Defining the genre is not enough. Some arrangers need help turning their mash-up from a lumpy sack of unpeeled potatoes into a yummy mush of spud and cheese. These theory-based techniques are tricky to master, but they will give your mash-up the fuel it needs to stand out.
1) Harmonic progressions
One of the best ways to determine whether two songs would work together is the harmonic progression, or the progression of chords. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a series of blogs on how to participate in a riff-off. Included in these posts was a beginner’s guide to identifying chord progressions. You can view it here:
Let’s give an example. Say you want to mash-up “Happy Ending” by Mika and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. An inexperienced arranger would look at the two songs, see that they were in different keys, and immediately think these two songs couldn’t possibly go together.
Mika’s “Happy Ending:” C G Am F Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours:” G D Em C
An experienced arranger would notice that, while these two songs were in different keys, the harmonic progression, or the movement of chords, was exactly the same.
The chord progressions using Roman numeral analysis
Happy Ending: I V vi IV Jason Mraz: I V vi IV
They are the same underlying framework, despite starting in different keys. This means that, if you changed the keys of one of the songs, the chord progression would work for both. These two songs would most likely sound good together.
Of course, you will need to place them in the same key, which means transposing one of the solos up or down, and adjusting the tempo of each song so that both solos were moving under the same chords, but at least you’ve discovered the basic framework.
There are many apps on smartphones, tablets, and computers these days that let you play with the recordings of songs, and test out whether two songs would sound good together in a mash-up.
One of the easiest ways to choose two songs is based solely on tempo, or the speed of the song. A fast song often has a fast progression of chords. This could fit well with another song that moves quickly, or even more clever, a song that moves very slowly through chords.
Imagine a song that stays with the same chord for several measures, like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. Now add to that a song that moves quickly through chords, like “Marry Me” by Train.
Combining these two songs, one staying within the same structure and one moving quickly within that structure, may create a new harmonic sound that you enjoy.
The key to re-harmonization, or writing new chords for an existing melody, is all dependent on what note is currently in the melody. For example, a melody that stays on the note E would fit well over the C major triad, which contains the notes C E and G.
However, that’s not the only option. A melody note E would also fit over:
Em- E G B Am- A C E C#m- C# E G# FMaj7- F A C E G13- G B F E Etc.
There are dozens of chords that would work because they share the same note as the melody. Now, before I start getting hate mail from composers, let me be clear: Re-Harmonization is more than just picking out new chords. The placement of these chords in order, the function of these chords; all of these elements factor into the compositional process.
What if we took the melody of one song, labeled the notes, and then saw if that song worked with another, existing harmonic progression?
Take “Let It Be” by the Beatles and sing it over the harmonic progression of “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. The end of the first phrase, “Let it Be,” the soloist sings a “C” while the chords move from C major (C E G) to G7 (G B D F).
The addition of the “C” in the melody turns the harmonic progression into C major going to G 11 (G B D F C). Already you have a re-harmonization, all because the chord was altered, thanks to the melody note.
You should feel free to play with different chords under the melody, as long as the chord you choose already contains the melody note within it. Using a pre-existing melody with a different, pre-existing chord progression, is one of the most advanced and clever ways to mash-up two songs.
4) Guess and Check
Forget theory! Theory is stupid! Just try singing two songs together, like they did in Pitch Perfect. See what happens. Who knows, you might find a new musical sound that you really like.
I don’t mean to make your head spin, or overcomplicate things by bringing musical theory into this topic. But there are times when you try a mash-up and something “just isn’t right,” but you can’t put your finger on it. These techniques will help you eliminate these inconsistencies.
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