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?