Arranger’s Toolbox 1: Bell Chords To Try

My Ding-a-ling.

My Ding-a-ling.

This expands far beyond “Clocks” by Coldplay — thank goodness.  Bell chords are used by all kinds of groups in all kinds of different situations, and are not limited to those in which a pop piano accompaniment must be imitated.  Let’s take a good look at the different ways these can turn out, and when they work particularly well.

What IS a Bell Chord?

A bell chord is an arpeggiation split between different parts, in which each person or voice part will sing a single note.  When performed well and in good time, they can sound pretty fantastic, sounding as though all your voice parts are part of a single coherent whole.  On the other hand, if they’re timed badly and your group is unable to match the volume and shape of their consonants and vowels, it makes for a rather exposed display of a group’s shortcomings.  It’s a skill just like any other — once your group has enough practice with it, they will always sound fantastic.

They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes!  We’ll explore the basic types here:

The Basics: Single Syllable, Sustained Note

Because of its ubiquity, I will demonstrate using Clocks. Just kidding, I’ll use it because I hate you.  First, we’ll use a single syllable, “bum,”  and look at different ways of applying it.

1. Rests between repetitions

clocks1

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This type of arrangement includes rests in between each repetition — it makes them very discrete and clear, if that’s what you’re going for.  For this particular song, I think it works quite nicely, but there are other options around.  Let’s try filling the rests by tying over the previous notes.

2. No rests with ties

clocks2

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Much more full!  However, it seems muddier and less clear at the same time, and a bit of the sparkle of the chords is lost.  For a smoother texture, however, it would work very well if it weren’t for a third problem: notes that don’t belong!  In measure two, the third part is holding the G a beat too long, and giving us a G Diminished triad that we don’t want.  Also, in measure four, the second part is holding that Bb just a second too long.  There’s a way to correct this, though, and it’s a bit sneaky:

3. No rests with ties and slurs

clocks3

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Aha!  By adding the two slurs shown, we can make every measure continue to stack up and sound exactly the right chord right when we need it, and we avoid leaving rests between the repetitions.  Fantastic!

Syllable Changes: Three-Part Bells

Pay close attention: there are liable to be three parts to these syllables!  First, an opening consonant, then an exploded vowel, and finally a closing sustained nasal.  Of course, your mileage my vary significantly, but check out what happens in each of these groups when we move the opening consonant from /b/ to /d/ to the unvoiced /t/.  For each set of four, the middle exploded vowel is changed, and then for bmm, dng, and tng, it’s eleminated entirely.

Bum, Bom, Boom, Bmm

Oh, the ever familiar bum is one of the most abused syllables in a cappella singing.  Know the difference between bum, bom, boom, and bmm, and make sure your group does too!  Take a listen to what a difference it can make:

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Ding, Dung, Doong, Dng

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Ting, Tung, Toong, Tng

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Voweling It Out: Two-Part Bells

Round-Voweled “D”s

These are hard to tune.

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Bright-Voweled “B”s

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Advancing: Changing the Vowel

Now we’re having some fun!  Try changing the sustained vowel on the beat that the next voice enters — this helps duck each bell’s ring out of the way in time for the next to come along, and creates the effect of having two different instruments (choirs) at once.  On the other hand, it’s significantly harder for a group to do.  These also work best when there are no rests, so the “tie or slur” method is used below:

Dah-oo, Deh-oo, Doh-oo, Doo-mm.

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Playing with Overtones

There are some other fun things you can try.  In this case, an “oo” shape is used for the front of the mouth as the vowel on the inside is changed from an “ah” to an “ee”.  Here’s a version that creates a group flanger-effect WITHOUT using a studio effect — that is, you can do this on stage, live in concert.

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Or with vowels that are easier to teach for a group, just specify a sequence of known vowels:

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Or maybe a more extreme Ray-Gun effect, produced Live, On Stage, with Real Voices:

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Conclusion

Pretty fantastic sounds can come out of your group if you’re willing to experiment around with your own voice a bit, and even something as commonplace as bellchords can be used to some dramatically awesome effects.  Make sure you know just what you’re asking your group to do — it’s terribly important to be precise in your notation and vowel designation, especially because everybody needs to be singing these syllables exactly alike, or else the bellchords will not work.

In a later edition of the Arranger’s Toolbox, I’ll show some real-life examples of bellchord application; stay tuned.

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YackBack

What is the best way to teach a four-part, a’capella bell chord?

#1 
Written By Stephen on March 9th, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

There’s two ways- the hard drill-it-until-you-get-it and the easy cheating. The hard way is to drill it again and again, slowly building the chord from the bottom note up to the top note through lots of repetition.

The easy cheating way is to put a place holder in the space of the rest. The downbeats of bell chords are easy, so they’re fine. The off beats can put a silent syllable or an up-breath. Sounds like this:

nnDo…nnDo…nnDo

or

(breath)Do…(breath)Do…

The danger of the cheat is that it becomes distracting, audible, or a crutch. However, for singers who may not have the rhythmic chops to pull off-beats out of their bum, it’s a great way to start to learn off-beats.

#2 
Written By Dan Newman on March 9th, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

The easiest way for a novice a cappella group to learn bell chords is as follows:

1 — Have the singers practice single claps in the right sequence — even without the music in front of them
2 — Repeat but say the words with the claps.
3 — Sing the notes with the words and the claps.
4 — Phase out the claps.

The Technical Explanation:
This is actually a Pavlovian technique sometimes called stimulus-pairing // stimulus-transfer. It starts by establishing the claps (simplest part to learn in this example), then pairing them with the words (second easiest aspect to learn) thus establishing the words as a “secondary conditioned stimulus.”

When the singers get to the next step, singing the actual notes/words, that step becomes a tertiary (third level) stimulus. That is VERY powerful in terms of learning theory. At that level, the claps serve merely as a “prompt” (a way to help the learners do what they’re learning to do). So the claps are no longer needed and can be phased out. (Behaviorally, that’s called “prompting and fading” and, itself, is a very useful and powerful technique.

Stephen

#3 
Written By Stephen on February 13th, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

I liked. Thank you

#4 
Written By joseoscar on April 3rd, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

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