Breaking down the process of arranging music for a cappella

by Betty Kim | 1/30/18 1:05am

Most Dartmouth students know from watching a cappella performances at showcases and Greek houses that we have many talented singers on campus. Especially for such a small school, it’s truly impressive how many great a cappella groups exist — in fact, there are nine. But there is a lot of talent and work that goes into the creative process of arranging that is not always recognized. Music director emeritus for the Brovertones Graham Rigby ’17, who has been arranging for the all-male for nearly five years, said arranging music is like creating an “inspired original composition” based on the framework of another person’s piece. 

“Your arrangement of a song should be more interesting than the original,” Rigby said. “Not just reproducing [the original song] in voices, but also creating some new ideas.”

This article outlines a generalized process of arrangement for a cappella groups. The arranging process among the numerous groups and arrangers is different, but all of them involve a mix of creativity and collaboration. 

1. Choosing a song, listening and brainstorming

The process of choosing a song differs among the groups. For some, songs are picked democratically; for others, songs are picked primarily by arrangers, informed by other members’ suggestions and approved by the musical director to make sure they will fit into the term’s repertoire.

After a song is chosen, an arranger can start brainstorming by listening to pre-existing versions of a song. A cappella covers on YouTube are one source that can be drawn upon for ideas, according to Matt Sawicki ’20, who arranges for Sing Dynasty as the group’s musical director. Arrangers can also develop their own musical ideas in the brainstorming process, often beginning by forming a vision for the song. 

“Its kind of a disorganized process, because all of these things happen simultaneously,” X.ado musical director Noah Lee ’18 said. “You get a flash of an idea, [think to yourself] ‘maybe this section could be like this’ and write it out.”  

2. Organization 

The next step involves laying out structure of the song. Some arrangers map out the basic structure on paper first to see, for example, how many verses and choruses there are and how long each one is.

Getting a good sense of the chord progressions used in the song is crucial to the arrangement process; chord progressions are central to the shape and direction of the song. Arrangers might refer to sheet music found online as a starting point for figuring out the chord progressions, or use a piano to play around with harmonies to figure out what the chord progressions are. 

3. Writing a Melody 

After figuring out large-scale organization, a music notation software is used to write out a melody or solo line as a starting point. Most groups use Sibelius, which Dartmouth offers for free, to see the music vertically after the other singers’ vocal parts are added. This allows the arranger and the other group members to know exactly what’s happening musically in a certain measure or part of the arrangement, just by looking at the sheet music. 

4. Background

The background is where the creative part of arranging really comes out ­— arrangers can add or remove elements from the original versions of a song, depending on the desired effect. Most songs sung by a cappella groups use chorus form, which can get repetitive to both the audience and singers, so a general goal shared by arrangers is to keep the arrangement interesting. These are some elements that arrangers pay attention to so their arrangement is exciting.

4a. Voicing

Deciding who sings what part, and how many parts there will be, depends on logistical and musical factors. Voicing might change simply based on how many members there are. If most of the members are on campus, the possibility of having more parts opens up, while if there are more members “off” than usual, there will probably be fewer parts. For example, in the case of a coed group, a song that might be voiced in four parts — soprano, alto, tenor, bass, abbreviated as SATB — could be voiced in six parts instead, with three male parts and three female parts, if there are enough members that are “on,” Dodecaphonics arranger Aaron Samuels ’20 said. 

The voicing is also informed, and perhaps more significantly so, by the song’s demands. A piece with an especially beautiful melody, for example, might call for an arrangement that will highlight the solo line well, Samuels said. In this case, the background will probably be kept relatively simple. Alternatively, if the arranger wants to place focus on the different textures within the background, or if the song features multiple instrumental or voice lines, the background parts might be more complex. 

4b. Good voice leading

Voice leading refers to the movement and interaction of individual lines to create a harmony. To put this into perspective: Every part of a song pertains to a specific chord, so each vocal assignment (for example, SATB for a coed group) will sing a note that belongs to the chord. What this means is that arrangers not only have to pay attention to the way that the separate parts move but also have members harmonize in a way that sounds good. Intervals that are too hard to sing would result in a bad arrangement. Each individual part should be relatively easy to learn and enjoyable to sing, Rigby said. This means that note changes should happen in intervals instead of leaps. However, they should also have pitch contour, which means they shouldn’t sit on the same note.

4c. Changing Chords

Even if an original song uses a certain set of chords, arrangers can make changes to the chord progression to do interesting things with the harmony. According to Rigby, certain progressions are equivalent to each other, so a few changes won’t make the song sound too different but can take the song in a different direction and help change the key when needed. For example, adding a seventh to a chord can completely change the color.

In terms of the harmony or the way the parts interact, there are also some general rules that can be followed to get a good sound. Avoiding close voicing in the bass is generally a good idea — if you get below a certain pitch, it’ll sound muddy if the notes are too close together, Rigby said. Two other rules that Rigby uses when arranging is to avoid giant gaps in the middle of chords and to keep the song in contrary motion, or in opposite directions.

4d. Changing rhythms

If an arranger feels that the original song isn’t very interesting, he or she can add an an exciting rhythm to “keep the song moving forward,” according to Lee.

5. Dynamics

Audience interest can also be maintained by varying the dynamics of the song. Generally, arrangements tend to start quietly and progressively get louder, with the volume fluctuating based on the different moods within the song.

5a. Chord voicing 

Dynamics are not just varied by singing louder, though. Chord voicing in one aspect of the intricacy. Chords can be made thicker to raise volume — Rigby described it as “splitting the group up and stacking things.” Because songs tend to start off quietly and get louder, Rigby always starts with open chord arrangements, and splits the parts to make the chord hit harder and enhance the overall crescendo.

5b. Syllables

Some groups vary the syllables they use to sing the background part to make things more interesting, but the varying of syllables can also help change up dynamics. Rigby, for example, uses a general rule: “doo,” “do” and “da” represent different volumes, from quietest to loudest. He pointed out that it’s a linguistic consequence of mouth-opening, the more openness there is when sung, the louder a certain syllable sounds. It also functions as a memory device — all the music has to be memorized in the matter of a few weeks.

This lengthy and sometimes complicated process of putting together an a cappella piece demonstrates that the performers at the College are not only talented singers but creators as well.