Monday, February 22, 2016

Theory For Arrangers

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...)
E. Cadences

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: (Website) (Website)

Theory Lessons (Smartphone App)

Music Theory For Beginners (Smartphone App)

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, 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.

Marc Silverberg

Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

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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