by Chuck Israels

Lesson 16 - Writing for 4 or More Voices (Cont.)

Adding More Voices (Cont.):


There is no way that line thickening harmony can overcome shortcomings in the melody, so the first level of attention should address this issue. The melodic line should contain enough repetition to be coherent and establish the expectations that prepare for developmental surprises. These repetitive elements need to be apparent in both pitch and rhythm and then need to be manipulated so that there is enough new material to maintain interest and variety without going over the line into chaos. If there is a given melody, the most effective element that the arranger can work with is its rhythm. Balancing expectation and surprise in the beginnings and endings of phrases can change a boring melody into an interesting one.

Lead sheets are notorious for the limited rhythmic representation of their melodies, and it is a safe bet that changing the rhythms is the first and most important step in creating a personal version of a piece. Here are some hints:

  • Remember: the rhythms of jazz are the rhythms of the English language as spoken by Americans, and more specifically, as it is sung by those American popular singers who have modeled a large part of their styles, consciously or unconsciously, on Louis Armstrong’s monumental creative legacy. If you want to be inspired to write ensemble rhythms that create an illusion of evolving spontaneously from the music, there is no better example than the way Joe Williams controls the rhythmic placement and phrasing of his singing (some of which is so subtle that it defies notation).

  • If the melody is from a song with words, then the way the words are normally spoken, their prosody, can suggest a variety of rhythms that enliven the music. If the words change, usually the rhythms with which they are spoken change too, adding more variety. If there is a memorable title line, it is counterproductive to give the music that goes with that line a rhythm that would be unnatural if spoken. Every time that line appears in an instrumental version, the listener is subconsciously hearing those words, and they must line up with a rational speech-like interpretation, or the result is distracting. This is somewhat less true with more obscure words, but sticking to spoken rhythm logic can lead to attractive syncopation as the spoken rhythm is juxtaposed against the steady underpinning of the accompanying background. A lot of mileage can be extracted from this trick, and new rhythms can even be found by mentally adding words to instrumental passages and phrases.

  • Once the lead line has been arranged, and a key has been chosen that puts it within the range of the lead instrument in a register that will be appropriate for a harmonized version (for instance, the lower notes of the alto saxophone are below a practical range for adding parallel harmony), examine its main notes to see how they relate to the changing harmonies. Look for important occurrences of either the roots or 5ths of chords. Those are the notes that should be harmonized first.

  • Analyze the harmony to see what chord qualities predominate, and make an assessment about the character of the passage; rhythmically active, slow and sensual, bluesy, etc., and choose a suitable harmonic style. Active passages usually move more smoothly with less complex harmony and often need octave doubling for melodic clarity. The harmonic interest comes more from the chromaticism in the passing chords than it does from individual voicings. Slower passages can handle more complex sounds, and sometimes more open voicings. Closed voicings obscure the movement of individual parts while open voicings make the voice leading of lower parts more apparent. Parallel motion should be the predominant texture (to keep the music swinging) with occasional short passages of contrary motion for contrast.

Then the real fun starts, and it’s something like doing a crossword puzzle. The chords built downwards from the melody are the down words, and the horizontal lines in each part are the across words. However, there’s an essential difference: horizontal always trumps vertical, - always! The best results come from the best individual lines. There is no exception to this. It is the way our ears and brains process music. Even when we are not conscious of the individual contours of the lower parts, we experience the vertical alignments as momentary instances of the convergence of horizontal lines. Invariably, the best harmonies come as a result of satisfying lines in all the parts. Remember this, and avoid falling too much in love with vertical sounds that last a short time in a passage, lest that infatuation prevent you from hearing the voice leading clearly and evaluating its priorities correctly. Don’t worry. Good voice leading produces good chords! (This is another “Music Fact”.)

This is another instance where the piano can be misleading in its similarity of sound in all registers and parts, and in its ability to hide entrances and exits of voices. Winds and bowed string sounds behave quite differently, and care must be exercised when using the piano to test passages written for these instruments. Even a keyboard with organ-like sounds will not demonstrate entrances and exits of voices as clearly as they will be heard in a group of individual instruments. When I have come to the point where I think I have finished writing a passage in four or five voice harmony at the piano, I pick out each individual part, from the top down, and check it for melodic coherence and balance, and I sometimes find errors hidden in the sonority of the piano chords.

Music writing software and Garritan sounds can be useful in counteracting the blur of keyboard sounds in testing line thickened passages. Once the passage has been entered into separate parts, individual lower voices can be played back alone, or in conjunction with only the lead voice, in order to hear the voice leading and judge the effectiveness of each part.

Here is a short excerpt from a sax ensemble section that demonstrates some of these techniques.

The example is shown first in a transposed score.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Here is a condensed version and analysis of this excerpt:
Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

Remember to consider the contour of the lower parts. This style requires that they remain subservient to the lead voice, and that means that their intervallic movement must not be noticeably greater than that of the lead voice. If those intervals are kept within the span of no more than a minor third greater than the movement of the lead voice, that will satisfy most arrangers. In the case of my music, when I want the maximum forward motion, I am usually more rigorous in my insistence that the lower parts move no further than the lead part and that they move by equal or smaller intervals whenever possible. In other words, the shape outlined by the lower parts is a more compact version of the shape outlined by the lead voice. There is usually a solution that can be found that will satisfy this requirement, but it sometimes takes time. Bill Evans said that when he found two equally good ways to harmonize a passage, then he knew he had yet to find a more satisfying third way.

In some cases, it is possible to apply mechanical formulas that will produce acceptable results, but a personal and individual style takes time to develop, and the application of that style to complex passages can consume hours of an arranger’s time.

Here is an example of a saxophone ensemble that shows a variety of techniques: 5 note voicings, short passages of contrary motion, and how to move in and out of unison passages.
(A concert score reduction follows the two next examples.)

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

N. B. – When moving from a harmonized passage to a unison passage, the most graceful transition takes place when the preceding chord does not contain the first unison note and, conversely, when going from unison to harmony the most graceful transition occurs when the following chord does not contain the last unison note.

Here is an example of the same material arranged for a small band with 5 horns.

The trumpet now plays the soprano sax part, and the trombone plays what was the second tenor part. The choice of putting the trombone below the tenor was made, in this case, because the original tenor 1 part was too high for the trombone. This choice can often go the other way in passages with this instrumentation with the trombone as the 3rd voice and the tenor and baritone as the bottom two voices, as long as the 3rd voice stays below A or B flat above middle C.

What were originally brass parts are now played by the piano, which can assume a more effective and prominent role in an ensemble of this size than it normally has in a big band.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

Click on Play Button below to Play from the Score

There are 45 harmonized notes in this excerpt, each one with 4 pitch choices in each chord. That makes 180 notes to choose for this relatively short (though complex) passage. A mathematician could come up with a formula for how those variables change as some of those notes are selected, but it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that the process is painstaking and difficult, or to realize why this line thickening technique occupies so much of the arranger’s time and attention.

Here is a condensed “short score” version of the passage with notations that help direct attention to the techniques and principles used in each instance.

Some of the active principles in operations are:
  • Harmonizing roots and 5ths in the lead line with the real chord of the moment.
  • Using a related dominant chord (marked with asterisks) whose root is a minor 3rd from the real chord when the voicing is “open” and the lead line note is either the 3rd or 7th of the real chord.
  • Compressing or expanding voicings according to the range of the lead line or the need to manage voice leading.
  • Chromatic planing whenever notes are approached by half step.
  • Using dominant approach chord(s) that lead to the main chord of the moment.
  • Constant structure (completely parallel) passages that create interesting momentary chromatic conflicts.
  • Harmonizing anticipations with the chord that belongs on the following beat.
  • Substitute dominant chords containing essential pitches from the basic harmony of the measure (meas. 6).
  • Use of interjected secondary dominant or subdominant harmony in order to maintain tension and interest by delaying the arrival of the real dominant chord of the moment (meas. 7 – 10).
  • Occasional use of interesting contrary motion.
  • No adjustment of bass notes to accommodate substitute, passing, or approach harmonies that last less than 2 full beats.
  • No duplication of pitches in chords – 5 voice texture maintained except for one instance, governed by contrary motion voice leading priorities. Passing octave approached in contrary motion (meas. 10, 3rd beat).

This passage is arranged in a complex personal style using a 5-voice texture throughout. The problems of this kind of line thickening can be considerably simplified by doubling the lead at the lower octave, reducing the texture to 4 real voices

Example 9-13 (score only)

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Coming Next Lesson: Lesson 17 - Writing for 4 or More Voices (Cont.)