One reader of the blog emailed me the following question:
“I’m an aspiring a cappella arranger. However, I never learned any music theory. What should I learn in order to make decent arrangements?”
Excellent question! First of all, Holy Crap! Someone actually reads my blog!
Hopefully, the following options will give you enough to go on:
1) My Humble Opinion:
If you're doing your very first arrangement, you can probably skip over a few things.
When I arrange, here are the skills I feel like I rely on the most:
A. The letter names of each line and space on both the treble and bass clef
B. All 12 major and minor key signatures- What they look like and how each line and space on the
staff is affected.
C. The ability to spell out each major and minor (natural and harmonic) scale on staff paper
D. The triads built from each major and minor scale
E. An understanding of meters
F. Being able to write rhythms, from whole notes to sixteenth notes, in each meter
G. Being able to recognize the chords of a song, and being able to spell them out on a staff
Now, this list looks like a LOT of stuff, and admittedly, it is. However, this is the bare bones of music theory. I’m skipping over major chapters including:
A. Secondary Dominants
B. Jazz Harmonies (Although I use lots of jazz harmonies in my arrangements, you probably don't
want to start with this until you get a few arrangements under your belt)
C. Non-Chord Tones
D. Four-Part Writing (You need this too...Thanks Deke for showing me the way...)
And SO MUCH MORE
So…how do I learn this stuff if there isn’t someone to teach me?
2) Learning Theory
Obviously, the best way to learn theory is to take a theory course. When that isn’t available, there are other alternatives.
I have a real problem with online instruction. Most online courses describe things in very detailed ways, but I’m a hands-on learner. I only learn when I repetitively do something. That being said, try to avoid theory books that don’t have practical exercises and online courses that don’t have instructor feedback.
With that in mind, here are some hands-on resources that can teach you theory while also making you practice theory:
If none of these work, you could simply Google “learn music theory.”
3) Study The Greats
Igor Stravinsky, one of the greatest composers in music history said the following:
“Good composers write. Great composers steal.”
If you want to be great, you need to study the greats. There are actually a lot of a cappella arrangements online for free- Deke Sharon’s website, totalvocal.com has many. The A cappella Educators Association also has a few. Plus, you can purchase most existing arrangements that you hear on BOCA, SING, or Voices Only.
Even people who know theory, like myself, often find inspiration (a.k.a “steal”) from other arrangements. The only way you get better is to add to your ongoing collection of tricks in your arsenal.
But when you study an arrangement, don’t just copy effects. Really look at how the chords are voiced. Study the horizontal line of each part. You can copy a chord no problem, but if the space between voices isn’t right, you will only be making it worse.
4) Baby’s First Arrangement
The quickest way to learn a cappella arranging is to transcribe a cappella arrangements. What does transcribe mean? It means listening to something and writing it down, note by note.
Now, notice that I said quickest, but not easiest. Transcription is not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest musical skills to master. But NOTHING will teach you more about music more thoroughly than transcription, because transcription trains both your ears and your brain.
The problem with transcription is that you have to be able to notate music in some form. For transcription to work, you’ll need to be able to do these things:
A. Know the letter names of each line on the treble and bass clef staff
B. Know the major and minor scales of all 12 keys and their key signatures
C. Be able to write rhythms in any meter, from whole note rhythms to sixteenth note rhythms.
Still challenging, yes. But a lot easier than the first list I wrote.
5) Theory Is Stupid
Having interviewed multiple, very successful a cappella arrangers for my dissertation, one pattern started to emerge: Many successful a cappella arrangers do everything by ear, and nothing by Finale or Sibelius. In fact, they use Pro Tools, record the parts by singing them, and then transfer those files to someone who can decode them. This is not to suggest they don't know theory. In fact, these arrangers DO know quite a bit of theory.
If they can do it by ear why can’t you? Theory is an obstacle- one that you may be willing to cross, but maybe not. I say in every improvisation workshop I teach, “If someone asks you about music theory, tell them to shut up.” If you have the ear and you have the mind, theory could actually be a hindrance to you instead of a helper.
To find out if you do need theory, try this simple test: Use one of the many audio programs (Loopy, Audacity, Pro Tools, Logic, Garageband) and try improvising an arrangement of a verse and/or chorus. If you really like what you did, then you could probably get away with less theory. If you hate it, then theory is your friend, not your enemy.