First Inversion

In Friday’s RAMChoir rehearsal, I had 40+ tenors and basses in a room, learning four pieces for an hour and half. (After school on a Friday!)

As an arranger at heart, I love to pepper my rehearsals with theoretical questions and an eye to what’s happening musically. Friday, that ended up being about first-inversion chords.

First-inversion chords are inherently unstable. They want to move.

In Hard Times Come Again No More, Alice Parker’s arrangement begins the third verse with a cappella 4-part harmony. A three part “Ah” supports baritone melody – first in an inert, close root position chord, but then, two beats later, she widens to an open position with the third in the bass (a low G).

I argued with myself for a split second about taking a minute to explain this, and how it propels the music forward. There is a lot to work on, and we are performing five pieces with only about 7 hours of rehearsal over six weeks.

But in the end, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend 90 seconds than to help my choir zoom in and out from a birds-eye-view to a microscope. I want my singers to understand the detail that goes into effective music making, and how their singing can acknowledge the detail to great effect.

(Subsequently, we were able to find similar uses of first-inversion chords in two other places, in Hard Times and in a piece I arranged; this continuity of function helped to drill home the method and, hopefully, turn first-inversion chords into a recognizable phenomenon in future music they sing.

Smart musicians make good music.