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So having been to a few SoJams, and regularly attending the arranging forums and such, I feel there are several questions that always get asked and rarely answered about arranging.  People come in wanting to know about syllables, bass lines, solos...they're inexperienced and they want to know the basics.

Meanwhile, the people standing in front of them are giants, perhaps even gods of the acappella genre, experts in arranging.  Maybe they have a natural gift, maybe they have just been at it for many years, but either way, they really aren't sure how to answer these questions.

I am not a giant, and certainly not a god.  I helped found a group, and have been one of the primary arrangers for almost four years.  I'm gonna attempt to answer some of those questions.

In terms of syllables, I think any prospective arranger needs to read what Bill Hare wrote on the subject: http://www.casa.org/node/5403  I myself have been guilty of the sins he outlines in that document, and it's an important thing to consider.  In the end, the group has to be flexible.  When I directed my group, I often left my arrangements blank and made up syllables on the spot, adjusting them as needed for tuning or better imitating an instrument.  A good trick that I use when I'm picking syllables is to sing the part with the original song, imitating the instrument, and then picking the syllables that sound the best.

As far as HOW to arrange a song, well, simple is best.  Start with the bass line and then the solo (or melody, if your arrangement doesn't use a soloist).  Be aware of several things:

Know the comfortable ranges of voice parts.  You can google them if you don't know them.  If you can, learn where the passaggio is for each voice part as well, and avoid having a voice part dancing through it for 4 minutes.  I once had to completely re-voice an arrangement of Angel by Sarah McLachlan because I had my 1st sopranos moving about from C# to E throughout the whole song, and none of them could make it through.

Know how low your basses and how high your sopranos can sing--and folks, just because your 1st soprano has a high A and your bass has a low C doesn't mean you should tap those notes in every arrangement.  As a low bass, I personally resent concerts where I have to sing at the extreme of my low range for an hour, especially if I'm not on mic.  I'm sure high sopranos feel the same way.

To a certain extent, higher equals louder.  You can use natural dynamics to great effect in an arrangement, but it goes both ways.  Don't expect your sopranos and tenors to sing high notes really quietly.  Or your basses and altos, for that matter.

PLEASE use good voice-leading.  I'll go out on a limb and assume that most people who are arranging have at least some basic music theory, but just in case, here's voice-leading in brief: try to avoid large or difficult leaps in the upper three voices.  Make sure that each note in a line is connected both to the note before it and the note after it in some logical fashion.  That last is what Bach told his composition students.  When Bach speaks, you listen.  If you're not sure if your voice-leading is good, sing through each voice part by itself.  If you have trouble ANYWHERE...you might want to look and see if it's your voice-leading.

Finally, don't try to make all your arrangements just like the original.  It's okay to do that, or even if most of your songs are like that, but sometimes try to change it up.  Also, don't try to put every little bell and whistle in a song.  It's unneccessary, and usually makes your music hard to read and sing.  One of the coolest tricks I learned at SoJam was that if you put a melody in the beginning of the song, and take it out as the texture thickens, the human brain will fill in the melody.  That is, your audience will hear it even if it's not there.  Neat, huh?

A note on solos:

Don't waste time arranging a song for your group unless you KNOW you have at least one soloist who can do it.  There are plenty of great songs that aren't vocally taxing for a soloist without having to throw Chris Cornell at a tenor section made up of lyric baritones.

Don't bother writing out the exact rhythms of a solo--it's time-consuming, and it makes it scary and difficult to read.  Besides, it discourages people from making the solo their own.  Just do the basic contours of the melody.

Please look up the lyrics online.  I understand that you just listened to the song 52 times in order to arrange it, but that doesn't mean you're hearing things right.  Nothing bothers me more than hearing a group sing VERY wrong lyrics.  Except maybe when it's my own group, when I had the correct lyrics in their sheet music.  There are countless lyric sites.  Always check the band/artist's website first, many put up lyrics, and it's safe to assume that they know what they sang.

Finally, a bit about bass lines, something near and dear to my low-and-rumbly heart.

I've heard many different theories about this, but my opinion is this:  Always write both bass and baritone parts, even if your other voices aren't dividing.  Only put one voice on bass, if you can.  That way your bassist can improvise if he is so inclined.  If you put all your basses on it, the slightest deviation sounds bad, your baritones are straining for low notes, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!  Baritones are one of the most versatile voice parts, and they are wasted trying to fry out low notes, not to mention causing tuning problems.  Try this: either double the bass line at the octave or put them on a 5th above in a rock song.  Both of these things sonically reinforce the low note, making your bass sound louder.  You can also have your baritones sing in falsetto with your tenors if they need extra oomph on a section.  Or, give them their own part!  Baritones make great rhythm guitars.

So, if you were looking to have some more basic questions answered, I hope that I helped you.  Feel free to ask me anything else.  Keep in mind, I'm not a giant or a god.  I'm just someone with a degree in music theory who has learned some stuff through trial and error.  However, I'm always glad to help someone out, and it doesn't hurt to ask.

Two more things:  Just because they don't teach the basics at SoJam doesn't mean those forums aren't worth attending!  I learned more cool tricks of the trade there than anywhere else.  Go and learn.  Just know you're learning at the feet of giants.  And finally, the best way to get better at arranging is to do it.  Don't worry if your first couple of arrangements are awful.  Been there.  Writing/arranging for acappella is unlike any other form of composition, but like ALL forms of creative art, it takes practice.  Don't give up!  Maybe one day you'll be a giant or a god, too.


Lots of good stuff!

I applaud NovemberPines! I totally agree that workshops at festivals usually cater to beginners or amateur arrangers craving a good pointer or two. However, years of experience can't just be summed up in one blog post or one workshop! I wanted to plug an organization that has lots of great info for any arrangers, experienced or otherwise: SmartermMusic

SmarterMusic has collected pearls of wisdom from lots of arrangers, and also actively acquires new knowledge. Arranging pros should kick SmarterMusic an email, and it can be added to the greater body of handy info. Democratizing acaknowledge: it'll make the world a better tuned place.

Also, SmarterMusic is starting to develop a music theory section for people wishing to learn the basics or build on what they remember from Theory 101. Check it out, and if you want to contribute, you should really bounce off an email.

What an incredibly fantastic

What an incredibly fantastic idea!  I'm gonna tell all my arranging buddies about it!

An argument, a praise, and a gratitude

My argument: my personal experience with bass lines is that the more the merrier is a fair philsophy so long as you work with them on how to sound like a cohesive section. Bass singers have the unfortunate inclination to sing as bright as possible to make lower notes heard, when in fact, that's usually opposite the desired effect. The bass, at least in most popular music, is more intended to be sensed/felt than heard. I think that if you work with them on functioning in their lower resonators, you can conjure up something solid. Also, I was blessed to direct three really great and flexible bass singers who learned, through camaraderie and intuition to improvise together. To each his own, but I hesitate to encourage people to use only one bass when you're rarely mic'd and singing in a group of 10 or more.

My praise: I'm excited to see that you brought some of your personal experience to CASA in an effort to school beginners. The world of arranging is a tough one, because there could probably exist a book of suggestions JUST to get someone started, and there are so many things that you have to figure out for yourself- what program to use, should I arrange at the piano, by ear, write it out, and what do I want to lay down first, just to name a few.

My gratitude: thanks for encouraging folks to come to SoJam, because you're quite right, it WILL give you so many fantastic ideas. For what its worth, this year I'll be leading an Organic Arranging class, geared towards maybe the less experienced of the arranging demographic, intended to introduce arranging as an organic process, from song choice to notation standards, I hope to give young arrangers a solid basis of information to get them started creating warm, unique and non-transcriptive arrangers. I'll also be leading, along with a cappella wonderboy Charlie Forkish, an Advanced Arranging course that is intended to address more in depth issues that experienced arrangers confront in their process. Either way, the arranging track of classes will include something for everyone!


Christopher M. Diaz | ICCA & CARA Judge | FSU ANY '08 | Mouth Off! co-founder/host

Always love seeing topics about arranging.

Great post! I just had one thing I think is extremely important for arrangers, especially newer ones that might have less music theory experience. Don't ever forget to sing the parts. Sing what you can, or bring in group members for those parts and have them sing to see whether the range works and if the line is not too difficult or requires difficult leaps. Its also allows you to hear what syllables would sound like, and how exciting the parts are, and tons of other fun details that you might not originally hear.

Stephen Hutchings
Music Director, UGA Accidentals

UGA With Someone Else's Money (2007-2009)
UGA Accidentals (2009- )


To Christopher:

I definitely agree with what you say.  My experience has been somewhat different.  My bass section was a bunch of baritones trying to fry out low Fs, and trying to get them to sing as a cohesive section was incredibly difficult.  We also had lots of personnel changes over the years (13 people in 4 years), despite the fact that most of them came in as freshmen.  What worked best for us, both in terms of sound and in terms of what was possible, was for me to sing bass alone most of the time, with them supporting me in octaves above.  It gave me freedom to sing improvised bass lines without having to blend with people who couldn't really sing the notes I was singing.  SO, I'd like to amend my statement to simply being a worst-case scenario option.

To SGHutchings:

Yes, I agree that that is incredibly important.  If you ever see or meet a member of the Chucktown Trippintones, ask them about Cable Car, and you will likely get much eye rolling and sighing.  A member of our group (who was musical director at the time) arranged it, and...leading tones didn't resolve, there were leaps of 9ths and 13ths, the ranges were uncomfortable....it was pretty much all the worst aspects of poor voice leading.  And it was because he hadn't sung through it.

I'd further caution basses who arrange to sing other voice parts in OTHER songs before arranging.  Leaps that are easy for us will blow other singers' minds.  Women and Tenors don't like to leap 4ths and 5ths (not to say they can't, they just don't like to) and especially not octaves.  Giving any of those parts an octave leap is a surefire way to get them to stop singing and frown in puzzlement during sightreading.  I'm not saying ALL members of these voice parts are like this, there are good readers everywhere, I'm just saying in general these are leaps to avoid.  And please, unless your group has got some SICK musicians, no tritones.  Leading tones resolve and V goes to I, just as God intended.  (Stole that one from my old theory teacher.)

maybe more advanced?

i'm fairly new to the arranging scene and i'm wondering if there any tips or strategies for arranging rock songs that are heavier than your average pop song. on cd, you can add effects and distortion as needed but are there ways to mimic some of those effects in the actual arrangement itself?

To mmwstein21: Rock can be a

To mmwstein21:

Rock can be a very troublesome genre for an arranger, mainly because without a cool sound system you'd need an army of basses to produce the kind of low-end you get in rock and roll.  One suggestion I'll give you, though it doesn't really answer your question, is to try arranging it differently.  That is, don't try to do a note-for-note.  (Think like the Big Band version of Down With the Sickness at the end credits of Dawn of the Dead.)  Sometimes, it's better to admit that we aren't a rock band, and wow the crowd with our awesome reinterpretation rather than how much we sound like band X.

However, back to your question.  The easiest answer is to play with your syllables.  I know that Christopher is going to jump on me, because he's not a fan of junjados, but it's the simple answer.  Try imitating the instruments as you arrange it, and then type what sounds you make.  Whenever possible, eliminate confusion about what sound you want.  If you write "jun", for example, you could get "joon" "jyoon" "juhn" and others.  A good tip is to eliminate the vowels sometimes.  For a muted guitar, write "jn", which tends to make singers give a lot of consonant and a very VERY short schwa vowel (uh), which is what you are probably looking for.  Chris likes to just write notes and tell the singer what instrument they are imitating, which is a very sage way of doing things, so long as the entire section comes to a consensus.  Another trick I personally enjoy is having a single section sing their part on a "dv".  They will not be heard, so it really works best in a quieter song, but it creates the kind of white noise that is found throughout rock.  A kind of hiss or hint of distortion.  For a solo guitar, sing on an [u] (oo) vowel, but tighten your lips until it's almost a vvv hum.  This creates a similar distorted sound.  Use D's to start most syllables, and J's for accents--the J sounds like a guitar strum.  As for vowels, for most rock you're going to want powerful/open vowels like Ahs and Ohs, with oohs and uhs for the softer or unaccented parts.  But feel free to play and experiment!

As someone who has directed a group as well as arranged, never ever assume that syllables are set in stone.  As an arranger, acknowledge that the syllables you chose may not work the best for your group, and as a director, know that if something isn't working, you should change it.

As far as voicing, if you have women, keep your sopranos low and your altos lower.  Rock tends to focus on the low end, so if you have sopranos up in their highest ranges, it'll sound weird.  Do the opposite if you're all-male.  You'll need to work to get some higher sounds out, in that case.

My final piece of advice: don't arrange a rock song unless you have someone who can sing it.  Singers like Steven Tyler, Chris Cornell, and Robert Plant should not be covered in a note-for-note fashion unless you are just blessed with a singer who can really shred.  And don't be afraid to do something a little strange if it presents itself.  My group once did a Chris Cornell song, and (surprise, surprise) none of the guys could pull it off.  One girl auditioned, though, and she sang it in the guy's octave.  We could have slowed the song down, altered some syllables, and made it into a kind of torch jazz song, but the group felt that that was too strange.  Instead, we forced some guy to do it, and it didn't work.  Learn from our mistake!

Anyway, good luck!  I hope that some of what I have rambled about is useful to you.  Listen to acapella recordings of rock songs--they may be studio altered, but you can usually hear what kinds of syllables and vocal effects they are using.

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