The following article was submitted by Lon Beery.
Many choral arrangers and composers also serve as choral directors, especially those who write for the educational music publishing market. This is advantageous, as those who write for our students are often those who know first-hand the specific abilities and interests of students at various age levels. As one who teaches as well as composes and arranges choral music, there are times when certain practices within the educational choral publishing world conflict with the practices which I believe are best for our students as an educator.
The purpose of this short essay is to address two practices that are generally accepted in educational choral publications that I believe should be changed for the sake of clarity for our students. Certainly the purpose of printed music is to clearly lead performers to an accurate, musical reproduction of the music printed in a score. If there are practices that make such a reproduction more challenging for our students, those practices should be rethought and possibly changed. The two issues that I find often lead to confusion, rather than clarity, in choral print publications have to do with current practices in beaming and hyphenation.
It may seem that the way musical notes smaller than quarter notes are beamed together is a rather insignificant issue. However, as a middle school choral director who is always concerned about issues related to developing sight-singing skills, I must say that this is not the case. An effective sight-singing methodology generally combines a systematic, sequential approach to developing rhythm and pitch reading skills, as well as using the repertoire as supplemental sight-singing material to reinforce that methodology. Most sight-singing methods introduce pairs of eighth notes early in a sequential methodology. The idea is quickly understood by students that beams unite shorter notes into a patterns that comprise a beat.
Most texts that serve as style manuals for composers and arrangers likewise note that beaming notes together by beat is indeed the general rule in music notation. Beaming is intended to make clear the metrical structure of the music, and thus it makes sense to beam together shorter notes into groupings that are beamed together as a beat. As Steven Powell noted, “In most cases beaming occurs by beat, so that, if the beat is a quarter note, notes will be beamed in groups of two…”1 This basic rule is echoed by H. A. Chambers, who stated that, “As far as possible, notes below the value of the crotchet should be grouped according to the pulse shown by the key signature.”2
Gardner Read added that “Primary beams must always make clear the inner divisions of the meter,”3 suggesting that such a practice helps to clarify the beat. This is echoed by Elaine Gould, who noted that “Divisions of a beat are beamed together in all meters, in order to simplify reading beats.”4 Kurt Stone likewise emphasized the role of beams in clarifying the beats when he wrote, “In general, measures should be divided into metric beat-units to help the performer recognize the beats and the metric structure of the measures…”5 Read, Gould, and Stone each emphasized the need to beam in such a way that brings clarity, making it simple to identify and read the beats. For our students, reading patterns beamed together by beats more closely aligns with the way our students learn to read rhythm patterns in current sight-singing methodologies.
Of course, in contemporary educational choral publications, it is not unusual to find rhythm patterns beamed together in patterns which constitute more than one beat. Most music manuscript authorities suggest that this may be an acceptable exception to the principle rule of beaming by beat. For example, Anthony Donato noted that “Occasionally it is possible to beam notes of like value which exceed the value of a single time unit.”6 Gould likewise stated that in simple meters “any number of quavers can be beamed together.”7
In both of these authorities, beaming notes into groupings larger than a beat is presented as an exception, albeit an acceptable one, to the basic rule of beaming by beat. And yet, no explanation is given as to why such an exception exists. If indeed the basic principle is that beaming is used to clarify the beat, why is an exception made which makes visually identifying the beat less clear? I have found no explanation for this practice. I can say that it confuses students who are accustomed to seeing beaming by beat within sight-singing exercises. As we use our choral repertoire as one of the means of teaching sight-singing within our educational ensembles, it seems preferable to follow the rule of beaming by beat, rather than using the allowable exception of beaming across multiple beats.
Related to this, beaming three eighth notes together is more clearly readable by our students if they are printed as a single eighth note followed by a pair of eighth notes beamed together. Three eighth notes beamed together looks more like a triplet to our students. On a different point, although in general I believe that it is best not to beam more than two eighth notes together, I do believe it is appropriate to beam the rhythmic equivalents of four eighth notes together in cut time. This practice maintains the idea of beaming by beat, which in cut time is a half note.
A second area of concern for me is the way that choral texts are hyphenated. The current practice followed by most, if not all, educational choral publishers is to hyphenate multisyllabic words as they are hyphenated in standard dictionaries. In the G. Schirmer Manual of Style and Usage, this practice is perhaps stated the most emphatically, saying, “When hyphenating text for a vocal piece, the syllables should always be divided as in the dictionary, not as they would be sung. ‘Walking’ would be hyphenated as ‘Walk—ing’ even though it is sung as ‘Wa(w)—king.’”8 Most other sources merely note that one ought to use a good dictionary when deciding where to hyphenate a word.
Alan Boustead agrees with this in principle, adding, “As a rough guide, however, a syllable generally begins with a consonant, not a vowel (e.g. di-vi-sion).”9 Certainly this is how multisyllabic words are generally sung, with the inner consonants beginning, rather than ending, syllables. Therefore, as a choral director, I would prefer that Boustead’s observation was more universally true. Unfortunately, as the earlier citation from the G. Schirmer text points out in its example of “walk-ing,” this is just not always an accurate observation.
I found Elaine Gould’s suggestions perhaps the most nuanced when discussing this issue. Gould recognized that merely following dictionaries was not always the best approach. Rather, she suggested that “The general principle is to divide words so as to assist the singer in word recognition: both to understand what the text says, and to pronounce the correct sounds at the correct time.”10
Gould is suggesting that effective hyphenation must balance two considerations; comprehension and pronunciation. Echoing Boustead’s suggestion, Gould likewise suggests that “The singer’s other priority is to place vowels and consonants exactly where marked. The eye moves forward and the singer does not want to look back for the text. For this purpose, it is most helpful to place consonants at the beginning of a syllable.”11 As noted above, this is not always the way words are hyphenated in common dictionaries.
Gould’s insistence that hyphenation ought to balance the immediate comprehension as well as the pronunciation is a useful one. Currently, as words are generally hyphenated as found in a dictionary, directors often must remind young choral students to avoid pronouncing certain consonants where they are printed, at the end of a syllable, and rather place them later, at the beginning of the following syllable. This practice is counterintuitive. It seems that Gould’s suggestion would make this clearer, and easier, for our students. This should encourage educational choral publishers to consider hyphenating multisyllabic words in choral text less slavishly to the rules of dictionaries, and more in a way that helps students to pronounce clearly the text within the music they are performing. Reading a choral score is a highly complex process, far more so than reading an instrumentalist’s individual part.
Choral students must navigate various staves within multiple systems using a variety of clefs. Many choral scores also include a grand staff for a keyboard accompaniment, which young students need to recognize. The addition of text presents even more complexity. All in all, there are numerous musical symbols on each page of a choral score which can present unnecessary reading challenges for our choral students. Educational choral publishers who provide materials for young performers should make these materials as clear and accessible for our students as possible. Rethinking these two issues, beaming and hyphenation, although perhaps seemingly small, could help make this task a bit more manageable.
1Steven Powell, Music Engraving Today (New York: Brichtmark Music, 2002), 20.
2H. A. Chambers, Music Manuscript (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1951), 9.
3Gardner Read, Music Notation, 2nd edition (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1969), 83.
4Elaine Gould, Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation (London: Faber Music, 2011), 153.
5Kurt Stone, Music Notation in the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), 110.
6Anthony Donato, Preparing Music Manuscript (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 17.
7Gould, Behind Bars, 153.
8G. Schirmer Manual of Style and Usage (G. Schirmer Publications, 1990), 27.
9Alan Boustead, Writing Down Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 65.
10Gould, Behind Bars, 441.