I’ve been organically arranging songs with my a cappella class for some time now, but just recently, my CAL group, Satellite Lane, began working out arrangements by ear, rather than using sheet music.
If you don’t know what I mean by organic arranging, let me explain: Organic arranging is the process by which your a cappella group, as a whole, creates a new arrangement from scratch, by combining group improvisation with a lot of trial-and-error.
I highly recommend attempting this process for two reasons: First, it gives your group a sense of accomplishment and pride to know that they contributed to the arrangement. Second, it’s a great way to develop everyone’s aural skills.
Here’s what I learned from going through the process multiple times, and maybe you can use this as your how-to guide:
Step 1-Start with a song everyone knows
The best results come from a song that most or all of your members know, especially if this is your first time organically arranging. If the majority of your members don’t know the song, they will have to split their focus between learning the song and listening to an unfamiliar chord progression.
These characteristics work best when choosing a song for organic arrangements:
1- Everyone or almost everyone can sing the solo
2- The chord progression is mostly or entirely repetitive
3- The song does not have a significant a cappella cover that everyone already knows (Like the Pentatonix version of “Somebody That I Used To Know”)
4- The majority of group members seem excited or interested in covering this song and putting in the time to work on it
Step 2- Sing with chords.
I have found that the best way to begin an arrangement by ear is by playing and singing along with the chords. Pull up a lead sheet or sheet music off the internet, and have someone just bang out the chord progression on a piano or guitar while everyone improvises along.
Don’t have anyone sing the solo. Have them hear the solo in their heads.
The first time we approach a new song, I have everyone sing all the way through, even if they don’t know exactly what to sing. This helps outline the form of the song and, since the chorus most likely repeats several times, provides everyone wth multiple chances to improvise and revise their part during the chorus.
Sing the entire song at least twice, with someone playing the underlying chords. Once that’s finished, break the song down by section. Tackle one verse or chorus first, and sing it through a few times until everyone has a general sense of what to do.
Step 3- Know your individual roles
A good a cappella arrangement has many moving parts. If everyone sings something rhythmic, the song sounds too choppy. If everyone sings long whole notes, the arrangement sounds too static. You need a mix of both to fill the space.
You can decide who does what using a couple different ways. Typically, less confident improvisers will want to hold long notes, while more confident improvisers will want to add rhythmic ostinatos. If everyone is shy and/or confident, elect a leader to choose who will do what.
Don’t forget that there is more to an a cappella arrangement than long whole notes and rhythmic ostinatos. Here are some other background variants:
-Bell chords (each voice enters one at a time)
-Duets and Trios with the soloist
-Instrumental impressions like a guitar countermelody
-Changing the style of the song (rock to doo-wop or country to gospel, etc.)
-Countermelodies, canons, and echoes
-Changing the underlying harmony
Step 4- Write it down AND record it
When you agree on something you like, make sure somebody writes it down AND someone records it on his/her phone. Always have a backup memory system, or chances are you will forget what you did then next time you revisit this arrangement.
Step 5- Try Everything
No idea is a bad idea. (unless, of course, this suggestion is a bad idea…) Don’t be afraid to try something that completely fails. Don’t play it safe. Don’t stick to what you think everyone expects.
Step 6-Interject with some direction
Organic arrangements, unless your group is REALLY GOOD, will need some specific guidance to avoid a stale, repetitive arrangement. It’s okay every now and then to suggest a technique that relies on theory or is based on an existing arrangement. If you are having trouble thinking of new ideas, try to include the following items in your organic arrangement, whether by group improvisation or direction from an arranger:
1- Every verse must sound different.
2- The chorus can use some of the same background parts, but every chorus must add something new
3- Change at least 3 chords in the original progression
4- Insert a glissando somewhere in the arrangement
5- Insert a quote from another song
6- Change the musical style of one chorus
7- Everyone sings the lyrics in a homophonic texture for one chorus
8- Change the key
9- Sing one section without a strict tempo
10- Change the meter of a verse
11- Eliminate the bridge, intro, or transitions between verses
Follow The Quest For The A cappella Major: