HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogContemporary A Cappella Arranging in 10 Steps

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Contemporary a cappella has been around for over a decade, resulting in a dynamic and rhythmic sound and style that makes it different from barbershop, doo wop, close harmony, and other a cappella styles. Learn how to create a great contemporary a cappella arrangement using this tried and true 10 step formula.

I) Choose a Song
It's easy to come up with songs that would be fun to arrange, but usually there is a question of what's needed in the repertoire, or what's missing stylistically. Avoiding songs that are frequently performed by other a cappella groups is a good idea your group will make a name for itself much more quickly if you develop your own sound. You group should have a great first and last song, a great encore, and at least one ballad at its disposal.  Make sure you have someone in your group who can sing the solo of the song you choose.  The soloist is the most important vocalist in any song, and since as arranger you're organizing everything around this central voice and melody, you'd better be sure that you have a voice that can get the job done.

II) Listen to the Original Repeatedly!
This principle is the same as in foreign language study; listen to the song over and over and over again. While you're concentrating, and while you're not. You will begin to hear sounds, textures, rhythms, and chords that you never heard before, some of which are very subtle and mixed quietly in the background and can add a lot to make your arrangement exciting and interesting.

III) Buy the Sheet Music - Get a midi file - Look at & listen to other arrangements of the song
Stravinsky admitted to "stealing" musical ideas from others and himself, and he wasn't the first great musician to do so. There is a plagiarism case to be made from someone copying a paragraph out of a book, but there is no ownership of a texture, or vocal lick, or arranging trick. The artistry is in knowing when and where to use these various elements to enhance your personal style as opposed to slavishly imitating.

Caveat emptor: there can be mistakes or simplifications in printed music/midi files (melody and/or chords), but if you've internalized the song, you'll catch them. At the same time, there can be interesting decisions made in vocal/piano or guitar arrangements that may spark new ideas.

IV) Decide on a Form
Sometimes there's no decision to be made, and other times it will take a great deal of creativity to know how to sew together the important sections of a song that has a lot of instrumental filler. The longer the original, the more likely you'll have to cut something - say what needs to be said as poignantly as possible, and avoid unnecessary repetition.  Since many songs are written for and recorded with instruments, there are often solos, long intros, and transitional passages that translate poorly to voices. Try singing through from start to finish, and see where you lose interest. Also listen for what sounds stupid when you sing it.

V) Lay Out the Paper/Computer File/Cassette
It doesn't matter if you notate music on paper, or use a computer program, or arrange by ear into a 4 track recorder it's important to set a solid framework. You'll need to choose the number of staves and measures per page, which brings up the question of the number of parts. If you have a small ensemble, your choice is made for you, as doubling only one or two parts can cause an imbalance. If you're arranging for a small ensemble consider assigning at least two people per part - you'll get a fuller sound, and tuning will be easier. Try to designate more people on the bass part.  The lower-frequency bass lines can be drowned out by screaming tenors/sopranos when performing live. An easily audible bass line provides a solid harmonic centre that will help everyone tune better.

Don't forget to factor in the soloist and any extra parts, such as vocal percussion or duet lines, that need their own room on the paper. The solo should be on the top line, and may be joined by duet or trio parts. Ideally you should avoid having more than two parts per line, as the inner voices usually have difficulty following their parts in the middle of a cluster. When you have two parts (or more) per line, the upper voice should have "stems up" throughout, and the lower voice "stems down".

Finally, "lay out" the song by counting the number of measures, and making a note where each section begins (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). Next, fill in your clefs and key signatures. When you're done, you'll have a solid framework that will allow you to work on sections in any order you'd like without confusion as to where you are or how it fits with the rest of the song.

VI) Write Out the Solo
Having the solo line written down will keep you from losing your place while you're arranging - it serves as a "place-keeper" and a road map. For small groups, the soloist's pitch and rhythm is important to consider at all times. Sometimes you will be missing a note in a chord, and the solo could be filling it in.  Also remember that in performance a soloist sometimes doesn't sing exactly the same notes and rhythms as the original, or as the last time they performed the song. For this reason its worth noting, as you arrange, what sections of the melody should be sung exactly as written to make the arrangement work.

VII) Write Out the Bass Line
If the bass line in the original song is unique and/or memorable, you're probably going to want to duplicate it as closely as possible.  If the bass isn't clearly definable, then you're free to weave a bass line of your own.  Consider vocal range, roots of the chords, and the rhythmic feel of the original as primary factors. The bass line is the song's "second melody" and is usually the most recognizable line after the solo, so make it melodic, catchy, and fun.  Also - don't forget to take into consideration things like where your bass is going to breathe, how fast they can articulate and how long they can sustain a note.

VIII) Write the Uppers
The other background voices, or uppers are usually treated as a unit in contemporary a cappella arranging.  Of all of these ten steps, this will prove the most time consuming, demanding, and ultimately most rewarding, as it's here that you get to be your most creative. There are many considerations when writing these parts too many to list exhaustively here. A few things to watch for are:

-Rhythmic variety (different rhythms from the solo and bass)  
-Syllabic sounds (words? nonsense syllables?) Voice leading (no unnecessary jumps, making the lines melodic)
-Duet/Trio (same words/rhythms as the melody)
-Block Chords vs. Counterpoint (all voices acting as a single unit vs. each line separate)
-Arpeggiation (spelling out chords by singing one note at a time)
-Instrumental idioms (using voices to imitate instrumental sounds/textures)
-Musical Styles (classical, doo-wop, close harmony, pop, R&B, etc.)
-Quoting other songs

IX) The Final Touches
Now is the time to go back and sing through the entire arrangement in your head. What does it need? Where is it too empty or repetitious? How do the sections fit together? Where are the weak passages and how can I fix them? It's best to turn your editor off when you're originally coming up with ideas, but at this stage you need to turn it back on and look at your arrangement as a whole.

X) Perform and Learn
A great arrangement is one that grows and changes with the groups that sing it.  Suggestions from the group, and your own changes after you hear a proper sing-through will only make the chart better.  When listening to the sing-through, focus on your chart and their performance of it. How does the arrangement sound? Is it what you expected? What differs from your expectations, and do you like it or not? Be honest with yourself, and be open to trying a variety of ideas and suggestions.  To be a great arranger you have to know how to write a standard arrangement, and also have the creativity and drive to try something new.  The best arrangements manage to maintain the successful elements of an original version, and also bring to it something new.

Deke Sharon has been arranging a cappella since high school, and might just be the world's most prolific contemporary a cappella arranger. Custom and published arrangements by Deke are available at www.totalvocal.com.

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