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An explanation of potentially confusing music theory terms

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A correction on the letters page of the Sept/Oct issue of The Harmonizer contained the following note:

In a paragraph that explained why the term “Chinese 7th” is problematic, the following was added to Joe Liles’ tag intro: It’s clear why Barbershoppers gave this chord a nickname, because the real name is a mouthful. (“7th chord in 1st inversion, drop 3”; we also use drop 2 and drop 2/4 variations.) The suggested edit was thought to have been sent to Joe for his approval, but languished in a “drafts” folder until it was too late. Joe wouldn’t have accepted the edit without changes, as the inserted terminology and concepts are not part of classic music theory. As Society music staff members Scott Harris and Wayne Grimmer contributed the unfamiliar terms, they have created an explanation for these terms, which come from their formal background in jazz and commercial music.

The following was written by Scott Harris, BHS Arranger & Repertoire Manager:

There is a difference between analyzing a chord and analyzing a chord voicing.

A chord with the 5th scale degree in the bottom voice is always analyzed in music theory as a 2nd inversion chord. However, calling what Barbershoppers have traditionally recognized as a “Chinese 7th” chord simply “a chord in 2nd inversion” does not take into account the specific voicing or spelling of that chord. Not all 2nd inversion chords are in that specific voicing. This is where the “1st inversion, drop-3” analysis comes in. 

There is a jazz arranging technique called “Four-Way Close” which is primarily used in jazz for big band or any ensemble with multiple horn parts. Perhaps you’ve heard a “super-sax” arrangement where the melody is harmonized throughout with all five saxophones? This is essentially what we do in barbershop, only we use voices instead of saxophones, and the melody/lead is in the second voice, not in the top voice. 

Four-way close simply counts the notes of any tight four-note chord voicing from top-down in order (1, 2, 3, 4) no matter the inversion.

As an example, take a root-position dominant seventh chord and move it into 1st inversion…we now have in top-down order (with the four-way close numbers in parentheses):

  1. Root (1)
  2. Seventh (2)
  3. Fifth (3)
  4. Third (4)

With this 1st inversion dominant seventh chord, the 5th is now the third voice from the top. When you “drop” that note an octave, you arrive at the distinctive and immediately recognizable “Chinese 7th” voicing:

  1. Root (1)
  2. Seventh (2)
  3. Third (4)
  4. Fifth (3) – down 8vb

Is this a 2nd inversion chord because the 5th is in the bottom voice? Yes.

Is the voicing most accurately described as a seventh chord in 1st inversion, drop-3? Yes.

Describe the chord by whatever theoretical concept makes the most sense to you, but let’s refrain from including any spurious reference to Asian culture when doing so.

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