”) until just before the second verse. A cut to only acoustic guitar and drums give way to more subdued tremolo synths, programmed percussion, and a rhythmically active bass line when Dico is not singing. Afterwards, backing vocals and then orchestra slowly crescendo into the pre-chorus, which then introduces periodic electric guitar. The chorus plays twice and then gives way to just vocals, tremolo synths, and acoustic guitar. Unlike the beginning of the song, the synthesizer most often plays one of the non-root notes in the chords, i.e. the F, which relative to the Ebmaj9 chord is a major 9th. Using solfège as before, the entire chord sounds like do mi sol ti re together. Relative to the Gm chord, the same F is a minor seventh – the distance between la and a higher-sounding sol.
Vocal Line Versions
An a cappella choir only has one instrument, if relatively versatile: the human voice. During live performances in large venues or during recording sessions, the microphone serves as the medium through which sound is transformed and carried to most people’s ears.
Both the studio and live versions (studio linked above) begin with a harmonic introduction that already exceeds the harmonic complexity of the original in its 8 bars, which will be the focus of this article. With six different voice parts harmonizing simultaneously following the unison beginning, the voices combine with “outside” notes, suspended chords and added-tone sonorities, non-chord tones, and contrary and/or oblique motion between the soprano 1 (highest) and alto (lowest female) voices. The terminology will be broken down one-by-one.
A scale which can be represented by do up to ti or (in minor) la up to sol is called diatonic for historical reasons. In the scale of G Aeolian/minor, G can be written as la. The sixth note in the scale, fa, has a letter name E♭. However, in the third measure, an E natural (no flat) is played, and that does not fit fa (E♭) or sol (F). It is a non-diatonic note, and these notes are generally called outside notes, because they come from outside the scale. These are most often apparent when compared to a key signature, which stores information about how the notes in each key or mode relate to the letter name notes. Any alterations to a note outside a key signature may indicate that the notes are outside the original key or mode. Listen to the following sample and see how the note sticks out compared to the other notes in the song. The closest notes to the E natural are played through the measure, and the sound of the specific note is played on a synthesizer patch for clarity.
As mentioned in the previous article, Western music is largely based on thirds and consequently triads. Since the dawn of jazz harmony, that has changed. Triads have two diatonic notes between them, and in the common practice period (CPP), those non-triad notes would be held over from the previous chord and then resolve to the third. This features strongly in Il Volo’s “Grande Amore” pre-choruses. The bolded syllables include suspended sung notes from the previous chord that resolve in the following chord:
Dimmi perché quando penso, penso solo a te
Dimmi perché quando vedo, vedo solo te
Dimmi perché quando credo, credo solo in te grande amore“Grande Amore”, Il Volo
In music inspired by CPP music, these suspensions were meant to be notes to lean into and then resolve into major or minor. Nowadays, this is not the case, and suspended chords are their own sound. The opening chords to Shocking Blue’s “Venus” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” are examples of the two types of suspended chords that do not resolve.
In “Venus”, the first chord has the notes (lowest to highest) B F# B E F# B. The stacking of the fifth and octave (B F# B) increases the strength of the lowest note, B. If those three pitches are labeled as B for making that pitch strong, the notes are B E F# (B). This sounds like do fa sol, so the root note, then a fourth and fifth on top. This constitutes a Bsus4 chord, which in context replaces the dominant (B) chord in E minor.
In “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, the first chord has the notes (lowest to highest) E♭ B♭ E♭ F B♭. As with the previous number, reducing the 1-5-1 relationship gives E♭ F B♭, which sounds like do re sol, so the root note, a second, and then a fifth on top. This constitutes an E♭sus2 chord, which in this case replaces the tonic (I, E♭) chord in E♭ major. In the case of “True North”’s intro, the singers start in unison on a G, but then build the notes G D G A D G, which when reduced create a Gsus2 chord, which replaces the tonic (i, Gm) chord in G minor.
After this, the top two voices move to other chord tones (notes in the chord) before landing on C and F, giving a sound with G D G A C F. When a second (A), fourth (C), and minor seventh (F) are in the chord, the chord name generally uses the smallest numbers possible. G C D F is a Gsus4 chord with a seventh on top, or G7sus4, and the second would be shifted up an octave to a ninth. Writing G7sus2 and then moving the 4th up an octave would introduce an 11th, which is a larger number and thus proves non-standard.
Since the 9th (second) is a major 9th (distance between do up to re), the number 9 supersedes the number 7 in the chord name; a minor seventh is implied in the current context. This means that the Gsus2 chord harmony moves to a G9sus4, which still retains the suspended nature of the G-rooted chord. The same type of chord occurs in Douwe Bob’s “Slow Down” (Netherlands 2015) over the words “can’t go” at the end of the choruses, though that one substitutes for a D7 chord, the V7 chord in G major (the key of the choruses in that song) instead of the tonic. Examples of both can be found below:
Chords can be extended and/or have notes added to them. With extensions, notes are added to seventh chords by stacking more thirds. For example, a V9 chord has the same notes as a V7 on the bottom, but with an extra ninth on top. They are not particularly relevant except to differentiate extended chords from added-tone chords, the focus of current discussion.
Added-tone chords depend on the addition of notes without regard to stacking thirds. The most common added tone in popular is the major sixth to a major chord, and it is called a(n added) sixth chord. Examples which use this chord include the fifth chord in the introduction to Ry Cooder’s “Chloe” and the beginning chord of The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill”. Another increasingly common added tone is the fourth to both major and minor. An example in popular music includes the bolded lyrics in PVRIS’ “White House”: “you’re a cold air creeping…”. In the choral world, Eurovision Choir 2017 host Eric Whitacre is known for using added-tone sonorities – chords with multiple extra notes – to create the intrigue within. In his song “Lux Aurumque”, the bass 1 (high bass, up = high) and soprano 2 (low soprano) sing the fourth over a G♯m chord, and the soprano 1 (high soprano) sings the fourth over a B (major) chord at 1:56. There are other intricate added-tone harmonies inside, but for the sake of clarity and overlap, the added fourth will be the focus here.
The following clip highlights the fourth with the synthesizer sound. The first four sounds are the two pairs of fourths one after the other: first for the major chord with 4th added, then for the minor chord with 4th added. Then, the synth plays the corresponding 4th whenever it occurs in the relevant areas.
Non-Chord Tones: Passing tones, Neighbor tones
While the majority of in music since the 18th century contains sounds that make up a chord, there are other pitches (not unpitched drums) that do not fit into the chord’s implied set of pitches. Suspensions in the Common Practice Period style are examples of such non-chord tones, as the suspension is by definition a delay before reaching the intended target.
Other non-chord tones exist. Two that also occur relatively frequently are passing tones and neighbor tones, and they are similar. Kristian Kostov’s “Beautiful Mess” (Bulgaria 2017) has both in the verses. An excerpt will be given with suspensions bolded and italicized, passing tones bolded, and neighbor tones italicized:
Fear of tomorrow, feelings we borrow for a time
Water so deep, how do we breathe? How do we climb?
So we stay in this mess, this beautiful mess tonight“Beautiful Mess”, Kristian Kostov (emphasis author’s)
The passing tones, signified by the bolded (non-italic) text are surrounded by two other syllables. They are either both chord tones (“to-” and “we” in the first line; “this” in the last) or are connected to a suspension that then changes to a chord tone. The notes either go upwards or downwards without changing direction, and the beginning and end notes are both chord tones. The middle note, which is not a chord tone, is thus sung in passing to smooth the transition between the two notes. These notes are also next to each other; that is, mi fa sol over a chord centered around do has passing tone fa but do fa sol does not have a passing tone because there is a jump between do and fa.
On the other side are neighbor tones, found on the word “a” in the first line and “do” in the second. On both sides of these words, the same chord tone is hit. Neighbor tones are thus non-chord tones that border a chord tone but go straight back to the tone. In solfège, mi fa mi over a chord centered around do has neighbor tone fa, but mi la mi sol has no neighbor tone, as la isn’t touching mi.
In the intro of “True North”, the soprano 1 and soprano 2 combine to form a flowing set of seven notes which when taken together include two passing tones and one neighbor tone. The second passing tone can also be considered an anticipation, as the note is part of the next chord that comes right after.
The following sound clip highlights this seven-note line in the trumpets, with the piano playing the other sounds. The passing tones occur on the second and fourth notes, and the neighbor tone occurs on the fifth note. Note how the trumpet line continues downward, dips at the neighbor tone, and then returns to the previous note.
Voice Motion: Basic Counterpoint with a Modern Twist
Before harmony based on chords existed, composers sought ways to make multiple notes sound “good” with each other based on the conventions of the day. While multiple music theorists have codified their observations throughout the centuries, Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum remains the most well-known work on writing counterpoint, or making two vocalists or similar sound good together while keeping their music interdependent – the musical equivalent of a good conversation or a partner dance scene in La La Land. While both parties may end up saying or doing the same thing simultaneously at times, the parties build upon each other to create a good social experience.
Within any text on counterpoint, contrapuntal motion – how any two voices move relative to each other – will be discussed. There are four types:
- Parallel motion: if one voice moves, the other moves in the exact same way and interval. Perhaps the most popular usage is in rock, where power chords, which involve the root and fifth of each chord, are played one by one. The interval between the notes, a fifth, stays the same. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple is one of the most famous examples of parallel fifths, fifths because of the interval and parallel because of the type of motion that would jokingly make the composer J.S. Bach kill a kitten.
However, since power chords and similar are intended to be played as a unit, not independently, the power chords are more accurately described as doubled fifths. Doubling an interval (usually fifths and octaves) gives already-existing sounds further presence and is often employed in large-scale orchestral works. See here for further explanation.
- Similar/direct motion: If the voices are moving in the same direction but do not keep the same interval between, they are moving in similar motion. An example is Paganini’s “Caprice No. 9 in E major”, which in the first 1.5 or so seconds moves from mi and sol down to a lower mi and do at the end of the motif to be repeated.
- Contrary motion: If the voices are moving in opposite directions – either inward or outward – that is called contrary motion. In this cheeky demonstration by June Lee, known for transcribing jazz musician Jacob Collier’s works, the highest and lowest notes move away from each other starting from the fifth chord onward.
- Oblique motion: if one voice is staying put, but another is moving toward or away from the first, oblique motion has happened. For example, the drawn-out strings in the James Bond theme, starting from around 0:04, feature movement in the higher strings while the lower strings and tuba play the same note.
In “True North”’s intro, the lowest voices move in parallel due to doubling concerns. The intervallic distance between each low voice does not change, even as the voices move up and down. In the following clip, do the relationships between the notes sound different or uniform?
On the other hand, the descent in the combined soprano 1 and 2 line creates a blend of oblique and contrary motion between it and most voices, most noticeably the alto voice. This allows for motion towards musical objectives such as melodic smoothness and tonal fusion, which according to a guide on voice-leading indicates that the notes played at the same time should sound good together. The second point about tonal fusion has been extended through 20th- and 21st-century musical developments to include all sevenths, as well as extended and added-tone harmonies. In the following clip, the alto and soprano lines will be played simultaneously. The 2nd, 4th, and 6th through 8th notes in the soprano line, as well as the final alto (low female) note move without the other voice moving; all other parts involve contrary motion.
The contrasting movements between the higher and lower voices – the latter which form a more block chord, or rhythmically identical chord movement, style shown by the doubled voicings – emanate an aura of vocal mystery: contrary motion found hundreds of years ago, when paired with the interwoven added-tone chords and reinforced low-frequency foundations of today, produce a musical product that can survive into the future.
Vocal Line was placed against nine highly decorated choirs throughout Europe and came out on top. The original source material combined synths and electronic percussion with acoustic guitars and an orchestra. To translate this into a choral work, the arranger had to make do with the vocalists available in the choir while still providing intrigue within the song’s presentation live. Going through the first eight bars of the song and their execution, Fris-Ronsfeld and the choir already provided enough intrigue to persuade the judges to lead them to the final round. In the next article, the rest of the song’s live performance will be studied – in particular the layering and percussive aspects of the song – and see how the vehicle of song carried the group to the European Choir Games.
Image Source: Rógvi N. Johansen, 2015, Vocal Line website