Arranging music can often be a daunting task. Breaking things down into smaller tasks is imperative if you are to get things finished. Remember, the arranger with one finished song is far more valuable than the dreamer who has started fifteen!
A few simple rules to remember:
- Don’t focus on what you don’t know. Just keep working on the bits you do – melody, bass, chords. In the end, you might just find you know more than you thought you did!
- Know your limitations – arrange for the singers you have, not the ones you wish you did. A simple arrangement done well will always beat a tricky one performed poorly.
- Always consider the performance. Leave gaps for something visual to happen on stage, and always have in mind how you’d like it to look as well as sound.
- Leave some gaps. A lot of the beauty in music is about what happens in between the notes. Use the power of silence and enjoy some stillness in your music.
Follow these steps to get your arrangements from the ideas phase, through to rehearsal-ready scores:
Choose Your Song
Not every song is destined to be performed a cappella. Some songs now-a-days have their heart and soul in the production rather than the melody thanks to the popularity of electronic and dance music. A lot of songs are written for nightclubs, and are more about feel than the intricacy of melody or lyrics. A song that repeats the same words over and over again is probably best suited to the recorded medium, as it will struggle to keep an audience occupied for three or more minutes in a live setting.
Remember, the heart and soul of a song lies with the words and melody. Pick a song with your singers in mind, so that you know you have the important bits covered. Arrange songs that you know will suit your soloists, and keep in mind any other special skills you might have in the group (vocal percussion, yodeling, trumpet-like sound, etc).
Find Your Resources
Thanks to the digital age, we have a lot of great resources at our fingertips. There’s no need to do everything by ear when there are a lot of good, free ways to get the files you need.
- Mp3 / Audio file
You’ll need a copy or two of the song if you want to really get to know it. Try iTunes – it’s a sure-fire way to get cheap files of impeccable quality. Once your account is set up, you can purchase music any time anywhere. The good thing about online music stores is that you can often find a few versions of the same song (live, studio, remix, etc) – this will give you some different angles on how you choose to arrange it.A less legal way is to use something like www.listentoyoutube.com– find the song in YouTube, copy the URL, and paste it in to download the audio from a video clip. It’s free, easy, and totally illegal so I don’t recommend you do it!Try the old fashion way – buy a CD! Remember, however you get your mitts on music, the artist deserves to make money for their intellectual property. Keep that in mind when you make your decisions.
- Printed Score / PDF
Another handy resource to have is a score of the music you are arranging. This will help you with the melody, chord structure and bass line of the song – 50% there already! Don’t wait around for a physical copy to turn up in the music store – jump online and get it instantly.If a song is out of copyright (and often if it’s not), you can sometimes find a piano/vocal score by simply Googling “title.pdf”. This can often find you access to free music sheets online. If not, try a site like www.musicnotes.com– they have most popular music available for instant download, and it costs around $3-5 per song. You will need to be connected to a printer, as you cannot save the PDF.If you already have a PDF of the song, you can use programs like PhotoScore to scan and convert them into an editable Sibelius file. This is a really quick way to start your score.
PROTIP: Try and get a discount on your score by searching around places like: http://verified.codes/MusicNotes. It may save you!
- MIDI File
Another quick way to get started is with a MIDI file. Simply Google “title.mid” to find one for the song you’re looking at. MIDI is a format in which note triggers and data can be saved and transported between computers. Using a program like Sibelius, ProTools, Garage Band, Sonar, Cubase or Logic to open these files will give you full editing control over every instrument’s notes.A MIDI file will generally have way too much information for most arrangements, but by copying and pasting the bits you need, you will be able to make a good start, and understand what a lot of the instruments are doing. There is no quality control on MIDI files, but they’re free and easy to find, making them an arranger’s best friend.
- Chord Chart
It is always handy to understand the chord structure of a song before you start to arrange it. This is very simple these days as you can find chord charts very quickly from the Internet free of charge. Just Google “title artist chords” and you should find what you’re after pretty quickly. Try out www.tabs.ultimate-guitar.com or www.azchords.com to get started.
Study Your Song
Get inside the song – work out which parts are the heart and soul of the song. Obviously there is the melody and lyrics, but every song has a chord, a riff, a drum fill, or a harmony that everyone knows and loves. That moment in a song that everyone is waiting for throughout. Get to know the journey of the song – where does it start? Where is the pinnacle of the song? Where is the build?
Studying the song is about listening really carefully to it, as often as you can – check out cover versions, live versions, video clips, anything that will help you understand what it’s about. Make notes as you listen about ideas you may have about how you’ll arrange it. Having a printed score you can scribble on is really helpful here – you can pencil in where you think a harmony or duet would go, where unison or a solo would be appropriate, or where the vocal percussion needs to kick in.
So… go on and get arranging! If you still have any questions, concerns or jubilations about arranging a cappella music, feel free to get in touch. Please note: the websites and businesses are in no way affiliated with Vocal Australia, nor do they pay for advertising of any sort. They are simply handy sites that have proven useful in the past.
Score Your Melody
The most important thing to start with is the melody. Score it out in your chosen medium, and if using a computer, work in “panorama” mode or similar – this will take away any need to think about your page layout – it’s not important yet. Even if you’re going to switch the melody between different parts, start out with a line that has the complete line in it. As mentioned earlier, you can often copy and paste your melody to save time and energy. Put the words in so that you know where you are up to in the song, as well as any markers (verse, bridge, chorus, etc) you think will help.
Putting in chord name and/or symbols above the staves will help you down the track too.
Add Your Bass Line
Add a bass line to your piece in a separate part. No need to get fancy with it at first – you can start by just putting whole notes, minims or crotchets as needed in the bars, determined by your chord chart. The bass part will often just play the home note or tonic of the chord, and if it differs from that the chord chart will tell you by means of a ‘slash’ (in this chord: Bb/F, the bass plays the F).
Once your notes are in, have a look at the rhythmic qualities that the part may need. Is it straight crotchets? Dotted crotchets with an off-beat feel? Perhaps some more complex 16th beat rhythms? Either way, now is your time to start filling in the bass rhythms. Don’t get too finicky – there’s always time to go back through each part and make it more sing-able later. Just keep your bass(es)’ range(s) in mind when you’re working on it. You can always jump up and down the octave with a bass part, and add leading notes later to make the jumps simpler.
At this point, just grab a spare part, and put in some block chords in whole notes, minims or crotchets as required. It will just be a rough guide, so no need to get too tricky with it. Just lay the notes there so you can come back later and voice your proper backing parts. Voice the chords in whatever clef your majority of backing parts will fall in. You don’t want to end up with five ledger lines, as it will make things pretty messy.
Add Important Backing Parts
Most songs will have a few backing parts that are really memorable. Think Mustang Sally (“ride, Sally ride”) or the little kids in The Living Years (“Say it loud, say it clear”). Add these parts in to the score. No need to worry about where they’ll fit in yet. Just add a new part in addition to what you’ve got. If there are any backing vocals that you can hear in the original (oos, yeahs, ahs, etc), put them in too. You can always take things out later if it’s too busy.
Textures For Backing Parts
Here’s a good time to start thinking about what kinds of textures are needed in the backing parts. Sometimes you can get away with holding an oo, other times you may need to do something more rhythmical. Often the backing parts will sing the same rhythms and sounds together, but not always. Complex rhythms may require some more effort than this.
Now is a good time to start working in staves that represent the voices you’re working with. Remember, you don’t have to get rid of the extra ones just yet – keep them there as a chord reference, and as a quick copy-and-paste tool. Remember, when artists record a song, they can have 100 tracks to play with. You have a limited number of voices, so be prepared to make compromises. Make sure every chord contains everything it needs, and avoid doubling notes. This may mean you have to be flexible with your decisions.
As you are now writing parts for actual singers, take in mind things like breaks for breathing, and consider range and singability of the parts. If there are huge jumps in the parts, is there a way you could simplify it?
Now is also a good time to decide on your bass rhythms and sounds. Most bass parts in pop a cappella consist of sounds like ‘doo’ ‘dm’ ‘ba da’… you don’t have to get too finicky in small groups – a good bass will find their own groove with the notes you give them.
By this stage, the important backing parts should all be integrated, as well as most of the chords – delete the parts you have included along the way so you know where you’re up to. If you can delete a whole stave to tidy things up, go for it. If there are gaps in between “important backing parts” and “chord textures”, leave your chords there for a reference to come back to. Then, if you think the gaps need to be filled, use the chords as a reference.
Add In Duets and Unison Passages
Are there any parts of the song that would lend themselves well to a harmony? Any parts that you could add punch to by putting in a unison section? Add yourself an addition stave or two and score out the parts.
Once you have them laid out, consider which voice would be most suited to the extra part – consider which noted of the chord you will be using, and which other part already has those notes. It will, as always be a process of compromise. Once you’ve found the appropriate part, cut and paste, and make any necessary changes to other parts.
Tidy Up Your Score
You should be at a stage now where you can sing through all your parts and make any last minute changes. Make sure all the parts make sense melodically, and make sure you and your group will be capable of singing them. It’s better to do a simple arrangement well than a tricky arrangement badly. Make sure that it is readable, and that there is no overlapping in the layout. Get rid of un-necessaries (chord symbols, marks, etc) that are cluttering up the score, and print out a copy to test what your singers will be using. Pencil in changes so that you can go back and fix them if necessary.
If you’re a real control freak, here’s your chance to get in and insert all your dynamic markings and instructions! I usually recommend you save this step until you’re thinking about publishing. Let your group get creative about how they’d like to perform it, and go back and insert these finer elements in once you’ve heard how it sounds.
Convert your score to a format that is useful. If you’ve hand-written it, scan it and send it out as a PDF – remember, if it exists online these days, it is always accessible and there won’t be any excuse for not practicing it. If you have the option within your group, set up a Google Docs or FTP account (or something similar) where you can store all your score files.
If you have the option of making a MIDI file or mp3 of the arrangement, send it out to all your singers. The easier it is for them to learn it, the more likely it is that it will feature in your next show.
Note: The examples used in this article are for educational purposes only. The use, distribution, copying and publishing of these examples is strictly prohibited.
Start to learn your parts and sing it as a group. There are a few really important things to remember when doing this:
1) Be patient! You can’t expect everyone to understand the piece straight away. Give them time and assistance to get it right.
2) Be creative. If people have ideas about how it could be better, listen and take them on board. Creativity is quickly killed by sarcasm, cynicism and negativity – give every idea the chance to develop into something wonderful before you chuck it in the trash!
3) Be flexible. Writers shouldn’t direct their own scripts, arrangers shouldn’t dominate discussion about an arrangement. Be open to an outside perspective.
Make sure you keep all your files or papers along the way, so you can easily go back and make edits. Remember, you might be with a group for ten years – a song can evolve a lot in that time, but new members need to know what they’re doing. Keep a log of changes in a master score, and update it regularly if you intend to keep singing it.
So… go on and get arranging! If you still have any questions, concerns or jubilations about arranging a cappella music, feel free to get in touch.
Co-Founder, Vocal Australia