HomeBlogsadune55's blogArranging Creatively – Intermediate Tricks and Tips (Part 1)

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If you’ve read the last two installments of this column about arranging approaches you might have a few questions about how to actually execute these ideas in practice. Fear not – the next two columns are for you!  This time around we’re going to discuss syllables: one of the major tools you have at your disposal to use within the larger conceptual frameworks we’ve discussed, in order to come up with what exactly in the heck you’re going to put down on paper (or record).

If you’re a beginning or intermediate arranger (or really even if you consider yourself advanced) the best way to keep ideas for syllables percolating is to listen to a ton of a cappella.  If you’re just starting out, this is going to give you an idea of what’s possible.  If you’re more experienced, this is going to help you find out what has been overdone versus what still sounds fresh.  If you’re advanced, you get to evaluate the work of others against what you have done or would have done – which keeps your ears on their toes!

Listening to your peers gives you the foundation, so where do you go from there?  Consider the function of syllables (for ease of discussion, I refer to anything that’s a sung background as a “syllable”).  Background syllables give shape to your vocals, which themselves are standing in for whatever instruments filled the same function in the song you’re covering (unless the song is being written originally a cappella, in which case, good for you!).  Your challenge as an arranger is how to use these shapes to represent your impression of the music – not necessarily to best emulate the exact sound of the original instrument.

Let’s take a step back for a second and talk about vocal character.  Vowels and consonants all have different qualities to them.  Scientifically this is based on the overtones present in each sound, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this article.  First and foremost we have vowels, which carry the emotion in speech and singing, and which change in character based primarily on the position of the vocalist’s tongue.  This cross section diagram of a human mouth will help you understand what I’m talking about:

Figure 1.1
(aka, the graphic art talent went elsewhere in my family)

The vowels formed further back on the tongue have a naturally darker, richer quality to them, while the vowels formed at the front have a brighter, more piercing quality (just think of “ee” versus “ah”).  When you think about representing your impression of tone in an arrangement, this palette of vowel shapes is one of your major tools.  If a sound strikes you as warm, think of the darker vowel colors.  If it seems more piercing to you, move forward on the chart.

What of consonants?  I think this is the area in which most arrangers feel the most apprehensive.  Consonants, which again shape the vowels, are the things that make a background syllable sound “dorky,” “cliché,” or (hopefully) “awesome.”  Coming up with good, original background syllables is all about consonant choice.

So how do you choose?  A good place to start is what feels natural to you.  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.  The goal first and foremost is to create a background line that can be sung with ease so that the performer can focus on an expressive delivery.

Using this as a jumping off point, there are lots of things you can do to come up with creative new syllables.  If you speak a foreign language, mine it for sounds that are distinctively non-English (Middle Eastern and Asian languages have a host of sounds just waiting to be incorporated).  If you have a particular regional accent (and you probably do whether you realize it or not) listen to others talking and experiment with their delivery as the basis for your syllable (Tom Anderson has spoken of the Mid-Western bright “oh” sound as a particularly powerful vowel choice).  Of course, no matter how you choose to create your syllables, check in with other recordings to see how they compare to what’s been done, and check with your gut to make sure they’re effective!

Many arrangers have their own philosophies when it comes to what makes a background sound effective or not.  I invite everyone to sound off in the comment section below.  What makes a background effective to your ear?  What strikes you as awkward or cliché?  Everyone’s opinions are different, and everyone’s thoughts are valid!

Next time we’ll talk a bit about harmony.  What are your options when it comes to expanding the harmonic body of the song you’re arranging?  When you’re re-interpreting a song, which parts will a listener most readily gravitate to in order to make sense of your arrangement?  How many notes is too many?  All this and more coming your way.

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.



Linguistics and Music

Hey Rob,

In my experience, I've found that finding a nice mix between vocables (nonsense syllables) and actual words is most effective.  I've learned that in general, staying away from the two extremes (Rockapella singing words as background all the time/attempting to imitate instrumentals to the T) is your best bet.  Because I'm from a psychological background, I constantly think about a) sound preparation, and b) whether my vocables are evoking a linguistic or musical response in my brain.  Every person listening to a cappella has a constant subliminal juxtaposition happening in their sub-conscience while listening to an a cappella piece: Music or Language.

In the great arrangements (i.e. not mine) there is an amazingly effective balance of vocables and words.  This may also have to do with sound preparation and expectation (i.e. why we hear "do" as either a vocable or the actual word).  Either way, I've found that words in the ensemble pull listeners from passive to active listening.  This is especially useful to highlight a key section, measure, or even a single note in the arrangement.

Anyways, I've gone on long enough and.. well.. I feel fairly silly trying to give advice to you.  I'm a total n00b compared to you to be honest.  If (by some act of God) you wanna read more on my view of linguistics vs music you can find it here: http://www.dracappella.com/?p=8

Oh PS, thanks for answering my question about original interpretation in arranging on Mouth Off.. that was sweeeeet!

RE: Linguistics and Music


Hey man, thanks for sounding off on this!  

First of all, don't sell yourself short!  Though you may feel yourself a "n00b," I think you have a really unique and valuable background in psych that you bring to the table.  There's a lot of interesting information to be mined there that I haven't a clue about.  Experience is one thing, but I'm a big believer that no one should ever shut themselves off to learning, and make no mistake - you've got something to teach!

I did in fact read the article, and I think you're definitely on to something with "vocables" versus perceived language.  I have two things to add:

1) I think the texture of the arrangement, and the precise use of the language in question make a world of difference when it comes to its effect on the listener.  In my experience, it's a bit more complicated than "words make people pay attention" (though that's often true). You also have to consider the amount of attention those words are being afforded (which has to do with the overall texture of the arrangement - thicker textures blunt the power of words to cut through and make themselves fully known), and the character of their delivery in the backs (the vocal register, timbre, rhythm, and many other factors combine to influence whether a word is perceived as heartfelt, comical, angry, etc...).  In short, you're definitely on to something, and I think it goes quite a bit deeper than what you've examined above and in your article.

2)I would challenge your assertion in this specific King's Singers article that language recognition is what makes those phrases pop.  Listening to the piece with an awareness of the concept as you presented it, I find myself not so much drawn to the new phrases because I recognize them as words, but because the entrances are arranged in a way that pulls focus with pitch (noticeably higher or lower), and/or rhythm ("doodley" is a triple rhythm that breaks out of the monotony of the duple "doot" pattern).  I think in fact it *would* be equally effective for a non-English speaker because these arranging techniques (which transcend language) are at the forefront of the action, not so much any sense of a recognized word being sung.      

Of course, said sense of word recognition could be so ingrained in me that even I'm not aware of it!  Regardless, I absolutely think this idea has lots of merit, I'm just not convinced it's in play the way you've presented it here.

To other readers, definitely check out this article and see what you think!  Would love to hear even more thoughts and reactions (both to the article, and to this concept of vocables v. words).


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

'llo, Thomas :) If the whole

'llo, Thomas :)

If the whole syllables vs words thing is your bag, you might find it interesting to read some of the stuff that's been written in academic music journals about 13th Century French motets...

..I know, I know, bear with me...

There's lots of debate about whether there is more perceived value gained from the meaning of the words or from the sound of them.  They have more than one vocal line with different lyrics going on at once, so a lot of the time you only get snippets of the words.  However, with the words in front of you (or if the voices first sing each line alone) the meaning of the lyrics can be understood -but does having that understanding add to the value?  There are places where the sounds of the words line up and the different lines are about similar things, so perhaps they are not meant to be understood, only heard as a whole...

The same investigation can of course be made into Death/Thrash /Speed metal...!

I've always found it interesting when a cappella philosophy echoes the philosophy of such different types of music.

Just something I thought you might find interesting, should you continue with this in more depth, anyway! 

Lisa x

Quite Interesting!

This is quite interesting.  I've been recently wondering about - sort of - the same thing.  In Franz Joseph Hayden's "Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo" or what has become to be known as "the little organ mass", the credo's text is stacked as a polyphonic texture upon the already polyphonic melodies of the strings + organ.  Of course, this is religious text, so all the melodies line up on important phrases such as "et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine. Et homo factus est." However it is quite apparent that the credo was not composed using telescopic text for the mere convenience of a shorter mass.  The telescopic text reflects the polyphony and visa-versa.  Very interesting.  

In short.. yes, you make an excellent point! Our a cappella philosophy of text and syllables is nothing new and should not be approached and mused with the narrow mindset of mere contemporary a cappella, but of music (and the history of music) as a whole!

Since writing that article

Since writing that article I've learned so much more about arranging and have found that it seems to be in the eye of the beholder.  Personally, I wouldn't side with either argument anymore.  There are so many intrinsic musical nuances in a great arrangement that it's hard to make an argument in favor of language recognition.  In other great arrangements it may seem as though language recognition reigns supreme.  

Here's the kicker: It could very well be that we've all been exposed to soooooooo much a cappella that vocables have become part of our language recognition. (o0o0o0o... pausing to ponder).  

In short, I'm glad that there are discussions like this out there.  Each great composer has his/her own beliefs in what makes an arrangement work (in context).  This allows us to hear an arrangement and know it's a Tom Anderson or Rob Dietz or Charlie Forkish arrangement.

Rob, thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments.  I'm looking forward to learning much more from you in the future!

(Love the #acaTop25)


Re: Since writing that article

>It could very well be that we've all been exposed to soooooooo much a cappella >that vocables have become part of our language recognition.

Interesting, can you expand on that?  How long might that take to happen?  In my (extremely limited) understanding of the psychology of language, these recognitions tend to develop very young and get harder to solidify with age.  What does it take for someone to begin to process sound as language?  

Would love to know a bit more about this topic in general - I think it's really interesting and potentially very helpful!


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

I think it may be time for me

I think it may be time for me to write my round 2 article :-) I'll let you know when I post.... It'll be really soon!


Hey, guy, your journal is discriminating. It can channelise me more effectual info.

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