“Music is the language of emotions”  The whole of Interpretation should be to start with the Emotional content of the Message of the song.  This is the reason for the song being  - to convey its emotional message.  

Below is my outline of how we can go about dealing with the Emotional Message (Interpretation).  It is primarily an adaptation of two significant articles from the BHS’s (Barbershop Harmony Society) magazine “The Harmonizer”.  You can find the articles if you are a BHS Member under  Members Login > Document > The Harmonizer and I recommend that you look them up.

The Harmonizer: March 1982 thru Dec. 1983:

                            8 articles by Eric Jackson on “Interpretation”

The Harmonizer: March-April 2005: Connie Keil’s article “The Fourth Wall”

I’ve gleaned this Outline from these 2 articles, plus a lot of minor influences.


    1. What TYPE OF SONG is it?

        Is it mainly a “message/story” song or a”rhythmic/fun” song?  Which type of song is it?

            1. Lyrical

            2. Melodic

            3. Rhythmic

            4. Comedic


            What's the Message/Story?

            Message Goals

        a. Make a scenario

            1. WHO? (Characters)


                    a. As the character in the song, who are you?

                    b. How old are you?

                    c. Who are you singing to (about)?

                    d. Who do you love?

                Who we're singing to

                    e. How old is she?

                    f. What does she look like?

                    g. How long have you known her?

            2. WHAT?

                a. What's the relationship?

                b. What just happened?

            3. WHERE?

                a. Where did it happen?

            4. WHEN?  Present or Past

            5. WHY?   


        a. Determine the main emotional content of the song, the over all mood

             Interpretation comes from the feelings and emotions, NOT the other way around.

        b. What does it mean to you? (What is it about?)

            1. One main emotion.  (Also note points  C.1.a. & b. below)


    4. ORGANIZE THE SONG into logical emotional sections

                                                                                            that move toward and set up the climax.

        a. Identify the climax (the high-test intensity of emotion) of the song.

            1. Near the end. Often in barbershop, the very last chord but sometimes there’s a graceful

                                                                                                                                exit after the climax

            2. Sometimes identified by:

                a.. Rising dramatic melody line

                b.. Highly-voiced exciting chord progression

        b. Identify “Target Feeling-Words”  (See the next page on “Word Shaping

        c. Identify the Sectional Moods

        a. Identify the Various Phrase Types  Phrasing should always related to their emotional intent.

                1. Types of Phrases

                    a. Climactic Phrases

                    b. Thought Phrases

                    c. Forward Motion Phrases - Get on to more important parts of the story.


                We communicate thru THREE LANGUAGES" Delsarte

                    1. Linguistic or verbal (Singing)

                    2. Intonation ( Interpretation)

                    3. Body Language (Visual)

                    Effective communication means all 3 communicate the same message.

    1. Choose which FOURTH WALL CONCEPT 

                       This Concept is from Connie Keil’s article in The Harmonizer March-April 2005

        There are two groups: 1. the performers & 2. the audience, separated by the invisible “Fourth


            1. In Presentational Mode - We are directly communicating to the audience.

                           There is No 4th wall   

                          We should make Eye Contact with the Audience

                  a. Story Telling     Verse: "Meet Me in St. Louis

                  b. Commentary                "Zip-a-dee-Doo-Dah"

            2. Representational Mode - The 4th Wall separates you from the audience.

                                You ignore the audience.  They are simply looking in at the “play”.

                  a. Address an imaginary character      “I Love You Truly"

                  b. Soliloquy (Talking to yourself)       "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"

                  c. Address each other in  the Group    “I Can Do Anything You Can Do, Better”

                 d.  Shifting Mode                                 "Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie"

           3. Barbershoppers usually are in Presentational Mode - but not always.


        1. CONTRAST

                “Contrast is the spice of life”.   There is no communication without contrast.

                 Contrast is an important principle BUT not contrast for contrast’s sake. 

                            Instead the contrast should be related to the Message.

                    and All components must be subservient to the climax.

                          Repeated  sections should not be done exactly the same.

                              We say things a 2nd time to emphasize it, so the 2nd time should be stronger.

              a.  Happy songs have some contrasting reflective, nostalgic, sad or humorous moments.

              b. Sad songs have moments of pleasant emotions of one kind or another.

       2. WORDS

              a. 4 Kinds of words: 1. Emotional  2.  Action  3. Physical  4. Other

              b. Emphasize and/or inflect emotional words especially

              c. Don’t get too literal with physical words.

              d. Multi-syllable word should not be even.

              e. In addition, see the next page “Word Shaping


               There are 3 types of breaths - A breath can be:

                     1. A normal break to another logical emotional phrase.

                     2. Sometimes a dramatic break (“A Pregnant Pause”).

                     3. Without interrupting the phrase flow (Catch breaths).

                            Is a specific breath “an ending” or “in spite of continuing the thought”?   

                           A breath does not mean you have ended the logical emotional phrase.

              In ballads, the word phrasing usually takes precedence over the musical phrasing

              Don’t cut phrase endings short.  ”Send the ends of phrases out to the audience.”

      4. VOLUME LEVELS should be based on the emotions you want to communicate.

              a. 1 (softest) to 5 (loudest)    Most barbershoppers sing at  3 or 4

              b. Volumes should be related to the desired emotions

                   1. Loud = Joy, Ecstasy, Pride, Anguish, Pain & Anger

                   2. Soft = Nostalgia, Tenderness, Coaxing, Whispering, Sweet Nothings, Conspiracy

              c. Long development of volume produces continuity & connectedness

              d. Avoid changing volume when taking a breath, unless there is a change of mood

              e. Change volume in the vowels, not between syllables

              f. Save your most extreme volume for the climax

              g. Emphasize key words, often even inflecting them; De-emphasize unimportant words

     5. TEMPOS for the song, based on the emotions you want to communicate.

              a. Tempo affects the mood more than anything else.

                     1. Slow: Gentleness, thoughtfulness, sadness

                     2. Fast: Urgency, excitement, Higher energy level

             b. Slow accelerando can be very thrilling

                    Generally avoid sudden tempo changes.

             c. In ballads, avoid "run & stop" movement.

                     Not free style tempo but,  rubato is acceptable.

             d. Keep the flow usually.


            a. Glissandos

            b. Tone Color Changes

            c. Sometimes a Sforzando can be use for a special effect.


    1. Put descriptive Feeling-Words above the notes

    2. Climax                    *

    3. Volume

            Fortissimo     (Very Loud)         ff     or   1

            Forte              (Loud)                  f      or   2

            Mezzo Forte  (Medium Loud)    mf   or   3

            Mezzo Piano (Medium Soft)     mp   or   4

            Piano             (Soft)                   p      or    5

            Swell (Crescendo/Decrescendo)    <>

    4. Words

           Target Words                  TW

           Slightly Stressed Word    SS

           Emphasized Syllable        __(Underline)

    5. Speed

           Hold                    Fermata

           Slow                    S

           Medium Slow     MS

           Medium Quick    MQ

           Quick (Fast)         Q

        Combine Syllables   (Connected Curve under the WORD)

    6. Breaths

           Reflective Breath         R’  (Sometimes we call it a “Pregnant Pause”)

           Normal Breath               ‘

           Catch Breath                C’

           Connected (No Breath)   (Connected Curve under the NOTES)

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