HomeArranging Creatively – Intermediate Tricks and Tips (Part 2): Harmony

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Last time we took a look at the first major tool you have in your arranging arsenal to start interpreting or re-interpreting a song: rhythm.  That discussion centered mostly on syllable choices, since it’s the element of a cappella arranging most unique to our medium, namely voices!  This time around we’re going to think vertically instead of horizontally, and talk about choices you can make harmonically to convey your vision for a song.

If you’ve been arranging for a while, you’ve probably been exposed to the concept of vertical thinking in an arrangement.  What this means is thinking about the texture of your work from a harmonic standpoint – in other words, what does your arrangement look like at any given single moment in time.  You can have a thin texture (few notes, widely spaced), or a thicker texture (many notes close together).  That’s the basic concept, so let’s work from there.

Harmonic texture has an enormous impact on how your audience perceives your music.  I have a theory (so far ungrounded in any science I’ve seen, but there may be some research out there!) that the density of your arrangement has a direct correlation to your audience’s focus.  The denser your harmonies are, the more focus you demand of your audience to process what they’re hearing (the notes are closer, and thus not as easily differentiated by the ear).  If you have any sort of attentive audience, this kind of texture decision can automatically result in them zeroing in on your performance.  When that happens in large groups, you start to get this really cool, unifying energy.

Again, I’m making this up, but it really does seem to be true.  Think about times you’ve been in the audience watching a really close, consonant harmony piece (if you’re more classically oriented, think Whitacre or Lauridsen, perhaps).  Don’t you feel drawn in to the music?  That kind of texture demands focus.  Conversely, wide spacing creates a more open, less unified vibe.  This sort of texture has its use, but you need to think about how it’s going to impact an audience (this comes back to the original point of all this: what does the song make you feel, and what texture best translates that feeling?).

Ok, you probably came here looking for some more concrete arranging advice, so I’ll shift gears and stop theorizing (but I hope the theory at least gets you thinking!).  Let’s talk about how to use harmonic texture practically, and in a way that gets beyond simple chord transcription.

If you know the basics of voice leading, you know that the smoothest way to transition between chords is to use a common tone – a note that is in both chords that does not move in the transition.  Use these notes to your advantage when going out on a limb to make new harmonic decisions.  If you’re changing the harmony drastically from the original progression, consider using common tone motion to make the shift less jarring for your audience.

A simple example (warning, a fair amount of music theory ahead): let’s say you’re working on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in the key of G Major.  Probably the simplest harmonization would be:

G           G        C       G   C       G        D            G
Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.

If you prefer Roman Numerals: I, I, IV, I, IV, I, V, I

Now, let’s say you want to make a simple harmonic change – subbing the C Major chord (IV) with an F Major (bVII) instead.  Though this is a somewhat familiar sound for most people due to its inclusion in a lot of Western Rock and Pop harmony, attempting this with all chords in root position could be rather jarring.  Instead try adding a common tone to the mix to smooth over the motion.  Let’s take a quick stock of the elements we have in play:

G major scale: Notes – G, A, B, C, D, E, F# - Utilized for G triad (G, B, D)
F Major scale – F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E – Utilized for F triad (F, A, C)

Still with me?  If we want to move between these chords with as little disruption as possible, what can we borrow from each chord’s tonic scale to use in common between the chords?  In other words, what sounds good added to a G Major chord (present in the diatonic G Major scale), and also exists in an F Major triad?  Got it?  ‘A’ – the 2nd (or 9th, in the higher octave) scale degree, and ‘C’ (4th or 11th).  How about from the F Major back to G Major?  ‘G’ (also 2 or 9), and ‘D’ (6th or 13th).

You can add these color notes to their respective chords in order to use them as common tones in the progression.  So, to use one example, the 9th in an F Major chord is a ‘G,’ which of course is the root of a G Major triad.  Add it, and hold it over between the chords, and you’ve got a much smoother transition.

To be sure, some of these color tones will sound dissonant when the melody is added to the mix (ie, the melody on “little” in the key of G Major is an ‘E,’ which will clash like crazy with an added ‘D’ in an F Major chord).  Your job as an arranger is to decide which colors fit the impression of the song you’re trying to create!

How many notes is too many?  My personal opinion on the subject is when you’ve got so many color notes in play that they are completely obscuring the chord changes, you’ve got a problem.  Most moments in contemporary pop music rely on those tonal shifts, so unless you’re going for something really avant garde, make sure you have something other than the bass signaling your transitions from chord to chord.

Books, nay encyclopedias have been written on the topic of harmonic theory (with focus on substitutions in particular), and it would be far beyond my abilities to cover even a fraction of their wealth of information in this column.  If this is all new to you, consider this the edge of the rabbit hole.  There is virtually infinite information out there on how to substitute, re-voice, and texture arrangements.  If this brief discussion of texture and voicing intrigued you, I’d highly recommend doing a little research on your options when it comes to harmony.  Always remember – it all comes back to serving what you feel.  Aim to communicate what moves you about your vision for a song and you’ll come up with something that is uniquely your own.

As always, I’m happy to try and answer questions below!  We’re going to take a little break from arranging next time to talk about creativity in solo delivery and recording.  See you then!

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.



I love this article. It actually brings me back to my Psych 320: Sensation and Perception class in college.  This is where I first started to compare music and psychology on the same psychologic plane. 

I will (briefly) address the main theory suggested in the article.

The theory of "more texture has a direct correlation to more focus".. let's just say that 60% of the time it works every time :-). The positive correlation is absolutely true within the right perameters.  This theory is true when the given audience is actively listening.  Also, this positive correlation has a definite threshold, usually and most likely when cluster occurs (cluster = 3 or more pitches with no definte harmonic center or relationship within a given harmonic progression).  In other words, what you were talking about later in the article about having too many pitches is sooooooooooooo right.  Ameteur arrangers fall into the trap of adding 9ths and 6ths and 2nds and suspended 4ths and 11ths, etc to their chords and all of a sudden there are more non-chord tones than chord tones.  In this senario.. remember KISS.. as in: Keep It Stunningly Simple!

In conclusion, my advice to any arrangers reading this article is to remember that color notes are wonderful and ear catching, but when you add too many different colors you get black!

Nice article Rob!

-Matt Caruso

Makes sense!

Gotcha - so for this to work the audience needs to be actively engaged with the music *and* needs to be able to have some semblance of tonal orientation.  Otherwise it's either background music or just noise.

There is something about a cappella/choral/vocal music that demands focus.  Again, I can only speculate on the science, but what group isn't familiar with the old "background music at a dinner party" gig?  Doesn't work so well if you're a cappella, right?  

Matt - could I trouble you to to explain (either here or on your own site) the "psych for dummies" science behind this phenomena?  What's different in our brains when we're listening actively versus passively?  How about when we're hearing "music" versus "noise?"  I'm just really interested in how this all works, and what it means to groups and arrangers! 


RARB Interim Marketing Director
Human Feedback.com
Ithacappella 2006-2010
Ascending Height 2002-2006
The Sing-Off Vocal Coach/Arranger

Reply is comin..

I love your articles Rob.. they give me inspiration for new blog articles! :-)

I'll get writing and post another reply when it's up!


Cool, thanks dude!


RARB Interim Marketing Director
Human Feedback.com
Ithacappella 2006-2010
Ascending Height 2002-2006
The Sing-Off Vocal Coach/Arranger

first half..

Here's the answer to your first question.... http://www.dracappella.com/?p=87

Makes sense!

Apologies for the double post - can't figure out how to delete!

RARB Interim Marketing Director
Human Feedback.com
Ithacappella 2006-2010
Ascending Height 2002-2006
The Sing-Off Vocal Coach/Arranger

well said!

"when you add too many different colors you get black!" very true. it's also interesting to consider that the idea of "too many colors" varies depending on the audience, the overall intelligence of the arrangement, the execution by the performers, and a couple other things i can think of off the top of my head. but great article, and great comments and further insight! thanks guys, for giving me some food for thought!

-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

Tricks and tips are really

Tricks and tips are really very useful. Thanks for all the information. This article is really wonderful. The examples are really very interesting.

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Tricks and tips are essential.Only re-arrange once you are already comfortable with your own style and have an idea of what you may wish to do in the future.

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Good to know about all this

Good to know about all this things. A good rule of thumb in all arranging is that if you can’t sing it, how will your group be able to?  When you’re interpreting a line, after you’ve picked the vocal color (or perhaps colors) you feel is appropriate, ask yourself what consonants will best frame the sound around the rhythm you’re trying to convey so that the syllables roll easily off the tongue. hotsy pressure washers martinsburg west virginia


These are always helpful to grow further..I always loved the creative part of everything..Thanks for one's marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and may come back down the road. I want to encourage you to ultimately continue your great job, have a nice evening!

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