The music of random harmony

So, as I mentioned on my previous post, this morning I had a choir presentation during the morning services at Congregation Beth Shalom. It went alright. We sang a few pieces in place of the Rabbi’s sermon. But this was not the interesting thing of the event (at least for me). On preparation for the day, the person that was organizing the event said: “One of the hidden goals for this event is to make people realize how nice it is when the congregation harmonizes with the cantor. So, you choir singers, harmonize!”

Before I explain what happened I have to point out that very few people in the choir actually have any background in formal music theory. But most had experience singing and think that they can sing well. So, what was the result: people did their best to harmonize with the music by themselves. Even when they didn’t know the melody at all.

Oh, I’m to blame for it too! I actually do that all the time during services. It’s a fun experiment but I usually do it quietly, mostly singing to myself. This time people were doing it loudly enough to rival the cantor. And I stayed back and tried to listen to what was coming out of it. It was awesome! There were interesting rules to it: people were looking for thirds and fifths, playing around with basic counterpoint rules, like working with contrary and oblique motion, and sometimes just enjoying the bottom of their range (especially Basses).

What was interesting was the combination of it all: a wall of sound that was mostly harmonious, but generally purposeless. I wished I had good enough music ability and memory to write things down. It would have been an interesting study of harmony and the ability for humans to perceive chords.

I was briefly talking to one of the singers after services. I mentioned to him my observation and he said that part of it was based on people’s musical background on their interpretation of the harmony. That some people might be thinking of a minor chord while other people would be thinking of a major chord.

I didn’t hear any of this type of confusion. Mostly what I heard was people mixing scale modifications. Like some people using the harmonic minor, while other people doing a plain minor scale, or a melodic minor scale. Added to general mistakes from people without enough singing knowledge/experience, that’s where the dissonance would come from. As I said, the actual problem was that there was no purpose to the counterpoint. Each person was doing their own and you just got all the notes all the time, instead of movement.

Anyway, I’ve spent way too much time trying to convey this experience in words. Maybe one day I’ll put enough time on my music studies to be able to transcribe what I heard and make people listen to it and get their own conclusions. Now it’s time for me to move onto something else. I’ll hopefully find out what before it’s too late.

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