What Makes A Great Arrangement?

For my a cappella dissertation, I’ve had to analyze multiple (a.k.a “crap ton of”) a cappella arrangements and try to determine what makes each arrangement unique and successful or plain and unsuccessful. Through my analysis, I’ve come across several constants that great a cappella arrangements all seem to follow.

Now I’m not a professional a cappella arranger, so these tips could be contested by the real arrangers. I’m basing these tips on style analysis, statistical evidence, and my personal opinion on what sounds good. Feel free to use any, all, or none of these ideas.

1) Great arrangements have short introductions or introductions that add to the character of the song.

If you’re going to include an intro section, you need to consider whether or not the introduction adds to the value of your arrangement. Some introductions, like “Diamonds” by Nor’Easters, turn the introduction into its own musical character. To truly appreciate the epic scope of Diamonds, you need to wade through the mysterious, yet powerful opening which subtly hints at what's to come.

Other arrangements skip the introduction all together. For example, Deke Sharon’s “I’ve Got The Music In Me” from The Sing-Off Season 2 starts with the first verse. There’s no need for an introduction because Sharon wants to get the groove going right away.

In short, either your introduction has to be a set-up for what’s to come, or cut it all together.

2) Great arrangements consider their lyric and syllable choices very carefully.

With every arrangement I analyze, three things become more and more clear:

1-Whenever possible, arrangers have everyone singing lyrics from the actual song

2-When using syllables, simple is better. The majority use doo, doh, and da

3- More creative syllables are used ONLY when special cases are needed, such as imitating a specific instrument, or achieving a specific effect.

Let’s break these down, one by one.

1-Whenever possible, arrangers have everyone singing lyrics from the actual song

This is almost the textbook definition of a Pentatonix arrangement. When more parts have lyrics, it gives greater attention to the lyrics of the song, and consequently, the overall meaning you are trying to convey. Emoting while singing “doo doo” is much harder to doo doo.

2- When using syllables, simple is better. The majority use doo, doh, and da.

For example, In Cluster’s “One Note Samba” and Overboard’s version of “Get Back,” the only consonants used in these arrangements are “B” and “D.” The only vowels used are “oo” “oh” and “ah.” Overboard’s “Get Back” also uses “Bap” “Duh,” and Dap.”

I think these arrangements are fantastic, and the best part is, the syllable choices are so simple, yet you don’t even notice how simple they are. If you are going to be clever with your syllables, you need to draw attention specifically towards those syllables, or make it part of your style, much like the Swingle Singers and The Real Group. Speaking of…

3- More creative syllables are used ONLY when special cases are needed, such as imitating a specific instrument, or achieving a specific effect.

In “Country Dances” by The Swingle Singers, the purpose of peculiar syllables, like “plung” “now” etc., is to imitate specific Country-Western instruments. The Real Group uses similar techniques in most of their arrangements, including “Gee Mine Or Mozart’s” with “ding di gi” and “deyeyeyeyeye” which imitate classical instruments.

3) Great arrangements turn something familiar into something unfamiliar or something very familiar.

Once upon a time, the gimmick of singing a song entirely with your mouths was enough to capture the attention of an audience. (See: Semi Charmed Life, Breakfast at Tiffanies, Runaround Sue, etc.)

But as a cappella has evolved, so have the tastes of the audiences who now enjoy them. Simply put, you have two options: Either be incredibly faithful to the original recording, so much so that you’ve captured every single nuance, or turn the song into an entirely new composition.

Let’s take Upenn Off The Beat’s version of “Going Under” on BOCA 2005. The group not only faithfully re-created the nuances of Evanescence, but it’s almost impossible to tell the original from the a cappella recording for the first 10 seconds. It is this level of craftsmanship that allows a group to re-create the song exactly. Anything less is underwhelming.

On the other side of the spectrum, a cappella groups are finding it freeing to turn songs that have a collective awareness of the general public into new musical compositions. Fast songs become ballads, major songs become minor, etc.

Some good examples would be Twisted Measure’s version of “Chandelier” (Voices Only 2015), Delilah’s version of “Grenade” (from Sing-Off season 3) and Countermeasure’s version of “Something.”

While the common theme is taking fast songs and slowing them down, each does it in a unique way. “Chandelier” becomes a choral ballad, where every voice sings every almost every lyric with no background rhythms. “Grenade” turns the original beat-centric track into a sad love song. “Something” uses extended technique and silence to highlight the words of the text, leaving the listener unsettled until the end.

4) Great arrangements have a surprise inside.

To keep the audience’s attention in this fast-food-instant-coffee-viral-videos era, you need to make them want to listen. Repeating the same chorus three times, copy and pasting your background voices between verses, giving the audience exactly what they’d expect does not make a great arrangement these days.

Take “Say My Name” by The Funx. The third verse changes the chords completely, and lowers the dynamic level extremely. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” by the Swingle Singers (arr. Tom Anderson) adds key changes, trades solos, and generally increases the complexity of the harmony to keep listeners engaged. Even the finale of Pitch Perfect 1 loops every song through every other song, switching gears as quickly as someone would switch a radio station.

If you want to keep your listeners engaged, you need to challenge their expectations and have them expect the unexpected.

5) Great arrangements challenge the concept of traditional harmony.

This is just my opinion, by triads are boring. 3 notes? Big deal. Give me 5 or 6 notes to a chord. Give me dissonance. Give me something that makes me want to listen again and again, and then email the arranger and beg for the arrangement.

Fermata Town’s “101” (Voices Only Forte V), Groove For Thought’s “Cooler Than Me” (or really anything), and Take 6 are all great examples of using jazz harmonies in contemporary songs. Listen to these groups and see if you can try and replicate their chords.

Marc Silverberg

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