Probably at some point, someone in the acappella community will tell you that the performance matters more than the arrangement. I’m here to tell you THAT’S BULLSHIT. Great performance can hide a subpar arrangement, and the inverse of that holds much truth as well. However, great arrangements can make your group perform better and with more confidence, as well as sound cool in their own right. Arranging is an incredibly important and essential part of singing acappella.
This document is for those who have recently begun to try their hand at arranging acappella music. This post is NOT going into music theory or notation, but rather, it goes through the mindset that I have while arranging, critiquing, and editing acappella music. It should be very useful to anyone who puts acappella music to paper, whether it be an arranger looking at their own work, or a music director overviewing someone else's. I usually approach this in three different steps:
- Is the arrangement singable?
- Is the arrangement exciting?
- Does the arrangement &%(@#*$ SING?
I would focus on approaching these one at a time, in that order. As you follow through this post, keep in mind that art has no real rules; You will undoubtedly find exceptions to everything I lay out in this article. Think of these as guidelines to bring all of your arrangements to a good baseline. You should break the rules when you understand why you should break them.
The Singable Arrangement
Always make the arrangement as simple as you can without compromising sound. You won’t be able to create effective and effective arrangements until your group can efficiently learn and perform the music you give them. This is the most important skill for a beginning arranger to master. If you make your arrangement simple and have all the necessary parts of each chord, your group will be able to make it sound good. I have a few guidelines I follow to keep my arrangements simple:
1. Avoid Incoherent Phrases
These often take the form of unnecessary larger interval leaps, or having people sing unrelated melodies within a short timespan. Unnecessary interval leaps are usually are caused by poor planning; for instance, if you have a soprano sing the bottom note in a voicing when you know that they need to sing the highest note in the next chord. Unrelated melodies in a single part tend to either be an arranger trying to bandaid a boring arrangment or simply trying to address too many ideas at the same time.
In general, just make phrases that you can sing and memorize within your first few try. Try recording your arrangements as you write them. If you can’t sing them easily, then make sure you don't have any simpler alternate voicings.
2. Use your Words
Words create interest. Use them in the background to avoid boring backing tracks, or use them to stand out in an arrangement of oos and ahs. Furthermore, words can make an arrangement MUCH more fun to sing. The best case scenario is if people in your group find themselves singing their parts because they sound cool by themselves. It's very hard to get to that point without words.
3. Vowels and Consonants with Purpose
My biggest pet-peeve in contemporary acappella is that consonants and vowels are thrown around without any real purpose. Do you find yourself singing jen jen’s in the shower? Because I doubt it. "Doo bee doo bee" do has its place in some songs, but chances are, an "oo", "ah", or words will do better. Have a real reason for any sound you use.
4. Arrange with Breaths
Avoid phrases that are longer than someone can sing without breathing. Sometimes it’s necessary for effect, and this is but you shouldn’t be dependent on people taking “sneaky” breaths; singers perform worse when they are low on air or have to take weirdly-timed breaths. This rule is less relevant for recording-only arrangements.
5. Know the Range of your singers
You can make singers sing out of their tessitura (ideally for not for long) but keep in mind this also changes the tonality of the note. Also remember that for quiet parts, throwing the guys up into head voice or falsetto can work really well for really cool cluster chords. For contemporary acappella, ranges basically break down to this:
Soprano (C4-G5): Sopranos generally like to stay around the middle of the treble clef. In order to keep sopranos from overwhelming the sound, it’s a good idea to keep them on the lower half of the staff.
Alto (G3-B4): Altos have a lot of versatility being the lower end of their staff. Tenor and alto parts usually can be interchanged without too much difficulty.
Tenor (C3-A4): Tenors are like sopranos that are an octave lower. Not much is too different.
Bass (E2-D4): You usually wanna keep them above one ledger line below the bass clef. Most basses are able to hit the D below that, but not always easily.
Mezzosoprano and Baritone: These parts basically cover any ground in between the other four parts. they thrive in the lower halves of the part above them, and the upper half of the part below them.
Make Your Arrangement Exciting
After you make your arrangements singable, this is the next step. Give your singers a way to excite people. If it’s a slow song, you need it grip at the heartstrings. If it’s an up-tempo and exciting song, the arrangement should make the audience AND for the group want to dance.
1. Play with expectations
One of the only two reasons to do top 40 hits. You can’t play with people’s expectations of a song that they haven't heard. The two cliche attempts at this are mashing up a couple 4-chord songs with the same progression, and/or turning any song into a ballad. So maybe I don't recommend doing that without another twist. But attempting to arrange something that people will not hear anywhere except an acappella concert is a good start.
2. Arrange for soloists
Take advantage of any exceptional soloists. Ask them what songs they like to sing. Have a projected soloist help you arrange, or bounce ideas off them. The more a soloist feels comfortable with a song, the more their personality and style for that song can show up on stage. If a group you're arranging for wants to audition the song with multiple soloists, make them beat someone who KNOWS can kill it. If you cater to an awesome soloist, there's really not a way to make an arrangement go too poorly.
3. Arrange for ALL your soloists
Not just your singers. This includes vocal percussion, rapper, any weird-ass sounds your members can make with their voices, or even any personalities that can shine through in a song. Anything that works well with a particular song or performance can and should be used.
Make it &%(@#*$ SING
If you have singable and exciting arrangements... well then you've won. Maybe focus on consistency. If you have that, too... well then we have a few additional guidelines:
1. NO RULES! NO RULES!
But seriously, feel free to ignore anything I’ve told you thus-far or will tell you in future rules if it works. If it sounds sweet and your group can sing it, by all means do it!
LVD stands for Loudness, Volume, and Dynamics. You may be saying to yourself “aren’t those the same thing?” to which I say, “YES, THAT’S HOW IMPORTANT IT IS!!!!” Ok, I lie; there are some subtle differences in what these words mean. However, I'm not here to grapple with smaller semantic differences. Encouraging dynamic range is what separates a good arrangement from a great one. Have parts in your arrangement that gradually get louder or softer, or all of a sudden explode with loudness and all of a sudden implode dynamically. The dynamics of the piece should reflect the moments in the song that have the most impact. It’s up to you, the arranger, to decide whether a certain area of interest calls for loud or quiet to have the largest impact, and to encourage the group to adjust.
How do you encourage this, you ask? Dynamic markings help, but the main contributor is vowel choice. I cannot count the amount of times I've seen new arrangers mark something as forte, but have all the parts singing "oo". The group will have an incredibly difficult time making this work.
3. Part Density
Another way you can control dynamics is with part density. Part density is simply how many parts you have singing at any given time. This is an essential tool for creating very dynamic arrangements. The biggest thing to take away from this is: You don’t always need to have everyone singing at once. For example, if you need a part to sound powerful, but it's not the climax of your song, having a subset of singers sing with power, then having the rest of the group join in is a much stronger effect than having the whole group sing a little quieter on the first phrase.
4. Revel in the 2nd Verse
There’s an old adage amongst arrangers:
“The second verse is where arrangements go to die” -Abraham Lincoln, 1985
Acappella can get really boring really fast. Despite the voice being humanity's most versatile non-electronic instrument, we still have smaller range of tonal qualities available than other ensembles. So, to keep your audiences interested, a good arrangement needs to be dynamic: the arrangement needs to introduce change. Some acappella arrangers will even drop the second verse of a song or replace it completely, because it’s a repetition of the same stuff you’ve already heard, just with different words. If you include the 2nd verse of a song, you better have a good reason, and be introducing something new to progress the song. Otherwise, you might as well just drop it.
5. YOUR ARRANGEMENT IS A FINE DESSERT
There’s a reason the dessert portions at fancy restaurants are so infuriatingly small. A powerful no-flour chocolate cake is luxurious and complex on the first plate, but it just tastes like dry, bitter, brown stuff by the time you finish your 2nd 5-lb cake.
The same idea goes for arranging. Unless something sounds SICK AS FUCK, AND fits into the interest curve you’re building, then you probably shouldn’t add it to the arrangement. Every section of the arrangement needs to improve the song, making it feel cooler or deeper. Trim the fat. Better to leave your audience wanting more than wishing the song was over already.
As much a life rule as it is an arranging rule, don’t be afraid to experiment and screw up. Just do the thing! The faster you screw up, the faster you can learn from those screw-ups, and the faster you can improve. This applies to arrangements just as much as anything else in life, so don’t be afraid to jump in and fail faster!
Now, pull up your favorite music writing program, keep what I’ve told you in mind, and ARRANGE!