Popular Choral Octavos Should Be Better.

January 9, 2012

I know this isn’t on topic for this blog, but I think it probably has a similar audience, and I’m not ready to start yet another blog, so I’ll post it here.

I accompany many choirs every year.  Some of them do classical literature and others do pop arrangements and educational pieces. As a composer, I often really admire some of these pop arrangements. It is actually quite difficult to arrange music for young voices or amateur choirs, keeping things within the technical ability of the group but staying true to the spirit of the original. Unfortunately this kind of piece often contains errors and arbitrary choices that are incredibly counter-productive and wasteful of the choir director’s time. I’m going to list 5 that I’ve encountered in the last 6 months alone, and in the interest of being kind, I’m not going to name the pieces or their arrangers. I will say, however, that they are published by some of the largest houses currently selling to these markets: Boosey and Hawkes, Alfred, and the ubiquitous Hal Leonard.


Most pop octavos have repeated choruses. Sometimes those choruses change a little, to keep things from getting boring. I get that. But when the melody stays the same and is in the soprano, and the harmony of the piece hasn’t changed, and the same parts are singing, it’s a bad idea to change the voicing of the harmony parts from one chorus to the next. Okay, I’m breaking my rule right away and naming a culprit. Roger Emerson’s arrangement of Defying Gravity has changes in the harmony parts during the chorus of the song that add literally hours to the rehearsal process for no reason. The audience can’t hear the changes, but the chorus has to learn them anyway. And for most choruses that do this, whether they be school choirs or show-choirs, they’re going to be doing it memorized, which is REALLY HARD when there are small changes for the interior lines that are arbitrary. You know what I think? I think the melody was just copied and pasted from the vocal selections and the other parts were harmonized straight through without any consideration for the fact that the sections repeat.


There are two kinds of errors I mean: some clearly unintentional, basically typos, and others where it’s clear that the accompaniment was written independently of the choral parts. I have in front of me an example of a typo. It’s in the SAB version of Seasons of Love, measure 16, the second note in the left hand should be a C, not a D. Hey, accidents happen, though. Maybe that’s been fixed! It isn’t wrong in my SATB version of the same tune. But more egregious is when the chords in the piano represent a different harmony or melody than the singers are singing. Yes, I understand that more than one version of the tune can happen at the same time. But I’ve seen octavos where the piano is playing completely different chords that contradict the harmony of the voices and places where the piano is playing chords with chromatic alterations the singers don’t have. If the choral director can catch these things in time and rewrite them, great. More often than not, though, there is annoyance in rehearsal: “Why is that alto note so out of tune?” “Can’t you guys get this chord right? We’ve run it a hundred times.” Not when the piano is telling a different harmonic story than the singers. That’s the fault of the arranger and the editor.


If they’re going to write chords above the piano part, they ought to make sure they’re accurate, put them everywhere they might be useful, and keep the same kind of chord vocabulary. If you call them half diminished 7 chords in one spot, don’t call them minor 7ths with flat fifths somewhere else. I actually played an arrangement of White Christmas last month which had a lovely jazzy piano part, and the notes encouraged the pianist to improvise. But the chord symbols only came in on page 3, some of them were wrong, and when the piece modulated from C to Db major, the chord symbols stayed in C. Another pet peeve of mine is when they say on the octavo that you can have a bass join you, and then you come to discover that the bass is just supposed to play the left hand of the piano, even though the piano part is out of range for the bass or contains chords the bass can’t play.


Now this, I’ve only seen once, but it’s a doozy. In Hal Leonard’s arrangement of True Colors, (yes, I’m calling out a name again) there is a marking in measure 11 that reads: piu mosso (a little more) That’s not what piu mosso means. Piu means ‘more’. Mosso means ‘moving’ or ‘animated’.  So piu mosso means faster. If you want the Italian for a little more, you’re looking for Poco Piu. (I’d do the little dash over the piu, but I don’t know how in wordpress) And poco piu doesn’t actually mean anything. A little more? A little more what? The mistranslation ‘a little more’ makes me think it’s supposed to be a dynamic marking. (when a conductor says, “give me a little more”, do you sing faster or louder? I’d sing louder) What a nice song for a young choir! We owe it to them not to give them false musical terminology.


Now this one is a place where reasonable people can disagree. Pop singers often use rhythms in their riffs and back-phrases that are hard to sing and even harder to notate. I’m not asking that the rhythm on the page slavishly follow the original recording. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the rewritten rhythm to be simpler than the one that’s being replaced! After all, the kids who sing these things have likely already memorized and sung along with the original recording hundreds of times. If they’re going to have to unlearn that original melody, at least they should be learning something easier. Some of these arrangements have doctored-up melodies that sound very little like the original, but have the additional disadvantage of having words mis-accented or bizarre rhythms that are not an improvement.

Now, full disclosure here: I am a composer, and my choruses will tell you that there are MANY typos in the music I hand out. They will also tell you that much of what I write is hard to sing. And, full disclosure, I have a piece that is published by Hal Leonard. (which does contain a small typo) But considering the many millions of copies of this mass marketed pop music that are sold annually, and considering the fact that if you want to sing this popular music there is nowhere else to purchase it than these few enormous companies, the very least they could do is spend a little more time editing this music before it goes to press, and perhaps running through it with some actual middle schoolers or a community choir. Good grief, just pay a starving grad student a hundred bucks to play through it! You’ll save millions of hours of rehearsal time over the lives of these pieces, and the sanity of the pianists and conductors.

Respectfully Submitted:

Peter Hilliard


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