The other day I wondered this about the Krauss/Plant version of Through The Morning Through The Night:

I have a thing about this song, and the distinctive country minor-lilt of the harmonies. That interval, that particular pairing of vocal parts, IS country music. How does something like that evolve? Is is just based on a regional singing accent? What’s the thing? I can’t get that question out of my head. Listen to the chorus and ponder for me would you?

On his blog Man Without Qualities, @murdobard was good enough to give it some very interesting thought:

Well, there are a number of questions in that, obviously, and I – with my small knowledge of country music – can’t answer all of them, but I can attempt to grasp some. Here is a very rough transcription of the vocal parts, with the bass note underneath (likely to be wrong: this was a very quick transcription, and the middle melody in particular I think I flubbed).

alison_Kraus

What’s going on here? Most simply, this is a case of melodies moving in parallel thirds. This means that the diatonic interval of the third (meaning either a minor or major third, in order to keep within the key) is the primary interval between parts, and they move in the same direction – making them move in a parallel fashion. This is a form of voice-leading, but they are careful not to have too many instances in which the voices move in contrary motion (where once voice moves in the opposite direction to the other). This tends to make one melody stand out as dominant over other, supporting melodies, as opposed to having three independent and equally important parts. In this, the upper melody is always the primary focus. This arrangement of vocal parts creates a preponderance of four types of intervals: thirds, sixths (the inverse of thirds: if you take an interval of a third and lower the top note by an octave you get the interval of a sixth), fifths and fourths (the inverse of a fifth). This is a very smooth set of intervals, containing none of the dissonances you hear in seconds or sevenths (seconds inverted).

I was talking about counterpoint earlier, when talking about Spoon’s song “Don’t Make Me a Target”. This is similar, in that it uses the techniques of voice-leading, yet is also not really counterpoint, as the melodies are not independent. This form of part writing is all over country and pop music, which partly answers Green’s question of “what’s the thing?” However, it doesn’t go the whole way, as nothing about what I have written distinguishes this part from a pop song with harmonies, or even a 19th century classical piece.

What really makes this so country is, obviously, a combination of factors: the instrumentation; the chord progression; the melody; the lyrics and, possibly most important of all, the phrasing. Listen to the syrupy way in which each vocalist slides from one note to the next, evoking the sound of the steel guitar you hear in the background. The method of harmonising the melody is an important part, but, when broken down like this, still only one factor.

And I thought that was pretty darn cool …. and neatly explained some of the musical stuff happening in there. Still left me wondering though, at how it is that a particular set of musical idiosyncrasies is embraced and repeated, to the point where it becomes a recognisable style. Why is country music country music?

Music has always worked that way I guess, well-defined forms shared by a range of players and composers over years, slowly morphing. Nothing jumps too far. Dowland still sounds recognisably forlorn.

Sorry these are just empty musings, going nowhere special.

Is this the Through the Morning etc original?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ibdk6iI-RM[/youtube]

Nice. Roll down the window. Roll up.

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