HomeArranging: There’s No Magic Formula

adune55's picture

For all you aspiring arrangers out there young and old, I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that unfortunately there’s no magic formula for how to put together a good a cappella arrangement.  To be sure, there are basic things that you need to consider before you get started (see Deke Sharon’s 10 steps to a cappella arranging pamphlet), but once you’re rolling it’s really just a bunch of trial and error.  The good news though is that since arranging is all about learning from your mistakes, anyone with the time and courage to mess up can become a good arranger.

Ok, I sense that some of you don’t believe me.  After all, there must be some dark secret known only to the upper echelon of arranging scholars that makes all those crazy black dots on the page coalesce into a powerful piece of music.  Well, I don't claim to have all the answers, but I'll tell you what I think are the top five most important things you can do to become a better arranger.
1) Listen to as much a cappella music as you can get your hands on.  When I was first starting out, nothing helped me out more than listening to tons and tons of a cappella.  Listen to all types, but especially the voicing and style that you’re most interested in arranging for.  After years of arranging, I still don’t know of any better way to get ideas for syllables, voice leading, texturing, or adding creative extra things than to listen to other people’s work.  Deke Sharon is fond of saying “good musicians borrow, great musicians steal,” and I think he’s right on. 

2) Bone up on your music theory.  Boring, I know, but learning about music theory isn’t necessarily for the purpose of constructing a “good” piece of music; it’s more about giving you the tools you need to work with music quickly and efficiently so that you have more brainpower to focus on being creative.  I guarantee that if you’re working with contemporary a cappella you’ll start breaking the rules of theory as soon as you learn them, but there’s still a lot to be said for knowing what the rules are so you can break them intelligently.  Just of the top of my head I’d say that identifying triads, inversions, and voice leading are three theory topics that I use on a regular basis while arranging; and which allow me to do the best work I can do in as short a time as possible. 

3) Work with other people.  This can be tricky sometimes, but if you find someone you work well with it can be very beneficial to try and do a co-arrangement or two.  I’ve learned a lot from watching other talented arrangers work first hand.  Collaborating is also a wonderful way to kick start yourself if you’re facing arranger’s block.

4) Screw up.  When I first started arranging, I screwed up all the time.  Six years and about 100 arrangements later, I still screw up all the time!  Making mistakes is the single best way to learn whether what you think will work actually does or not.  An important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a “failed” arrangement provided your next one is better than your last. 

Also, a note to members of groups with budding arrangers: please be kind and as patient as possible.  Arranging isn’t easy, nor is making mistakes.  Put the two together and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.  Always remember that it’s your group too, and that you have more to gain from being constructive with each other than from tearing each other down.

5) Did I mention listening to a lot of a cappella? I can’t stress enough how important this is.  You can study classical theory until the cows come home, but you’re never going to be able to write a symphony until you listen to the best ones out there.  The same is true of a cappella.  Plus it doesn’t hurt to be supporting your fellow artists.

So there you have it.  Now get out there, give it your best shot, and never be afraid to ask for help.  Arranging can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.  Just be patient with yourself and great things will come.


Corollary- but there are neat tricks too

While I wholeheartedly agree with Adune55, there are still tricks of the trade and ways of attacking an arrangement (albeit the magic formula is still in production, stay tuned). The reason why you would listen to more a cappella and other people's arrangements is to get new ideas or inspirations, and the best way to see a new idea in action is to...listen to a new idea in action. But learning your music theory and talking to other arrangers are more abstract ways of building your arranging skills.


And now for the shameless plug: I am an editor with SmarterMusic (http://www.smartermusic.us), which is a treasure trove of these pearls of wisdom. New and experienced arrangers might be able to pick up a trick or two from there, and we would love to get more content from acafans. Check it out- there are some pretty interesting articles up.

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