The Quick and Dirty 10-step Guide

Doesnt mean that it isnt good.

When you get a chance, slow down and clean up. Look presentable.

So maybe you don’t want to peruse the multitude of articles right now, and you just want fast and easy directions of how to do an a cappella arrangement. Will do, but here’s the caveat- this is just one way of going about an arrangement. I would recommend reading the other articles on this website when you get the chance, as well as be aware of what works and doesn’t work for you.

So here we go!

1Research and learning the song. Listen to the original tune and focus on it, but also have it on in the background while you do other stuff so it seeps inside your head. Familiarize yourself with the lyrics, the history of the song, the group that made it, everything. Scrounge around and see if you can find different versions. Take notes of what you think is cool, and STEAL IT! Great composers steal, and great arrangements steal from other sources. If you’re doing Autumn Leaves and you find a great lick in a techno version, take it and run.

2Chart out the form. Pop tunes are easy- they have very distinguishable sections, and often the chords repeat- so if you’re doing that, figure out what a “section” is and everything that goes on in it. When does the chorus start, how long is it, what are the chord changes? Ditto for verse, bridge, etc. Call a section whatever you want, just be consistent. If you’re a music theory nerd and know your roman numerals , do that (as well as the actual chord changes) so if you need to transpose later on, it’ll be easier . Chart out when each section happens- this will be your cheat sheet when you’re putting in the notes.

When you’re doing this, you can start incorporating the gimmicks you picked up during research. Perhaps the bridge should be from another version- write that in. Are you mashing up tunes into a medley? Figure out what goes where, what parts need to be linked by what chords, if anything can be layered, etc.

3Plan out the parts. Depending on your role as the arranger, you may be making custom parts for particular singers or generic parts. Generic parts need to stay in certain ranges, and you have to know that going outside them will make certain effects that you can’t really expect. For most pop tunes, you’ll want to keep a more compressed range, or if you have a larger group, also go for a more conservative range. As you get higher/lower, people’s individual voice quirks come out and it’s harder to blend and tune. For this step, be aware of the playing field for each voice.

4Start putting down notes. You know what notes to put in because you have the chords all written out and the parts delineated. You know how many measures to fill because you’ve charted the section lengths. You’ve cut down on your work by half because the song repeats all over the place. All you have to concentrate on now is vocal texture. See?! Preparation pays off. Use your cheat sheet liberally, but don’t be afraid of deviating from your plan if the moment sweeps you up.

Steal syllable ideas from...all types of places

Steal syllable ideas from...all types of places

5Putting in syllables. Don’t feel that you MUST wait until you’ve written every note before putting in syllables. Syllables for an a cappella group can be tricky if they’re to be done right, and if you write a particular texture that beautifully links with a certain word or syllable, go for it! If you are making an arrangement that uses words or sentences, then your texture will probably cater to these words. Don’t forget that the way an a cappella group forms notes can allow for just as much creativity and expression as pitch. Practice making goofy sounds in the shower to see what noises are made by certain syllables.

Balance your syllables just like you balance parts- don’t have everyone on open vowels and two people with glottal syllables unless it’s for a particular reason. Let syllables characterize parts- have a particular riff be on a distinctive syllable pattern so it will be recognized in any part. Don’t underestimate the power of sustained “oohs” and “ahhs” as filler behind more distinctive textures- the voice does “oohs” and “ahhs” pretty well.

6Musical shaping. Knowing what group you’re arranging for may make this more or less important: a small and musically savvy group could listen and shape their parts around the other singers, or they could depend heavily on your instruction as an arranger. If you are writing for a group that doesn’t spontaneously shape the musical phrases, you have to do it for them! A tip for shaping is to utilize the number of parts doing certain things. If something is important, bring it out through volume, its texture relative to the other parts, or the number of people singing it. Also, you can drop out parts to highlight something, but don’t bore your singers too much by having them not sing. Entertained singers sing better…

7Make it pretty. Presentation is not only a method for ensuring another commission, but it’s part of preparing the arrangement for teaching. You’ve translated all of your great ideas and creativity into something wonderful, but now you have to translate it into the vernacular for singers and teachers. Pay special attention to syllables; syllables are often the most confused part of an arrangement due to millions of dialects and accents and it’s pretty much the syllables that are the most subtle affects that you can engineer in the parts.

Notes! Everywhere!

Notes! Everywhere!

If you handwrite your arrangement, make it very neat. If you use a computer program, make sure things don’t accidentally overlap or squish to be unreadable when you print. Put in measure numbers! Paginate! Mark your clearly delineated sections as sections, with either giant letters or the actual title of the section (“Chorus, Verse 2…”). If you have a metronome speed, mark it in the score. Give as much info as a teacher could want.

8Be receptive to input. Edit your arrangement like you would a term paper, and don’t be afraid to murder your darling. Don’t be afraid to strike what seemed to be a good idea- you definitely will have plenty more to fill the hole. Always always ALWAYS give credit to the original artist. They put in hard work just like you, and they totally deserve the credit. If your arrangement is really good, you can take the credit for that, but don’t be greedy. There’s plenty of ego stroking in making a good arrangement.

Share what you’ve done! It’s a way of giving credit to the little steals you’ve done during the research phase. If you’re proud of your work, don’t be afraid to show it off!

9Smile a lot.

10Everyone knows that quality lists are ten items long.

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