Master Four Notes First

Happy Gene Puerling Day! Let’s take a lesson from his writing today.

Born on March 31, 1929, Gene Puerling didn’t invent close harmony singing, but he perfected it. With two remarkable ensembles (The Hi-Lo’s and The Singers Unlimited), Gene developed a vocabulary of distinct sounds that remains the bedrock of vocal arrangers to this day.

He is probably most popular in vocal jazz circles for the rich, thick, high-wire-act arranging he did for The Singers Unlimited, which often contains divisi to eight or more voice parts.

But before he ever attempted that writing, Gene mastered four notes. It’s an important message that all young composers and arrangers should take to heart.

The Hi-Lo’s were four men singing, at a time when overdubbed recordings were not feasible. They recorded live, and were therefore limited to a maximum of four notes. He was forced by this “limitation” to be creative in his note choices to create the sounds he imagined. Certainly he might have wished for more notes on occasion, but it was impossible.

Clearly this limitation didn’t diminish his creativity, but enhance it. Even when he got to the point where he had unlimited options, still some of his best writing was limited to four voices – consider his modern motet arrangement of “All The Things You Are” or his Grammy-winning arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.

In both cases, the four voice limits are self-imposed (both groups were accustomed to overdubbing), but in both cases he is able to uncover unique and beautiful harmonies that he might not have, if all options were open.

The message is clear to young arrangers (and I wish I had followed it more assiduously when I started out) – limit yourself to four voices. Master four notes first, learn what you can do with them, and only then allow yourself more.

You can read more about Gene Puerling elsewhere on my site.