Theory Top-Up: harmonies derived from hymns

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Harmony Writing Part Eight.

By TIM CUMMINGS.
Piping Today #92, 2018.

We have arrived at the eighth and last article on writing harmonies for pipe bands and other pipe ensembles — for the time being, at least.  In the previous seven articles, we explored a progression of approaches to crafting harmonies for groups of pipers, including ideas like pedal tones, harmony-of-thirds, harmonies derived from chords, and most recently, harmonies imitating uilleann pipe regulators.  For this issue, I’d like to steal — in a wholesome Christian way, of course — pre-composed harmonies from a church hymnal.  (Being the son of two ordained Presbyterians, I can do that.)

Nowadays, church hymns come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are hardly changed from their medieval plainsong origins.  Some, namely ‘praise songs’, are barely distinguishable from contemporary pop songs.  Others are designed for meditative chanting.  But if you were to mosey into your average church today and flip open a standard church hymnal, you would find the vast majority of hymns are the familiar four-part ‘block chord’ variety, which were most popular in parts of Europe, North America, and Australasia during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Many of these hymns offer genuinely beautiful music and poetry.  Others will seem particularly stale, stuffy, or hokey to modern ears.  But pipers, take heed: there are a number of melodies in these hymnals that are not only stunning, but that are also playable on the Scottish chanter, sometimes derived from traditional secular ballads, suitable as slow airs and slow marches, and — most importantly for this article — offer pre-composed harmonies that can be adapted for pipe bands and other piping ensembles.

The method for extracting and adapting these prefab harmonies can involve several steps, and I’d like to explore those with you here.  Let me quickly add that if you find this process overwhelming, the possibility remains for you to find an accomplice to assist you: a music theory student, an experienced pianist or organist, a music teacher, and so on.  Most of these shady characters will prove to be very friendly and helpful, and can probably eat this sort of task for breakfast.  For the price of a cuppa or pint, you will probably wind up with a sparkling-new, harmonised air and a better foothold on music theory.

Without further ado, let me present to you the hymn tune Kilmarnock.  This melody was written by Neil Dougall, a Scotsman who was born in Greenock in 1776 and died there in 1862.  

Kilmarnock1 is found in many hymnals in Commonwealth nations and the USA, including the Canadian Presbyterian Book of Praise (my source).  It is often paired with two different poems, Come, Let us to the Lord our God and In Christ There is no East or West.  

Whatever your beliefs, I think you’ll agree that it is a lovely, simple tune, Scottish in flavour, and well-suited for playing on Scottish-style pipes. Note that, as with most church hymns, the melody is heard in the top [soprano] line:


The first task required to adapt this hymn and its harmonies to a pipe corps is to transpose the hymn into a key suitable for the pipes, and double-check that the melody, at least, is playable on your pipe chanter.  (Most music-writing programs can do the transposition trick in an instant.) In this case we are going from Eflat-Major to A-Major, whereby the lowest note of the melody becomes the low-A on the chanter, and the highest note becomes the high-A:

The second task involves splitting the hymn into four distinct lines, separating the soprano (melody), alto (2nd), tenor (3rd), and bass (4th) voices:

Next, some notes are clearly too low or too high for Scottish chanters — most obviously including the notes in the bass clef (tenor and bass parts) — and thus need to be compressed into the appropriate octave:

Then I would suggest clearing out redundant notes in each bar.2  For example, if you do a quick scan of all four parts in the first full bar, you will see there are two As on the first beat, two Es on the second, two Ds on the third, and briefly two Es and two As on the fourth beat.  Any duplicates like these elsewhere in the hymn can now be removed.  Keep in mind that for this exercise, an A is an A and a G is a G, whether or not it is high or low.

After that, it’s time to combine and streamline the punched-out parts so that there are no gaps:

You may have noticed there are still some notes that can’t [normally] be played on Scottish chanters, despite being in the correct octave: various ‘accidentals’ and all of the Gs, which, if you happened to see in the key signature, are in fact G-sharps.  If you were to ignore the ‘sharp’ designation and just play those as our standard G-naturals, the tonality of the hymn will be changed from its original ‘bright’ major key to the Mixolydian mode, thus altering the mood of the music.  Therefore, it is necessary to remove or replace all the accidentals and G-sharps with more standard notes.  (I relied on the chord symbols, and then ultimately my ear, to help find good substitutes.):

We are nearing the finish line now.  At this point I suggest finding some way to hear the new arrangement, be it having a keyboardist (or computer) play it for you, or finding a few willing pipers to try this together, or even recording and overdubbing yourself on GarageBand (or the like).  Hearing it is not absolutely essential at this stage, but either way, this is now the time to employ your inner artist.  Try to find ways to make each harmony line more tuneful, more singable, even if it means changing the octaves of some As or Gs, or swapping notes out with the other harmony line.  You may also prefer more varied rhythms than the sometimes predictable, monotonous, crotchet ‘block chord’ patterns so typical of older church hymns.

What follows is my own rendering, with a few [hopefully] artful tweaks.  These tweaks include swapping notes between the 2nd and 3rd parts to make those lines more fluid and singable; changing rhythms here and there to create a little more polyphony — more independence, less ‘blockiness’ — in each part; adding in a missing note in bar 6; adding grace-notes (suggestions only); and most noticeably, removing one of the harmony lines entirely for the first half of the tune in order to save the more exciting, more intense three-part harmony for the second half.  (And in case any of you plan to perform this with any chord-playing accompanists, I have also brought back simpler forms of the original chord symbols.)

Et voilà, you now have a successful — or so I like to think — arrangement of Kilmarnock which may be employed as a slow air for a competition medley, a concert item or a musical offering in church.  NB: if you are playing this arrangement on the Highland pipes with any accompanists (ie, an organist), please remember that the Highland pipes sound in a different key — about a semitone higher — than is written.  In this case, Kilmarnock would sound closest to the key of Bflat-Major.

Have a listen to a demo of me playing this arrangement:

Here you may also listen to  the original hymn, as ‘played’ by the Sibelius music writing software with its synthesised church organ sound.  It might be an interesting comparison for you.

The only thing I have to add to all this is to remind you that there are many ways to skin this cat — so please feel free to experiment with other options, and make the arrangement your own.  This holds true for pretty much any harmony part you encounter.

  1. You may be wondering why I am capitalising the entire tune title, KILMARNOCK. There is a tradition, particularly in sacred music circles, of capitalising the names of the tunes themselves, to distinguish them from the titles of the poetry that are often paired with them. Amazing Grace is in fact the name of the poem that almost always accompanies the tune officially titled NEW BRITAIN. Often church leaders will mix-and-match poetry and tunes of similar metre, sort of like those children’s books where you can configure the pages so that a giraffe head goes atop a hippopotamus torso, all of which rests upon zebra legs. Capitalising the tune titles thus helps prevent considerable confusion — at least until you walk outside the sanctuary and people will have no clue what you are talking about if you mention NEW BRITAIN.  ↩︎
  2. It is, in fact, possible to retain and adapt all four lines of harmony. But once you compress them all into the same octave, many notes will probably overlap; and besides, tight four-part harmony such as that can get tiresome for the ear in a very short amount of time.  ↩︎

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.


Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies
  21. Theory Top-Up: writing chord-based harmonies for slow airs
  22. Theory Top Up: harmonies that imitate uilleann pipe regulators