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How to Arrange Songs for A Cappella
I'm a third-year college student and sing in an a cappella group at my school. (If you're interested, check us out at www.batestakenote.com)! I started arranging last year and just love doing it--the group benefits from tighter, home-grown arrangements, and it's really rewarding to perform something that you've worked on yourself.
If you're in a cappella, here's a guide to arranging for a cappella, with a little bit of music theory thrown in. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I'll answer to the best of my ability.
There are lots of different options for you to use when it comes to picking the type of software to use when you're arranging.
I personally use Sibelius 6 Student, and it does everything I want it to, and much more. I really enjoy using it compared to other programs because the MIDI choir sounds amazing compared to other programs, and creating scores quickly is easy for me.
With that being said, I have been told that those who know how to use Sibelius love it, and those who don't hate it. Once you get the keyboard shortcuts down it's a breeze to use, but it's a bit tough starting out. Secondly, it is a bit expensive. I got my version of Sibelius as a gift, but I've been told it's as much as 700 dollars if you want the latest version. However, Avid is not making any new versions of Sibelius (SAD DAY!!!)
A program a lot of musicians use for scoring is Finale as well. This program is a lot more affordable, but the MIDI instruments sound awful in my opinion. It also is a little more finicky to use if you like playing back what you've written immediately-- you have to go through a pretty extensive process to just play back your score. With that being said, a lot of my peers compose using Finale and love it.
MuseScore has the allure of being free, but it is not as comprehensive as the other programs. However, I do have friends who arrange using MuseScore and have had success with it.
Picking a Song
Of course, you’re free to arrange whatever you want-- heck, sometimes I arrange songs just for fun because I like them and never present them to my group. But you want to keep in mind two things when you pick your songs.
First, the song should be somewhat recognizable: no audience is going to enjoy a song that they don’t know, unless it sounds really cool, which brings me to my second point—if it doesn’t fit the a cappella mantra (for example the song has mostly percussion and little harmony), then it probably isn’t a good fit for your group. However, we have had success with songs that aren’t necessarily destined for a cappella, (read: RAP) so by all means if it fits the group, do it.
Many groups have very specific genres they stick to a lot of the time (eg, barbershop), so you'll want to be wary of this as well.
Picking out the key/chords
Most songs have lead sheets (lyrics with accompanying chords) online. So, play the chords on the piano and note where the sharps/flats of the chords are. NOTE: sometimes the lead sheets are incredibly wrong, so definitely don’t rely solely on the lead sheets.Another technique that I have found to be incredibly helpful (if arranging by ear), is playing through the solo on piano and noting where the sharps/flats are.
If you don’t know which notes are in which chords, you can always google them! No need to be a music theory expert to tackle arranging. Sometimes I'll find a weird sustained chord I don't know and look it up. A good resource for this is www.8notes.com.
How to determine if the key is minor/major: Most popular songs are in major. You should be able to tell if it’s major or minor by the tone and the chords of the song. It’s cliché to say this, but generally sad, somber songs (Adele, anyone?) are in minor, while other songs are in major. However, keep in mind that of course songs that are in major can have minor chords, and vice versa. You can also have happy songs in minor and sad songs in major! For example, "Don't You Worry Child" by Swedish House Mafia is in B minor, a pretty happy song. "Apologize" by OneRepublic is in Eb Major, however, and that's a very somber song.
Whether or not to buy sheet music? If you can find piano music for the song, that would definitely help you out. I’ve bought sheet music before—even if it only contains the chords and the vocals, you’ll still save a ton of time by copying in the solo from the music as opposed to just by ear. 5 bucks well spent.
**If when first start writing in notes and chords into your program you find yourself writing a lot of accidentals (notes that are not within the key you picked), then you are most likely not in the correct key.
**Sometimes you have to be careful with rock songs, especially if you’re arranging them by ear, as these sometimes these are atonal (don't reside within a specific key), and some of them change keys constantly.
Ranges of Singers
Of course, the range of singers varies widely from person to person, and there's always dispute over what the "textbook definition" of vocal range is for different voice parts. This is what I was taught:
Soprano: The textbook definition of a soprano’s range is a D (a note below the first line on the staff) to a high G (a note above the highest line on the staff). You can usually push this range two notes in either direction. Use the high notes sparingly, though—your sopranos will hate you if you write them in too often. That being said, most sops can go low too, but you want to reserve that space for your altos.
Alto: Most altos can go as low as a G below the staff. Altos can usually reach C (middle of soprano staff), but don’t write anything above that. Altos are the lower ladies, use their lower range. Some altos can even push it to Fs or Es, but you don't want your altos sounding like men, do you? Then again, if you are in an all-female group do it. You need some low end to round out your sound.
Tenors: The textbook definition for the range of a tenor is a D (bottom of tenor staff) to a G (top of tenor staff), but again, you can usually push this two notes in either direction. Also, if you're in an all-male a cappella group, you'll need to use your tenors' falsetto ranges to have a nice upper range as well.
You'll occasionally find your high tenor who can hit high Bs and Cs, but this is rare. If you want your tenors to like you, don't write above a G.
Basses: Basses can comfortably sing up to middle C and usually down to an F. Baritones are usually comfortable hitting high Es and Fs, but use those sparingly.
If you're looking to have a nice full sound, your basses are the main people to utilize, since usually they sing the root or the fifth of the chord and everyone goes off of them. When choosing which octave for basses to sing in, if possible pick the lower one. A low F always sounds smoother than one in the middle of the staff. Then again, if you're a stickler for close harmony go ahead.
You'll wanna be careful when writing below Es below the staff. True basses can push down to a low C. However, keep in mind that these notes are LOW for them and they won't be very audible when sung.
So you've got the basic structure and chords of the song written down, but you need some splash. You need some more harmonies, say to go along with the solo line. What do you do?
Thirds and fifths are usually a safe bet when harmonizing across lines. For those not familiar, thirds and fifths are the intervals between musical notes. Thirds are when notes are two notes apart, and fifths are when notes are four notes apart.
Chord tones are also a pretty safe bet when harmonizing. Chord tones are notes that fall within the given chord that's being played (or in this case, sung) at any particular moment. So, if at a certain part of the song the chord is A minor, the chord tones would be A C and E.
When picking syllables, it's important to consider a variety of factors:
What instrument is the part mimicking? If you have a tenor doing a guitar line, for example, something like "wa-wa-wa" would be appropriate. Also, when doing a bassline, a safe bet for basses is a closed "dm"
Mouth shape strongly influences dynamics. "ahh" produces a much louder sound than something like "ooo." If you want to really change the dynamics of a piece, alternating these types of syllables will reap huge benefits.
You don't want your audience to be bored by your arrangement do you? Of course not! Alternate your syllables. I can't stress this enough. Everyone will be bored sick is the only thing you use is "doo." That being said, "doo" is probably the most common syllable and is my go-to.
Of course, dynamics are always at your discretion. Keep in mind that if you don't write them in, your group will probably be clueless as to which dynamics to use where. Sometimes, of course, it's up to what the Music Director thinks, and that's also fine.
I generally just try to go from what the original song has in terms of dynamics and go from there. It is always fun the throw in a swell here and there, though.
So you've done your arrangement, but it just doesn't pop. What do you do? Here's some things you can do to make your arrangement more interesting:
Arrange a Mashup
Mashups (multiple songs spooled together into one song) are a fun and interactive way for groups to surprise the audience and have combine different genres of music together. I'll probably do a different post on this, but mashups are super cool. One time, I saw a group do a dance medley, consisting of Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and David Guetta all in one song (and it was awesome).
Lots of Harmony
It's always good to have a lot of harmony. Be careful though- you really need to find the perfect balance here, or you could totally screw up your arrangement.
The best arrangements make use of multiple rhythms happening at the same time. A great example of this is Deke Sharon's arrangement of "Apologize." This implements different rhythms, and sometimes they even fit together to have lyrics sung by different parts, which is really cool!
Here's another example of co-occurring rhythms. A friend of mine arranged "Little Talks" by Of Monsters and Men, and the verses make use of different rhythms. Listen for the baritone line, which mimics the solo lyrics in a different rhythm.
Have fun and be creative!
Let your creative juices flow and get down to it! It can seem draining, but it is really worth it in the end to have a cool arrangement of a song that people love. If you think something would sound cool, write it in and try it out!