Covering the Content: Rhythmic A Cappella Choir Arrangement Found True North


In early August, amateur choirs from 10 different countries competed in the second biennial Eurovision Choir competition, hosted in Gothenburg. 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. In this article, changes such as:

  • Changing the soloist voice type;
  • Dynamic contrasts;
  • Percussive beatboxing; and
  • The ending

will be shown to have had an immense effect on the impact of “True North”’s performance in front of the audience and judges.

Soloist Change

The most apparent difference between the two versions of Vocal Line’s studio and live version was the change in soloist. This is a known practice among larger modern/pop a cappella groups, as soloists may be substituted at any time due to personnel, vocal type, and group sound variance throughout the group’s lifespan. The studio version features one baritone (moderately low-pitched male) soloist throughout despite the music video showing more than one person mouthing the words. Lower vocalists tend to emit a darker tone. The below playlist has three different versions of the same Italian aria (solo vocal piece with accompaniment). As the pitch of the singers lowers, the vocal quality becomes heavier and the overall sound darker.

Three versions of the aria “Vittoria mio core”. The singers are a soprano, a tenor, and a baritone, respectively.

The decision to change soloists may also have been informed by the availability of a studio environment and mix. Mixing techniques and an instrument’s closeness to the microphone could bring out the soloist’s sound more compared to the other vocal sections. From 0:56 to 1:22, for instance, the soloist is louder than the altos doubling the octave in the first part and about as loud as the rest of the choir singing in the second half. This is much harder to achieve without the availability of acoustically isolated electronics. For example, at around 3:53 in this performance of Gwyneth Walker’s version of “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down”, the soloist’s lowest note is harder to discern than all other notes. Another thing that would have been impossible to create live was the possibly twice-recorded soloist: once for the solo and again as part of the bass section.

To counter the change in venue and performance medium, Vocal Line had to adjust to a different strategy to produce the greatest effect live. Having a female soloist solved some of the issues stemming from two major reasons:

  • There were more female singers in the group. At the live performance, there were 18 female singers and 8 male singers. Having one female vocalist to sing solo leaves 17 other female singers to cover the remaining vocal lines. Usage of a male vocalist would likely dramatically reduce the amount of low-pitched foundation upon which the choir could build. The foundational tones can be essential to the identity of a song, and this holds across genres and instrumentation, as songs without bass may lack their identifying features.
  • Higher frequencies are generally much easier to perceive than other frequencies, especially bass frequencies. The ISO equal-loudness chart shows how loud a sound actually is relative to how it is perceived by the human auditory system. According to this chart and scientific loudness guidelines, a normal conversation, perceived at 60 dB, would actually be around 62-70 dB for most speakers regardless of gender, but bass and especially sub-bass (sub-woofer range) frequencies perceived at 60 dB may actually be upwards of 100 dB, which would actually damage hearing permanently after 15 minutes of continuous listening.

The result of these changes was a less bass-heavy performance than in the studio version, but also clarity in the solo part due to human hearing perception.

Dynamic Contrasts Between Versions and Percussive Beatboxing

The change from studio to live gave the group a chance to showcase dynamic contrasts and the choir’s flavor of percussive beatboxing. Tina Dico’s original version depended on the layering of all the instruments to create dynamic contrast, or fluctuations in volume throughout the song. While this is true of both of Vocal Line’s versions, a choir has to depend on the ability of its members to execute uniform crescendos (cruh-SHEN-dohz) and decrescendos – volume increases and decreases while performing, respectively – in order to grab the audience’s attention. Dynamics are a staple in the expressive vocabulary of music, in particular classical music and its descendants.

As stated in the previous discussion on soloist change, lower sounds generally require more actual volume in order to sound at the same loudness. This has dynamic consequences for the studio version – as the baritone soloist must sing louder to be heard, the combination of all audible voices must also be louder on average when compared with the usage of a higher-pitched solo. The production of the studio track, which favored clarity and consistency in all parts throughout the recording, including the full-range vocal percussion, also favored dynamic compression (a reduction in dynamic contrast), which as shown in this demonstration is a common feature for modern percussion production. Indeed, upon using the TT Dynamic Range Meter, which generally measures the difference between the loudest parts of a song and the average loudness throughout, the live version achieved a rating of 11 dB of contrast, while the studio version achieved a dynamic contrast of 8 dB.

What the percussion and ambience do and do not do across the two Vocal Line versions also plays a role in the dynamic contrast. In the studio version, the added wind sounds, which go along with the lyrics in the song, also contributed to the increased sound level. On the other hand, no sound effects were added to the live version, but the microphones in the Scandinavium also captured the natural ambience around the singers’ voices, giving an inherently airy quality to a sound that was adjusted for the live and television audiences.

The greater dynamic space for the choirs to show their dynamics, as was most apparent from 1:53-1:56, 2:12-2:20, and 2:26-2:50 in this YouTube version of their live performance. The corresponding sections in the studio version – 2:31-2:37, 2:53-3:02, and 3:09-3:33, respectively (different timestamps due to necessary contest edits) – do not illustrate the same dynamic contrast.

A reduction in low vocals and increase in high vocals beyond just the soloist also factored into the greater dynamic contrast. For example, in the section starting at 1:27 live (2:07 in studio), the bass drum beatboxers were singing the root notes as they beatboxed, but the notes were far less prolonged live than in the studio cut, which allowed the sopranos more space to shine on the note at 1:56, a G5, which was higher than the D5 at 2:37 in the studio cut. The live bass cut from 2:26-2:35, furthermore, changed the chord quality from the original E♭maj9 to a B♭6 chord, the latter which contains all the notes besides the root E♭. In other words, the chord substitution stemming from the removal of the bass parts added more harmonic variety.

Focusing on the beatboxer parts solely, the beginning of the beatboxing parts, at 0:56 live (0:58 studio), provide a lot of dark and reverberant ambience, which fits with the imagery in the first verse. The drums are sparse and sound like this:

Beginning Verse Pattern. The beatboxed part for most of the section. “X” and “x” represent when the instrument sound hits,with capitalization as accent. B = bass drum, S = snare drum, and R = a reverberant reverse cymbal, which effectively creates a whoosh-like swell.

After the beginning part, the beatbox speeds up, and the bass drum uses a four-to-the-floor rhythm pattern that hits on every beat. The high-pitched percussion, likely meant to emulate hi-hat cymbals, generally follow one of two patterns, both of which are shown below. A MIDI representation is also given.

Second Verse Main Patterns. The first pattern starts off conventionally but then branches off into a syncopated rhythm. In pattern 2, the beat pattern is first reversed and then played as-is during the second pattern. This MIDI sequence shows and plays the beatbox pattern shown above.

The ending has its own rhythmic patterns, but it also contains other harmonic information not previously mentioned, so the following section will be dedicated to just the ending.

The Ending

Throughout the song, the vocal lines interwoven with rhythmically contrasting harmonies combined to form an engaging whole. However, the ending, beginning around 2:50 live and 3:32 in studio, brings everything together in a fulfilling climax. The section begins with three parts singing the song title in different octaves, though the same note. Underneath, in the studio version, the bass and beatboxers sing a syncopated rhythm that also involves a 4-on-3 polyrhythm, where 4 notes are sung by the basses over 3 beats. This can be heard here (hi-hat rhythm kept from live version, bass drum added for more emphasis on the low end). The tenors also make a slower 4-on-3 polyrhythm, illustrated here:

Illustration of the polyrhythm in the tenor line. 3-beat groupings are set on top of measures of four beats. The shaded-in notes, called quarter notes, are one beat, while the notes without shading, called half-notes, are two beats. They are called this because 4 quarter notes or 2 half notes make up one measure.

The combination of those parts is posted here in MIDI format for audio purposes.

The execution of this sequence was slightly altered during the live performance in order to facilitate keeping the beat steady. In particular, the bass polyrhythm was changed to a non-polyrhythmic syncopation with a pickup note into the next measure, as well as extra pickup notes throughout the tenor line. A mock-up of the live version’s instrumentation can be heard here.

At 3:05 live (4:03 in studio), the beat that was in half-time feel, which made the song feel like it was half as fast, changed to a normal 4/4 rock beat. This doubled the frequency of snare beatbox hits; instead of hitting on the 3rd beat of every measure of 4, the snare would hit on the 2nd and 4th beats of every measure.

In the studio version, the other instrumentalists mentioned in this section kept their parts generally stable with the exception of the bass part, which added fills from 4:09-4:11 and 4:25-4:26. This can be heard live from 3:11-3:12 and 3:25-3:27 as well. However, while the cymbal beatboxing was still audible in the studio version, the explosive snare drum sound rendered any such beatboxing inaudible in the live performance. The beatboxers changed the snare drum syllable “k” to something like a strongly aspirated “poom” – after the “p” sound, the breath before the “oo” was audible for longer, and the snare hits had pitches after the initial “p”, not dissimilar to the effect of a boomwhacker. The explosive impact gave the climax of the song even more impact live alongside the soprano descant, an extra high vocal line that embellishes an existing melody. The descant rose to the Soprano C at 3:33, but was not featured in the studio recording.

After the explosive climax, the outro rushed in, beckoning the beatboxing from the beginning section before giving way completely to a homophonic texture, where all the voices that supported the soloist moved in lockstep. The final interesting part lies in the final chord. The studio version adds low notes that are not attempted in the live version, but in both of them, the choir’s swell produced pronounced overtones, quieter notes that also sound when people play most instruments. The Sources and Resources section has examples of overtones on guitar and with the voice. The overtone scale, the set of overtones for any particular note, includes notes whose frequencies are multiples of the original note. On a solfège scale, going from a do up to a high do like the “Do-Re-Mi” song results in the doubling of the frequency from the beginning.

In the studio version, one overtone – C6 – seems to appear, and that note is a part of the overtone scale of the low C in the bass. Due to the recording acoustics, the choir’s recorded sound focuses on the fundamental pitch (the named note) at the expense of further harmonic information. That is not so in the live recording. The venue’s rich acoustic properties allowed for the high notes to shimmer in the previous moments, and at the climax, the C6 appears, but also a B5 harmonic, which is the result of the fourth overtone, or the fifth harmonic. The choir was singing in such a way that their collective power produced a note that they didn’t even sing, and from years of experience in a choral setting, that is one of the marks of a good choir.

What’s next?

Vocal Line sought to be a “front runner in the development of [rhythmic a capella] choir music nationally as well as internationally.” From the complexities shown within the beatboxing parts and even other vocal parts, the rhythmic focus has been shown to have held, particularly at Eurovision Choir. Combined with their 21st-century harmonies, their future could even be as a bridge between church choral singing, which was the original foundation of the genre in the West, and the popular music of today, which has combined the musical vocabulary of people around the world.

Eurovision and Junior Eurovision seasons are coming soon. Keep watching for shorter features about songs as they come out!

Sources and Resources

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