In the last post, we talked about voicing a chord like the overtone series. This is a common recommendation found throughout orchestration literature. One of the observations about the overtone series is that the spacing of the overtones begins wide and becomes tight as the series rises in pitch. This often leads to a general recommendation – avoid tight spacing of chord tones in the low register.
In this post, I thought I’d talk a bit about whether I thought that recommendation was sound and when it should be followed. I’ll go through two examples of tight voicings in the low register, one that works well and one that doesn’t.
First, following this recommendation (avoid tight spacing of chord tones in the low register) will avoid a great number of problems. In very general terms, close intervals in the low register (say…more than an octave below middle C) are very dense and often make a texture muddy. Notably, in the Tchaikovsky chord we just looked at, he did not use the third or fifth of the chord until around middle C…creating very wide intervals between the chord tones in the low register.
This all said… It is an over-simplification to say “never use tight voicings in the low register”. In some instances, it is actually quite desirable to do so. Let’s look at two examples…
First, let’s look at a successful example. This example is also by Tchaikovsky, opening his 6th symphony. Below is the score. Remember that the bass sounds an octave below its written pitch.
This passage contains very tight spacing in a low register. For instance, on the downbeat of measure 2, Tchaikovsky uses a closed E minor triad (E-G-B), with the E and B performed on bass and the G performed by a single bassoon. The triad is two stacked thirds, more than an octave below middle C. On beat 2, the bassoon falls to an F#, creating a major 2nd (E – F#) between the bassoon and the lower basses.
These are very tight intervals in a very low register…and the passage is extremely effective. Why?
First, notice that the overall pitch range is very constrained. At the beginning, the bassoon and basses are all squeezed into a perfect fifth (ranging from E to B). The overall pitch range expands as the phrase continues, but doesn’t grow to more than an octave and a half. To complete the triads and other harmonies within the span of an octave, Tchaikovsky must use closed voicings.
This tight pitch range contrasts noticeably with the overtone series. With the chord in the last post, we looked at the first three octaves of the overtone series…while here we are dealing with only an octave.
This brings up an interesting observation. When Tchaikovsky had a chord spanning more than three octaves, he emulated the first three octaves of the overtone series. When Tchaikovsky had a chord spanning only one octave, he emulated only the third octave of the overtone series (which uses closed voicings).
This suggests a general guideline. If your chord spans only one octave, emulate the third octave of the overtone series. If your chord spans two octaves, emulate the 2nd and 3rd octaves of the overtone series. If your chord spans three or more octaves, emulate the first three octaves of the overtone series.
This suggested guideline explains both Tchaikovsky examples…even though one uses tight voicings in the low register and the other avoids it entirely.
Assuming the above guideline is followed, using tight voicings in the low register can create a very dark texture. In this case, Tchaikovsky wanted a very dark texture to achieve his artistic goals. His 6th Symphony, nicknamed Pathétique, was meant to convey emotions of sorrow and brooding passion. It was composed late in his life and first performed nine days before his death. In this scenario, Tchaikovsky is using tight intervals in the low register to achieve his artistic goals – the expression of sorrow and sadness. Indeed, many 20th century composers used very tight voicings in the low register to elicit darkness and sadness.
Now, let’s look at a less successful example. The following chord is one I once saw (piece will remain anonymous) in a lyrical piece for strings and a small contingent of winds. The musical intent was to be lush and beautiful. Let’s look at the string voicings. (Again, recall the bass sounds an octave below where it’s written.)
In this case, we have very tight voicings between the bass and cello. On the first downbeat, the bass is on a low C with the cello on the E a third higher. From there, the voicings get increasingly wide…spanning an octave or more.
This voicing looks like the *opposite* of the first three octaves of the overtone series. Here, we have tight voicings in the low register and open voicings in the upper register. In the overtone series, it was the other way around.
Notably, this chord spans more than three octaves, when we should be extra vigilant to emulate the overtone series.
The result is a chord that is simultaneously muddy and lacking in fullness.
When your chord spans three or more octaves, emulate the first three octaves of the overtone series. When your chords spans two octaves, emulate the 2nd and 3rd octaves of the overtone series. When your chord spans one octave, emulate the 3rd octave of the overtone series.
In the last case, this creates tight/closed voicings within a confined pitch range. If you desire a dark and dense texture, it is effective to put such voicings in a low pitch range.
Most importantly, in cases where your chord spans three or more octaves, it is best to avoid structures that invert the overtone series…using tight voicings in the low register and open voicings in the upper register. Such voicings are simultaneously muddy and thin.