Minor Acoustic Singing

I really like vocal music. I don’t know how varied/developed my taste actually is, since I don’t know many people with this in common to share new things with. I like a cappella, madrigals, sea chanties and folk music. According to Pandora, these are some elements I like:

folk roots/influences, acoustic sonority, intricate melodic phrasing, minor key tonality, interweaving vocal harmony, heavy use of vocal harmonies, and a good dose of acoustic guitar pickin’.

As you may be able to guess, when rolled together, this makes a sound that is apparently pretty unpopular with anyone who asks me for recommendations of what they play next. Of course, I have other kinds of music I like, but the style I’m talking about here is definitely one of my favorites. Unfortunately that and the sea chanties suggestions has gotten me banned from recommending things in most circles.

Here is one of my top favorite musicians (and inspiration :), Cindy Mangsen, playing a song in the same vein as my favorites from her:

Although these types of minor-key songs certainly get a bit gloomy after a while, I really like the ballad style and the lonesome sound. According to my reading, I think this is the “intricate melodic phrasing,” where the musician tweaks the music slightly to make it more expressive. Very minimal accompaniment and soulful singing that tells a story. A similar song by a different artist:

I guess one of the reasons I like these is because listening to these transports me (like a good book does) to the place the story is about, or at the very least to a drafty stone hall in a castle while a lone minstrel captivates the audience. With most other kinds of music it’s “some music” to listen to and enjoy, where I think these reach a different level of storytelling. They don’t have to be ballads.

I just discovered a trio of men whose sound I quite like: Coope, Boyes & Simpson: The Cuckoo and John Barleycorn. I like accordion (in this kind of application) and acoustic guitar (probably a result of my dad playing things like John Barleycorn and Greensleeves when I was little), but apparently I can do completely without percussion, because most pieces I like most don’t have any.

I really like harmony like on that rendition of John Barleycorn, everyone moving separately to make an awesome sound. I would guess that’s the “interweaving vocal harmony” listed on Pandora’s analysis. I love hearing the bass line of an arrangement emerge at points under the rest of the harmony like that. Most of the songs on the album Never Grow Old I love, but Evening Shade and Richmond on the James have the highest play counts in my entire iTunes library by a pretty good margin. Evening Shade has that same sort of bass harmony that sort of emerges underneath – sadly I don’t have the music vocabulary to describe it better. I guess Richmond on the James is sort of in-between, mostly just Cindy singing, but with some harmony too. Two of my favorite pieces that I’ve sung in choir have been Turtle Dove and I Love My Love by Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gustav Holst respectively.


The fact that these songs deal primarily with love and violence/death probably does not encourage my friends to let me play them in company. ^_^;

Since joining the little choir (~8 people) for the early service at church, I’ve been learning to sing alto because we don’t have any real altos. I like the challenge, although sometimes I feel like there is something to the joke about sopranos being too dumb to sing anything other than the melody. :/ I’ve always admired the harmony parts for doing their own things while still matching the melody though, so I feel like I’m learning quite a lot and being forced to pay more attention to what I’m doing. Plus the altos (such as we are) have to sing out more purposely and listen better, which is helping me get stronger. It’s so cool that they can sing a completely different set of notes from the sopranos but it still combines beautifully!

If you like any of this kind of music, or have helpful comments, please share them with me so I can learn and expand my horizons and vocabulary in this area. I’d really like to get better with this!

Edit: Kitty has pointed out that some of these may be modal rather than minor: “The modal sound may be part of what gives the piece the strong feeling of belonging to another time and place, since there is very little popular modern music that is not major or minor.” I don’t know how to identify that by ear and tend to forget that anybody actually uses the other options, but that’s cool to know.

6 Responses to “Minor Acoustic Singing”

  1. Peggy
    | Reply

    I completely agree that the harmonies are a lot more difficult to sing, but so much more impressive. When I used to play clarinet in the church “orchestra” with my family, when I got the chance to sing I used to try to follow along with the harmonies, but could never do it. My mom has this amazing ability to come up with a harmony for a song as she sings, which I just find incredible. Fortunately, she says it’s not some kind of innate ability, but just comes with lots of practice. :)

    I wonder, does Neil Young ever show up on your Pandora stations? I guess he’s pretty different, but his eerie acoustic ballads remind me of the some of the musical traits that Pandora lists under your likes.

    • ellen
      | Reply

      I admire those people who can come up with harmony spontaneously too, and I can believe that a lot of it is practice and knowledge of how harmonies work.

      I don’t think any of Neil Young’s songs have come up, but I’m still trying to train my Pandora stations and I’ve been having trouble because the database doesn’t have a lot of my favorites. I think I’ve enjoyed Crosby, Stills, & Nash when it’s come up, so I’ll give him a try both with them and on his own. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Justin
    | Reply

    Hmmmm, I really liked the linked songs (the 1st one the most). I totally understand what you mean by feeling like you can transport yourself to a castle, feeling what it would be like to listen to a bard. There’s something entrancing with songs like these. I totally respect this style :)

    As for the sopranos being “too dumb” to sing anything but the melody…well, all they get is the melody! They have no chance to sing harmony and develop that skill. Is that their fault? Not at all! I blame the composers…but well, having any other voice range sing the melody sounds weird. It works in certain cases, but sopranos and tenors usually get something. Poor basses….:( I’m not sure what the altos get, but the songs I have sang in choir make me believe that they get more harmonies than the other groups (tenor alternates, but still) But this is just my small experience. I could be TOTALLY wrong on that.

    But some day I’m going to sing harmonies. I’m working up that skill a little right now, and hopefully I’ll be able to attack it head on soon. So if you find any tips and tricks, send them my way! :)

    • ellen
      | Reply

      I’m glad to hear you understand what I mean! When you say the first song linked, do you mean “Two Sisters,” or “The Cuckoo”?

      I was doing some reading about harmony recently, and it sounds like in addition to tradition, the basses may sing the part that they do because of physics – their wavelengths are longer so everyone else’s wavelengths “fit inside” – I’m not sure that I understood it correctly, but that was my interpretation. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that sopranos would sing the melody – they have the smallest wavelengths and since they’re on top of everybody else, the melody is easier to pick out of the mix. As far as “poor basses” goes… Wise Guys have a few songs about the matter. I think they manage to find some enjoyment in it.

      My understanding of the way choral harmony traditionally works is that the basses generally sing the root of the chord (the letter the chord is named after), and everybody else sings any of the other notes in the chord according to the composer’s tastes and some rules of arranging. I think that because basses and sopranos have their roles predefined that way, the middle voice parts overlap a lot in what they bring to the piece.

      I’m not sure what you mean that altos get more harmonies than the others… they do often double the sopranos down a third I think, so their singing is just a little lower but follows the same contours as the sopranos. Is that what you’re referring to?

  3. Kitty
    | Reply

    My experience is that singing alto in a choir definitely provides great ear training if you want to develop an aural understanding of harmony. For example, if you often sing in parallel thirds, as you mention, you may eventually be able to just follow along a third below any melody you hear. (Two tricks to that: finding the third by ear, and making the small adjustments needed to keep the line within the key.)
    By the way, basses don’t have to always sing the root of the chord, but your ear does tend to interpret the lowest part you hear as providing an audible chord-progression framework. As you mention, that’s partly due to acoustics, but also partly due to the “ear training” you’ve gotten by listening to a lot of music that is arranged in that way. And to make a three or four part harmony sound good, once the melody and bass are set, the composer ends up quite constrained by the rules when filling in the other parts.
    Another interesting point: the highest voice doesn’t have to sing the melody. In some of our church music there is a countermelody for the highest sopranos, and the melody is in the second/mezzo soprano or alto. I actually like this approach when you want the congregation to sing along, because voices that don’t sing often tend to have trouble reaching up into the soprano range.

    • ellen
      | Reply

      That’s really cool that your church has a lower voice part sing the melody, and the higher sopranos sing harmony! I think that’d be nice to try to switch things up, and I’ve heard complaints from some guys that they have trouble singing along because they have low voices and can’t reach that high.

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