Arranging for Small Groups 1: Introduction

Smaller Groups.

Smaller Groups.

If history is any indicator, a great many new aspiring arrangers are members of newer groups with fewer members than the large swaggering a cappella groups that resemble a small construction team on a government contract, only slower-moving.  In fact, I would wager there’s a reasonable chance that you personally are a member of one such small group, and are trying to determine exactly what sort of arrangement you should attempt to create.

Following is an introduction to the time-honored tradition of the Four Part Arrangement (A block of SSAA, SATB, or TTBB.  Soloist costs extra).  Types of groups who might want to consider writing heavily in four parts include:

  • Small groups with only five to twelve (5-12) singers.
  • Larger groups who have a tendency to sing some gigs with only five to twelve people in attendance (in the group, not the audience)(sometimes the audience).
  • Women’s groups, who tend to have a more limited range to work with in vertical pitch space.
  • Groups which predominantly perform in a live setting, and want to focus their efforts on strengthening their in-person performance’s consistency.

Clearly, there’s something for everybody here, and on top of that, practicing your four-part arranging skills will help you in that Music Theory 101 class that you just enrolled in.  If you still haven’t done that, then get on it!  College is an amazing place, and you can learn all of these theory skills without paying any more in yearly tuition (for most).  And please, tell your professor about SmarterMusic.

Four Part Harmony

Rameau will get you, my pretty!

Rameau will get you, my pretty!

For many many years, four-part harmony has been more or less standard — if you’d like to learn more about how this tradition came to be, read any number of historical treatises on music theory written around 1700, especially Traité de l’harmonie by Rameau.  Regardless of its origins, though, it has stood the test of time and is able to produce most all of the chords we know and love with good voiceleading.  It’s also happily thin enough that it’s easy to hear each individual voice within it.  This can be a good thing — it makes it difficult to write an arrangement that is too cluttered.  On the other hand, it can also result in exposure of a few parts that you might wish were left slightly less audible.  Such is the gamble!  At least you have a stellar soloist to distract, right?  Right?

Boiling down a song to only four parts can be both a fascinating exercise and a fantastic enterprise; I do hope that everybody out there in interweb world gets a chance to try it at some point!  By working within constraints, a composer/arranger gets the opportunity to be truly creative, since there are real problems to overcome in clever ways.  That is to say, necessity is the mother of invention — and if you impose the necessity, you create the potential for innovation.  Over time, we’ll highlight here some very clever reductions of vast compositions to only a few voices.  We’ll also point out that many apparently vast symphonic compositions are in fact essentially only four-voice compositions.  I’ll do that now, in fact.  Many symphonic compositions are only written in four voices.

Singing four-part harmony won't necessarily make you like these guys, don't worry.

Singing four-part harmony won't necessarily make you like these guys, don't worry.

If you commit to only four voices plus soloist, you’ll end up exploring novel pairings of voices, dynamically changing as the song continues.  Also, writing all the percussive consonants into the score itself will help keep your group from needing a dedicated vocal percussionist.  Finally, even after your group expands to larger numbers, you’ll still be able to sing the same arrangements with a big and powerful sound.  This is what Barbershop is all about.

On that note — in First Principles / Setting the Stage we mentioned that it’s a good idea for even large-group arrangers to consider how many people might be available at a given gig.  Each soloist or descant singer will be singularly required to attend the performance in order for the song to fly.  And if a large group is split too many times (ie five, six, or more parts), then there’s a very real possibility that an arrangement will turn out to be completely unperformable in practice.  Don’t let this happen to you!

When Four-Part Isn’t So Smart

Please wear red honking noses to a performance and use them for the encore.  I will send you a prize.

Please wear red honking noses to a performance and use them for the encore. I will send you a prize.

Finally, there are some times where a four-part arrangement just isn’t going to cut the mustard.  For example, mixed groups will often find that SATB without splits is very awkward and thin-sounding, especially for smaller groups, because of the difficulty in making cross-gendral couplings sound convincing.  Groups who want to work very hard toward making their recordings sound as polished and produced as possible should probably not try to reduce their arrangement to only four parts — this makes it sound more like a vocal piece and less like the original instrumentation.  Besides, in the studio, you can always try another take (or let Antares AutoTune fix you up) if somebody is a bit out of tune.  Finally, groups who are made up of incredibly talented singers and/or are seldom missing people during gigs will want to seriously consider writing 6-, 7-, 8-, or even 9+-part arrangements to showcase their strengths.

What’s Coming Up

All kinds of examples of four-part arranging, geared toward smaller groups, or those who are interested in writing arrangements that will be performable by the largest number of groups.  We’ll look at all kinds of things in the 4-part world, and also showcase some examples of simplification in arrangement.  Coming right up!

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“…because of the difficulty in making cross-gendral couplings sound convincing.”
Could you elaborate on what exactly that means? I’m not quite clear on the terminology. Does it mean I shouldn’t try to write an SATB bit where the alto line is in close harmony with the tenor line?

Written By Peter on March 27th, 2011 @ 1:27 am

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