Some Old Guys Singing

Posted: December 9, 2009 in Braak
Tags: , ,

Jeanine and I went to a concert last night.  I’m not going to say who it was, because it is apparently well-respected, and you only get to be a regular audience member if you’re recommended by someone else.  We got tickets from Jeanine’s godmother and while I’m pretty sure that the 95% old guy audience wouldn’t know the internet from a series of tubes in the ground, I’m still hedging my bets.

We went to a concert where a bunch of old guys were singing holiday songs. It wasn’t very good, so we left at intermission.  I am NOT going to review the concert.  I am instead going to talk about music.

Caveat:  I know nothing about music.  My mind is still blown from when I discovered that the C Major scale and the A Minor scale are all the same notes.

Instead, I’m going to look at a concert like this from an idiot’s perspective, and try to reconstruct some ideas about music theory on my own.  Let me know how close I get.

This is what I see:  65 old men, singing together.  Jeanine tells me that their stops aren’t “crisp,” and I don’t know what that means, so I try and listen for something that could mean that.  It’s true, now that she’s mentioned it, that when they get to the end of a lyric, or any other place where there might be a pause, you can hear them all stopping at slightly different times, leaving a kind of weird susurrus in those empty spaces.

Why should that be displeasing, though?  Why should my ear have accommodated in such a way that this sounds weird, but crisp endings would have sounded better?

I don’t know, but from here, it looks like there’s really only two things that a chorus can do that are remotely interesting:  1) Sing exactly the same thing.  2)  Sing exactly different things.

I figure there’s got to be some good stuff that you can do with singing exactly the same thing.  65 guys is a lot of guys, you can make a pretty serious chord with that.  If you wanted to, you could make all of those weird chords, like C minor 9, or G augmented 13, and still have them be really powerful sounding things, because you’ve got ten guys singing the 9th, instead of just that one string on the guitar.

The thing about singing the same thing, though, is that I figure it’s got to be kind of boring, right?  Even when you’re learning new songs and all that, once you get used to the intervals, you always know you if the tenor to your left is singing the tonic, you need to be singing the fifth, or whatever.  And training your voice to sing different notes–I don’t know for sure, but I figure it’s got to be easier than learning to play an instrument, since using your “fingers on guitar strings” is basically bleeding-edge of finger design specs, and “making different notes in an order” is what your voice was designed for.

So, it stands to reason that you’d get bored with singing the same thing, and you’d want to sing different things–what I’m thinking of as “intricate harmonies.”  With sixty-five guys, you should be able to do some insanely intricate stuff.  The only reason you wouldn’t do that is because you were an old guy, and boring.

And, sure enough, the acapella group from the university comes out, and they sing intricate harmonies, even though there’s only 16 of them.  Is it easier in a smaller group?  I don’t know.

Assuming that my “everyone does the same thing is boring” theory is correct, that should, culturally speaking, also lead to musical instruments, right? Instruments provide a variety of timbre that voices don’t, so if you posit human artistic invention as the continual pursuit of the new, you’d think there just wouldn’t be that many choirs around.

I guess that there aren’t really that many choirs, comparatively.  And the acapella groups that you see nowadays, one of the things that’s interesting about them is that they attempt to recreate the timbre of instruments with their voices–a sort of all the way back around attempt at finding interest.

So, if you figure that anywhere there is a tradition of choral music, there must also be some kind of element limiting or requiring or demanding choral music as opposed to instrumental music.  I know those Sacred Harp guys in Appalachia use music as a kind of worship, and don’t believe in instrumentation.  Those Gregorian monks do kind of the same thing, right? Probably because of poverty, I’d assume.  Instruments can get expensive, especially if you have a lot of people, which is maybe why you see church choirs more often than you see church orchestras.

Although, from a religious perspective, everyone singing the same thing–modifying pitch and tone and even inflection all at the same time–that’s got to be evocative.  We talk about God’s word, and the Voice of God, so it stands to reason that there’d be a desire to emulate a kind of gigantic voice–a super-voice made out of the sum of many lesser voices.

Until it got boring, and you started wanting to do intricate harmonies, just for the heck of it.  If you listen to people who are singing exactly different things, though, one of the things that you notice is that they sometimes sing the same thing at once–like two sine waves moving in and out of phase.

This is fascinating to me from my Stochastic Aesthetics perspective; you can only appreciate difference in comparison to sameness.  The identical touchstones are what stop sixteen guys from singing four different parts from just sounding like noise.  And, here’s what’s cool–at almost any given moment, sixteen guys are singing notes that are different from each other.  But over time, any given moment of song is also different–both with regards to what notes are being sung, and ALSO with regards to whether or not those notes are oppositional.

Anyway, I figure that you’d see complex harmonies in a few places:  1) among the young, who have a lower tolerance for tedium. 2) When monks have had too much to drink.  3)  In Russia, because the colder it is, the harder it is to play the violin.

I guess this explains Whiffenpoofs, the Carmina Burana, and that TERRIFYING Christmas sleigh song the old men sang.  (Ha ha ha, he he he, they sing, and talk about going for a joyful sleigh ride, only it’s all in A minor, and it sounds like the joyful part is the part where the angry Russian man comes to your house and hits you in the face with an axe.)

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    “I guess this explains Whiffenpoofs” is a sentence I never thought I’d see.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Oh no, are “The King’s Singers” losing their touch? The only exclusive advantage other instruments have over voice, is the ability to play multiple notes at once; even then, a choir can be thought of as one, big, pipe organ of an instrument.

    If you ever get a chance, listen to vespers and compline in a monestary that allows restricted public access to it. There’s a place in Spencer, MA that does this. “Place” has much to do with the quality of the music or performance, too.

  3. braak says:

    I’ve heard big pipe organs before. I don’t much care for the sound of them.

    Also, what about trumpets? Or flutes? Or piccolos or bassoons or sousaphones? Can’t those only play one note at a time?

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:


    Stringed instruments are the coolest, anyway.

  5. Barbara Newberry says:

    You can’t play multiple notes on traditional band instruments; however, you can play in harmony with yourself (but it is very difficult to do). You can hum the melody, and play the harmony on your instrument at the same time. It’s very difficult to do – takes lots of practice (I can’t do it except to blurt out some horrible sounding pitch and squawk out some barely tolerable sound on the instrument of choice (usually clarinet).

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    @Barbara: That whole process sounds like it should cause nosebleeds.

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:


  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I’m sorry! Disable the hotlink!

  9. braak says:

    Man, VIP, you are just striking out today. WHERE IS THE BEATBOXING FLUTE GUY’S INSPECTOR GADGET THEME!?!?!?

    Oh, here it is.

  10. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …or embedded link.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    @ Me: Stupid, stupid, stupid! Nice job, smoothie. Now they’re all going to laugh at you–“THEY’RE ALL GOING TO LAUGH AT YOU!”

    @ Everyone else: Ach, I’ve been cast-off. And Braak is SOOO mean. Also, what theme song is tucked into that “Inspector Gadget” mix?

  12. braak says:

    I believe it’s the Beverly Hills Cop theme.

    Also, don’t worry. We’re not laughing at you any more than we usually laugh at Holland.

  13. Jeff Holland says:

    Who done what now?

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