We’ve talked a bit about creativity coming from outside sources, but how about things your group can do on its own to be creative? As you craft the sound of your album there are few things more important than your arrangements. Truthfully these can come from folks outside your group as well (sometimes to great effect), but let’s say you want to take a stab at it yourself.
What follows is aimed particularly at intermediate and advanced arrangers. If this will be your first arrangement I recommend reading some of the other articles available on this website first (Deke Sharon’s “10 steps of arranging” is a good place to start, and I also have a previous blog on the topic of beginning arranging). For those folks ready to shake things up – let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes!
When you sit down to arrange a song a cappella, you start with a basic choice. You may think about this choice any number of ways, but what it boils down to is whether you want your arrangement to stay true to the sound and spirit of the original song, or whether you want to do something entirely different. Staying true to the idea of the original gives you more of a framework to start with, and as a result I would consider it to be more “basic” than working the song up from scratch. First, let’s focus on what you can do to be creative within the confines of the original song (changing the blueprint of the tune will be the focus of a later article).
I like to think about this approach to arranging as a conversation with a song. A good conversationalist listens first to understand what is being presented. So too should you begin with the song you are arranging. Don’t just listen for the instrument sounds you hear; that approach will predispose you to create a more literal, transcription-style arrangement. Instead, pay attention to your honest emotional reaction to different elements of the song. Maybe you hear an ascending string line that makes you feel uplifted and elated. Maybe you hear a pounding staccato bass that makes you want to dance. The important thing is to note what you feel first, and then to see if you can determine what musical elements caused that reaction in you.
What does this have to do with being creative? Remember that a big element of creativity is to draw on things that are unique to you, your situation, and your group so that others may not easily replicate it. With respect to arranging, what better way to go about this than to begin with your personal reaction to the music? Approaching the music in this way will allow you to think about producing an emotional representation of a song that is wholly unique to you and your perception. It doesn’t get much more original than that!
Let’s talk about how this approach plays out practically. Say you hear that uplifting string line – how do you write it down so as to convey to others your impression of the moment? Again, start with what you feel and move backwards. The string line rises, so ask yourself if it would be as effective if it fell. If not, you know that that element of the musical moment is key to your perception and the resulting emotional response. Try to maintain as many elements as you feel are critical to the sound (harmonic direction, duration, inversion, timbre, resolution, etc).
Staying with this string idea for a moment, say it does indeed make you feel uplifted. You’ve got the key elements mapped in your head, so what syllables can you assign to make it most effective? One technique you might try is to use words from the song to make up the background syllables. Provided that the song itself is uplifting (or at least that section of the song is), you should be able to find words that suggest an uplifted feeling in the solo (“hope,” or “rise,” perhaps), and you can then use that word or words as your syllables. Be aware that words tend to draw listener focus, so only use this if you want your strings to be more obvious to your audience.
If you would rather your strings be less noticed, consider using neutral or nonsense syllables – but be aware of how they will fit the timbre of the song. The important thing isn’t so much imitating the sound of the strings (though “v” is probably your best friend there), but instead to think about where the strings fall in relation to everything else and to choose your sound accordingly. This goes back to what the strings make you feel. Are you uplifted because of the warmth of their sound? If so, consider using dark, rich vowels like “ah” and “oh.” Did you notice them because they soar high out of the texture? If so, maybe try a brighter vowel like “ee.”
As you may have guessed, I’m leaving out a major step between beginning arranging and tackling a song from this point of view: practice! Arranging based on the emotional triggers in a song requires you as the arranger to be really sensitive to your own responses to musical stimuli. Furthermore, it requires you to be able to articulate the genesis (or perhaps even geneses) of those responses. Those are two big skills that don’t develop overnight! If this is brand new to you, start slow. Listen critically to the way the original song is arranged, how that presentation makes you feel, and why.
The endgame of course is creativity! You want to wind up with an effective arrangement that is based on your unique response to a song. Move beyond writing down what you hear (which again, tends toward transcription) and instead try to show your audience, in sound, what the original song made you feel.
This is a complicated topic that goes a bit beyond the boundaries of what I can fully communicate in a column. I hope this at least gives you a place to start thinking about arranging in a way you might not have considered! If you have any questions, please post them below and I’ll do my best to answer. Next time we’ll take a look at redefining the feel of the original song for something brand new!
About the author:
Robert Dietz is a recent graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and is pursuing a graduate diploma in Music Composition and Production at the Australian Institute of Music.