Harmony and blend

David Bruce Murray takes me to task for my comment in the Collingsworth review about the family’s “enviably easy blend that only comes from shared genetics.”

I’m rather surprised to see you’ve endorsed this myth.

This very thing was also said about the Martins for years and years, and it’s true they were excellent. However, there’s few who would argue that they improved when Paul Lancaster replaced Jonathan.

So much for the notion of family combos not being surpassed.

I’m not knocking the Collingsworth Family’s harmony. They’re good…some combinations work better than others as you’ve also said. If I were in their position, I’d be showcasing the entire family too. Audiences will eat that with a spoon.

My point is simply that the level of harmony quality displayed on this CD and on the song in particular that you were referencing ISN’T unique to family groups.

I would be guilty as charged except that DBM is confusing harmony and blend. Harmony has to do with pitch and tone placement - where on the scale is the note you hear. A cricket can chirp an F, a piano key can strike a D, and my Uncle Bob can fart a B-flat and if you put them all together, that’s harmony. In fact, technically speaking, it’s perfect harmony. But obviously it’s tonally ugly and deeply unpleasant to listen to, not because of bad harmony but because of poor blend.

The music theory word for blend is timbre, or tone quality. Formally, this refers to a broad range of technical components of musical sound – coloration, vibrato, attack, beginning and end force and intonation, to name a few – most of which are very subjective and difficult to objectify or nail down but that the ear can sense and parse and detect with startling precision and detail. Most important for a discussion of harmony, these aspects of sound are separate from the question of where the tone being sung falls on the scale. When we talk about blend, we’re actually referring not to one thing but to all these subjective components at once. In quartet music, we also often talk about smoothness of the harmony, which is more or less the same thing.

In each case – timbre, blend, smoothness – what’s being described is the way in which the separate tones that comprise the harmony are mixed together. It’s related to pitch – are the notes in the harmonic structure in tune? But blend is largely a separate issue musically speaking (to be fair, DBM might have been referring to blend when he uses that phrase “harmony quality,” but I can’t be sure, and at any rate, it’s an unhelpful term for blend, since “harmony quality” can also be taken to mean “the degree to which sounds are in tune”).

Big breath. So …

Though I suppose one could make the case that certain families are blessed with better ears to hear the right pitch or place their tones more assuredly than others, it probably would be a myth to claim that genetics can improve the ability to harmonize. A harmonic structure is either in tune or isn’t (the fact that my voice and my brother’s might naturally blend well together is no predictor of how well we will harmonize together vocally). But it’s not at all difficult to see that singers from the same biological family share certain physiological traits and characteristics that will naturally predispose them to create better blended sounds than nonbiological singers. What makes the Collingsworths special is that on top of being able individually to sing well (that is, in tune, pleasantly), they also have that added genetic bonus of voices that naturally blend well together.

Of course common sense also suggests that biologically unrelated singers – husbands and wives and in-laws, most commonly in sg – can, over time, consciously and unconsciously adopt one another’s tic’s and traits vocally. I’m thinking here especially of the Hoppers and the way they sing the word “meeeeeellllkuh” in “the land where milk and honey flow.” Obviously this is as much about linguistics (a certain Carolina inflection on diphthongs, in this case) as it is music, but it’s precisely this kind of subtlety and complexity of sound that timbre is meant to signal. At any rate, the Hoppers (and the Collingsworths) are a fine example of genetics and adaptation working in coordination with musical ability to create a near perfect vocal blend.

All that pedantically said, DBM has a good point that especially in southern gospel, a great deal of vocal ability and talent are often erroneously attributed to family acts because they’re families, quite apart from whether their singing is qualitively superior to (or even just on par with) comparable groups staffed with biologically unrelated talent. This probably has to do with the centrality of The Family as a cultural and religious institution in evangelical Christianity. The Martins aren’t really the best example to prove that genetics don’t necessarily make for a better sound, though, since the two sisters’ voices were always dominant, both stylistically and as a matter of sheer diaphragmatic force, with or without brother Jonathan. A better example might be the Perrys, who have improved in inverse proportion to the number of biological Perrys in the group.

Update: As Izzy Mandelbaum would say: We’re takin’ it up a notch. In our exchange about harmony, blend, and timbre, DBM responds that A)he clearly meant to refer to blend with his use of the phrase “harmony quality”; B)I’m a music-theory hack; and C)I’m a crummy grammarian to boot. I’m paraphrasing, of course; his entire reply is here. But that’s the gist of it.

Some thoughts by way of a response to a response to a response: As I told DBM, I think we’re talking past each about a lot of this and agreeing about more than either of us is willing to stipulate in public (well, at least until I just wrote that sentence). But the one place I think he and I are still differing substantively is my suggestion that genetics can enhance the timbre/blend of harmony singing and his contention that they can’t. He’s right about family’s sharing habits of diction, of course. But diction is as much culturally acquired as it is genetic.

Unless he’s prepared to argue that physiology doesn’t affect singing or that those physiological traits do affect singing but aren’t passed down, I don’t see how DBM can continue to claim it “is simply not true” that “family members have more natural similarities of tone and can therefore create more pleasing sounds when singing together.”

It seems inarguable to me that shape and contour of the throat, mouth, and tongue; structure, size, density, and texture of vocal chords; nasal resonance, and other similar physiological traits contribute to the musical sound a voice can make and have pretty good chance of being passed down within family lines genetically (with reinforcement from culturally acquired habits). And these are precisely the physiological elements that effect timbre vocally – both individually and collectively.

(This is probably a good place to note that while DBM’s trumpet example is all well and good, by itself, it’s a bit of a mark-misser in this discussion. Yes, single tones (like a trumpet blast) have timbre. But so do combined tones. And when you’re talking about combined tones, the question of timbre has not only to do with issues of vibrato, duration of tone, resonance, and so on. It also has to do with how well the individual timbre of one voice interacts with another. Two voices that independently have fine timbre might have really crappy blend/timbre in harmony because the coloration of the tones don’t match well.)

Because of the way blend works harmonically, because of the way physiology effects the components that effect blend, and because those physiological traits can be and are often passed down, it also seems fairly inarguable to me that families are at least genetically predisposed to creating better harmonic timbre than biologically unrelated singers. Think of the Bishops here. Would anyone argue that their “harmony quality” wasn’t heavily affected by the way their similar facial architecture helped them match each other’s nasality almost perfectly?

If I have the same or very similar equipment with which to create musical sounds as my genetically related family members, it’s obvious that the blend/timbre of my harmony with them has a good chance of being superior to people who DON’T have the similarly constructed equipment. That doesn’t mean biologically unrelated singers like LordSong (or many barbershop quartets, as DBM notes) can’t produce harmony that is blended as well or even better than biologically related singers (nor does it mean that cultural biases, like southern gospel’s elevation of the biological family to sacrosanct status). Anything’s possible, I guess. And as I noted in my original post, just because family’s have a better chance of blending well than the rest of us doesn’t mean they will. But the odds are in their favor genetically. Hardly a myth. What’s not to get about that?

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  1. RF wrote:

    The myth that “family harmony” exists is really not a myth. The reason they sometimes do is that they usually start as children and practice so much together that they get good. I should know. My brother the tenor and me the baritone can still sing pretty good harmony together without practicing since we did all that 40 years ago.

  2. Chris wrote:

    Here’s the secret. It’s not so much pitch or tone. The two variables that often come built into family groups are these:1) placement-often each member places the tone in either the throat or the nose or somewhere inbetween in the same way. 2) Vibrato-family members often have the same speed of movement and will even have the vibrato kick in at the same point of a note. I’ve learned this after 2 decades in a family group.

  3. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Nice try.

  4. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Doug, myth or not, I’ve found–though this is circumstantial evidence–that I’ve tried singing with trained vocalists with wonderful voices and with my sisters, who (as I) have never had a voice lesson, and the harmony with my sisters is still immeasurably closer.

  5. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    It was ridiculously late (or early) in the day when I submitted “nice try.”

    I can elaborate now.

    Doug’s tactic here was to first insist that he and I were discussing two different things. We weren’t.

    He then proceeds to issue a lecture demonstrating his knowledge of the one topic where I happen to be well versed…music theory.

    I believe Doug is an English professor. If so, he could use a refresher in the positioning of nouns and adjectives.

    Doug, within the sentence containing the phrase “level of harmony quality,” the word “quality” is the noun. “Harmony,” in coming just before “quality,” modifies that noun, and so it’s the adjective. Nice try at diverting the discussion as if “harmony” is the noun in this case. I would submit that “harmony quality” and “blend” are more or less the same.

    You missed the boat when you tried to equate blend with timbre, though. At least in this context. We were obviously discussing how well a group of related voices blend.

    “Blend” in that context, is NOT the same thing as timbre. A trumpet producing a single note has a distinctive timbre (or “tone color,” or “characteristic overtones”) that sets it apart from, say, a soprano or a violin producing the same pitch. “Blend,” by definition, is a combination, and you were obviously discussing how WELL two or more voices blend together. ie “quality” of “harmony.”

    So, now I’ve hopefully established that I was never “confusing blend and harmony.”

    In all of Doug’s hemming and hawing about genetics making people sound the same, the key line in his response that I take issue with is: “it’s not at all difficult to see that singers from the same biological family share certain physiological traits and characteristics that will naturally predispose them to create better blended sounds than nonbiological singers.”

    I wasn’t discussing whether or not families are better at hitting pitches precisely. To be technical, it’s still “harmony” even if they aren’t…classic case…Happy Goodmans…two or more tones sounding at the same time is harmony, be it dissonant or consonant.

    The myth you’ve perpetrated, Doug, is that family members have more natural similarities of tone and can therefore create more pleasing sounds when singing together. This is simply not true.

    At best, the advantage families who grew up in the same area have is similar diction. You referenced this with the Hoppers. Pronouncing a word with the same accent and emphasis can go a long way towards a pleasing blend.

    Consider the Ruppes compared to the original LordSong, though. When Kim Lord formed a group with her husband and a third unrelated singer, they had a quality of blend that happened right out of the gate. Kim’s ability to blend didn’t take any hit in quality whatsoever during the years she wasn’t singing with her mother and sister. By the time Amber joined the group, LordSong was starting every concert a cappella with “Lord Of The Dance,” proving they could blend with terrific results.

    Sure, the Ruppes always sounded great together and I’m sure the reunited siblings who now make up LordSong sound great together, too. I haven’t heard LordSong since the changes, but regarding the Ruppes, it was never a unique TYPE of blend that came from them being related. Their sound was unique due to the fact that they are all, individually, great singers.

    Regarding the Martins, It wasn’t simply a situation where vocal singing styles were better matched. I didn’t say it as precisely earlier, though what I meant was clearly implied…the blend of vocal tones was better with Lancaster.
    By the way, is genetics ever touted as being the reason why barbershop quartets blend so well? More so than Southern Gospel even, barbershop is a genre where the quality of vocal blend is a paramount defining factor in determining whether a quartet is any good or not. I don’t follow barbershop enough to know if this myth has been pushed in that genre or not. I’m just curious.

  6. ITF wrote:

    A myth? What’s a myth is when people believe that family members automatically have a superior blend without trying.

    Family members have the capability of blending better than other people, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily will or that they still don’t need to work at it.

    I’ve heard brothers blend very well, and I’ve heard brothers that didn’t blend as good as the cricket, piano, and Uncle Bob.

    I sang barbershop in competition (entry level) for several years. In answer to DBM’s last question, I would say no. Blend is something that you learn to do. You don’t need to be related, but it certainly can help!

    And now I see that Avery just did an excellent update on this post. Man! I don’t get the updates with the feedreader!

  7. Singer57 wrote:

    I have heard the new Lordsong and when all of the singer’s sing together they are not even close to the blend they had with Amber Balltzglier. When the three Ruppe sisters sing together the blend would make angels cry, that family harmony is hard to beat. Maybe they should consider dropping the two guys and just let the girls sing, just a thought.

  8. DRIP wrote:

    All I can say is—-I would not want to be on the front row when Uncle Bob is singing—Drip

  9. Derek wrote:

    Is Uncle Bob’s note a B-flat or a low C? Sorry, I couldn’t resist! LOL

  10. DRIP wrote:

    James Sego use to have a saying—-If it smells, it sells—Guess Uncle Bob sold out every night huh—Drip

  11. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    ITF wrote:
    “Family members have the capability of blending better than other people”

    ITF, I absolutely agreed with everything you wrote except that one line.

    Singers from the same family have no greater odds of blending well than equally great singers who are unrelated. Blend is more about how multiple voices compliment each other and less about how much the individual voices sound the same.

    Doug wrote:
    “If I have the same or very similar equipment with which to create musical sounds as my genetically related family members, it’s obvious that the blend/timbre of my harmony with them has a good chance of being superior to people who DON’T have the similarly constructed equipment.”

    A set of siblings MIGHT be able to produce very similar timbres due to physical similarities…assuming the DNA from their parents combines in a similar fashion. I wouldn’t disagree if that were the limit of your point. I disagree when you extend it to blend, though, because a great vocal blend is MUCH more than producing the same or very similar vocal timbres at different pitches.

    There’s simply too many variables in play. If you put two great singers together, related or not, the blend is often LESS than the sum of its parts. Other times, when you put four average singers together, related or not, the resulting blend is greater than the sum of its parts. This is rare, but it happens.

    A good blend has as much to do with CONTRASTING the other singers in the ensemble as it does with sounding similar. When Amy Grant records some of her own background vocal parts, for example, you can tell she has deliberately changed her tone so the end result will be pleasing to the ear and not sound like two Amy Grants singing a duet.

    Here’s a stab at a food analogy…
    When you hear the words “tomato juice” or “ketchup,” you get a certain specific taste in mind. Now, you may love tomato juice, but when you hear the word “pizza,” the mind reels with all the possible tastes that can be combined. The blend of a pizza includes bread, sauce, cheese, veggies and/or meat. You taste it all at once and react with approval or disgust.

    It’s the same way with vocals.

    I’ve heard a few “one man quartet” recordings. The results are typically less than stunning, because the voice is the same on every part.

    If “blend that can only be accomplished by families” is a true observation, then a guy harmonizing with himself in four parts SHOULD be the absolute best form of male quartet singing on the planet.

    But that’s clearly not the case. Even when it’s pretty good, it’s never much more than a novelty.

  12. Phil wrote:

    I remember a trio of identical triplets in SG a few years back and although you would think they would blend better than anybody else…they didn’t…

  13. dkd wrote:

    #12…The Trio that you refer to couldn’t harmonize or sing very well there really was not much of a blend period.

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