Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui made a strong case for the group as a foursome, strutting fiercely through “Work From Home” as giant screens flashed each of their names. But after the performance kicked off with the ladies covering Cabello’s part, it was tough not to wonder if the group actually sounded different — a bit thinner, maybe? — without Cabello in the mix.
Much has been made of the circumstances of Cabello’s departure, but from a purely musical standpoint, what happens when a five-member vocal group becomes four?
“From a vocal arranging perspective, it’s not a huge deal to go from five to four in a pop group that uses instrumental backing,” says Ben Bram, a Grammy-winning arranger and music director who has worked with Pentatonix and contributed to the Pitch Perfect franchise. “Just a slight shift in how you would arrange the vocals, but no major change in the sound.”
As Bram points out, Fifth Harmony is far from the only vocal group to carry on when one member leaves (see: Direction, One), and any difference in sound likely depends more on how attached a listener is to a particular voice, like Cabello’s.
“I think the biggest change in the overall sound comes from the loss of their strongest lead vocalist,” he says, “similar to One Direction losing Zayn.”
But if you detected something the slightest bit off about Fifth Harmony’s performance, there’s a perfectly reasonable music theory reason: take it from Taylor Hanson, who’s spent decades developing an intimate knowledge of multi-part harmony as one third of Hanson.
“The main difference with five versus four is that you are limited when it comes to adding extra harmony or extra counterpoint on those complementary fourth and fifth notes,” Hanson says. He and his brothers got an early start using overlapping vocal arrangements, singing gospel songs and a cappella before shifting to their current rock-pop incarnation.
As Hanson explains, a traditional chord is based on a three-note foundation, and often pop vocal groups will use those foundational three as their base. “The fourth and the fifth voices allow you to have that harmony foundation, but then someone can branch off and sing a lead part,” he says. “With five notes, you can add what’s sometimes called the ‘money note’ — the note that pulls against the chord. It might stay straight, while the rest of the singers are singing a change. If it’s done right, it can be really compelling, especially if you are doing layered vocal tracks. You are creating accent parts.”
With four instead of five singers performing, Hanson stresses that these complicated changes are still possible, though “the biggest challenge is that you have to pull away an element from your core, foundational chord, and decide if you’re going to focus more on the lead singer who is doing counterpoint, or stay and focus on the foundational melody of the song,” he says.
“For a vocal group, five parts allow you to have a completely robust balance of harmonies and still create the little changes and shifts that a pop record accentuates — the trading off of lead vocals,” he says. Take away a part like Cabello’s, “and you’ve limited your ability to create that kind of drama.” But fear not, Harmonizers: “It’s nothing that a new song can’t solve.”