Posts Tagged ‘vocal duo’

Brian Eno on singing

January 29, 2009

Brian Eno wrote this essay on a capella group singing earlier this year. His points about the power of group singing are important, but I’m more interested in his views on harmonizing. He notes that songs with complex chord progressions are not conducive to spontaneous harmonization and that long vowels are where the opportunities are for the harmonies to express themselves. His also describes the experience of harmonizing:

It’s thrilling to get the rhythm of something tight and sing it well together. The second is tone. To hit the same vowel sound at a number of pitches seems unremarkable, but it’s beautiful when it happens.

His reaction is similar to the one I’ve had when singing with a group and everything comes together just right on a particular note or phrase. I think some listeners experience the thrill and beauty, too, and that that is what draws them to particular kinds of songs, especially ones by groups like the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, Loggins and Messina, etc.


Making the connection between American musical theater and duos

January 26, 2009
Muttering to myself…
  • Vocal duets are inherently dramatic. Two voices suggests two people. The voices interact, even if they sing in unison. That interaction defines the dramatic elements and adds a layer to the interpretation of the text. 
  • Duets can be found throughout opera and other forms of musical drama but less so in other forms of vocal art music, such as lied or chanson. Duets in American popular music are directly connected, historically and paradigmatically, to musical theater. This is due in part to the fact that popular music in America, at least until the advent of rock and roll, was intertwined with musical theater–Broadway, revues, variety, vaudeville, minstrelsy.
  • Musical theater, for a long time, provided the model (as well as the material) for the musical and rhetorical structure of duets. For example, voices in alternation suggest a dialogue. If the same text is sung by both, then two viewpoints (possibly in opposition) exist. The point at which the voices join implies a connection or a reconciliation.

Singing Duo

January 21, 2009

Singing Duo

I saw this license plate in New Hampshire. I wanted to hop out of the car and rush up to this person and ask about it, but the line of traffic behind me presented a problem.

Harmonic Convergence

January 13, 2009

According to scientists at Cornell, the mosquito Aedes aegypti harmonize when mating. The female (400 Hz) and the male (600 Hz) adjust their whines to a common frequency (1200 Hz) to create a duet.

This reminds me of the bird duet phenomena I found earlier.

Duos before Don and Phil

July 23, 2008

The Everly Brothers are largely associated with the brother duets in country music, most of whom achieved notoriety during the 1930s. In pop music, duos were less common and somewhat temporary. For example, Frankie Lane recorded a number of duets that appeared on the Top 40 charts, especially with Jo Stafford. One of my favorites is “Hey Good Lookin’.”

In this song you can hear how one partner dominates then the other. The harmonization is fairly brief and because of the registral difference, Laine’s voice prevails in the sound mix to my ear. Other duet partners of Laine during this period include Jimmy Boyd and Buck Clayton. This suggests that each of these artists maintains a distinct persona and form what I call the temporary duo. A number of examples of these temporary duos emerge in the 1980s and later when two “stars” come together to record a duet, such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder with “Ebony and Ivory.” 

In the early 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded a number of hits as a duo. She sang and he played guitar, but more importantly she harmonized with herself through Les Paul’s innovative double tracking recording mechanism. There’s at least one fan out there who claims Mary Ford as an influence in harmonizing technique. I have yet to find evidence that the Everly Brothers were influenced by Ford’s techniques, but certainly the pop music public was attuned to this style of harmonization.

The Everly Brothers came on to the scene in 1957. In the year preceding, there was only one duo that made it on to the Top 40 charts: Patience and Prudence. These pre-pubescent girls had two hits in 1956 and have been mostly relegated to the one-hit-wonder category.

Bye Bye Love

July 22, 2008

The Everly Brothers’ first hit was “Bye Bye Love,” released in 1957. Here they are in a television show from sometime in 1957. I have been unable to track down yet what the original show was or from where this clip came. If you have any information, let me know.

The Origins of Part Singing

July 3, 2008

In my endless quest to understand vocal duos, I have, of course, been reminding myself about the history of part singing, reaching back to Medieval days. Here’s a video along those lines.


It’s also fun to listen and see if I can recognize a single word of the French. I could. Understand a single word, that is. Exactly one word. And I can’t use that one when I go to Paris this summer.

Brother Duets in Country Music, 1920-1959

June 27, 2008

The focus of my investigation for vocal duos in popular music after the advent of rock and roll is the Everly Brothers. Don and Phil Everly recorded their first hit, “Bye Bye Love,” in 1957. The song made it into top chart positions on both the pop and country charts. They were essentially part of the brother duet trend in country music which began as early as the mid-1920s and saw its greatest flowering in the 1930s.

Below is a list of the brother duet acts in country music that I have found so far. I will keep adding to the list as I chase down all of the information. Here’s a map that pinpoints the birthplaces of these duets.

Allen Brothers
Austin Allen (b. Monteagle Mountain, TN, d. 1959, Williamston, SC)
Lee Allen (b. Monteagle Mountain, TN; d. 1981, Lebanon, TN)
First recording: 1926 or 1927, Columbia
Noteworthy songs: “Bow Wow Blues,” “Skippin’ and Flyin’,” “Jake Walk Blues”
Vocal style: Austin sang lead, Lee occasionally added tenor harmony

Delmore Brothers
Alton Delmore (b. 12/25/1908, Elkmont, AL; d. 1964)
Rabon Delmore (b. 12/3/1916, Elkmont, AL; d. 1952)
First recording: 1931, Columbia
Noteworthy songs: “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” “Big River Blues”
Vocal style: Alton usually sang lead, they would often switch high and low harmony parts

Shelton Brothers
Other performing names: Lone Star Cowboys, Sunshine Boys
Bob Attlesey (b. 7/4/1909, Reilly Springs, TX; d. 1983?)
Joe Attlesey (b. 1/27/1911, Reilly Springs, TX; d. 12/26/1980)
First recording: before 1933, Bluebeard (as Lone Star Cowboys)
Noteworthy songs: “Just Because,” “Deep Elem Blues”
Vocal style:

Callahan Brothers
Homer Callahan
Walter Callahan
First rec.: 1934

Blue Sky Boys
Bill Bolick
Earl Bolick
East Hickory, NC
First recording: 1936
Vocal style: Earl sang baritone, Bill sang tenor.

Monroe Brothers
Charlie Monroe
Bill Monroe
First rec.: 1936
Vocal style: Charlie sang lead, Bill sang tenor (high) harmony

Dixon Brothers
Howard Dixon
Dorsey Dixon
Darlington, Sc


Louvin Brothers
Ira Loudermilk (b. 4/21/1924, AL; d. 6/20/1965)
Charlie Loudermilk (b. 7/7/1927, AL; d. )
Noteworthy songs: “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Cash on the Barrel Head”
First recording: between 1945 and 1949, Apollo Records
Vocal style: Ira sang tenor, noted as being fairly high; Charles sang lead (melody tenor)

Stanley Brothers
Ralph Stanley
Carter Stanley

Lilly Brothers
Everett Lilly
Mitchell Lilly



All Music Guide

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A., 2nd rev. ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Further updates to this list will be in the page version.


The Voice(s) – Part 2

June 23, 2008

Simon Frith (Chapter 9, “The Voice,” in Performing Rites [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996], 183-202) identifies four ways in which the voice can be discussed and understood: as a musical instrument, as a body, as a person, and as a character. For the most part, Frith, too, is concerned with one voice; he does address multiple voices briefly—I will return to this later. My purpose here is to examine Frith’s points from the perspective of two voices presented as one, whether in unison or not—it’s more important here that they are understood to be equal in the context of the duo. In other words, I am not considering backup voices or anonymous harmonies or double-tracking of a single voice. And I am assuming that any duo that presents itself as a duo allows audiences and listeners to conclude that the members of the duo have equal standing within the duo, whether that is the case or not in reality.

In the first category of understanding, the voice is a musical instrument. Voices can never simply be sound or wordless instruments. Whether we can understand the words being sung (because they are in a foreign language or are nonsense syllables like scat singing), we always read something from the sound made by the voice; we hear meaning and intention. I don’t think multiple voices really changes Frith’s argument here.

The voice as body, on the other hand, reads somewhat differently with two voices. Following Roland Barthes logic, Frith notes that the voice is the “sound of the body.” The voice gives us “access to [the body] without mediation” (191). From the perspective of the listener, this raises questions such as which body is being “accessed”? The connections can be to one or the other of the singers. Listeners may adopt different listening positions over time, connecting with one and then another and then back to the first one. A listener could also connect with both simultaneously, merging them into one entity. The grain of the voice gains an additional dimension in the case of the vocal duo.

When we sing along (moving our position from listener to participant or imitator), we believe we experience the same sorts of physical events that the singer is experiencing. While we may have been able to feel a simultaneous connection to the physical worlds of both singers when simply listening, once we begin to engage our own bodies in the experience, we must choose. Unlike the singers themselves, though, we can shift from one singer to the other, from one physical experience to another, at will.

We can “hear” characteristics such as gender, sexuality, and race. Further we believe we can hear something about the person in the voice. With two voices, the same still holds, but we must also determine what the relationship is between the two voices. What we believe we hear in the voices may be augmented or confirmed by external sources (or maybe it’s the other way around—we read or learn about the relationship then “hear” it in the interaction of the voices). Two voices suggests an intimacy, whether it is sexual, familial, or simply as friends. Three or more voices shifts into the territory of the corporate voice with a pragmatic division of labor—the intimacy is lost or suppressed.

Finally, the voice becomes a character. It can be the voice of the protagonist or narrator, the person the song is about, the singer as a public persona, but the voice can also, through its own characteristics and suggestions of personality, be its own character. With more than one voice involved, is there only character, the result of combining the two voices, or are there two characters? A third possibility is that all three exist and it may depend on the listener. It may also depend on how the music is structured (homophonic versus contrapuntal, one sound versus differentiated sounds).


The Voice(s) – Part 1

June 23, 2008

Roland Barthes sought to understand the “very precise space (genre) of the encounter between a language and a voice” (“The Grain of the Voice,” 1977, reprinted in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin [London: Routledge], 294, emphasis in original). He refers to this as the grain of the voice and likens it to “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue, perhaps the letter, almost certainly significance” (295). In other words, the voice is the physical embodiment of the music, it is what gives it meaning in the case of vocal music, not necessarily the specific text. 

Barthe examines this grain in terms of one voice. I, on the other hand, am interested in the “voice” that is created when two or more voices combine (but most specifically two voices). The issue becomes slightly more complex. First our position relative to the “voice” changes. In the typical discussions of the listener’s position, there is a one-to-one connection between the listener and the singer. I favor the model of a triangle with the listener, the singer, and the work itself at the vertices.

With an additional voice, we now have to understand the relationship between each singer and the listener, between the singers themselves, and between the singers and the work itself (works?). Conceivably the work itself is now understood in multiple ways by the listener.