8 suggestions for beginning arrangers
You don’t need extreme talent or an extensive education in music theory to become a successful barbershop arranger—it’s a learnable skill. Accelerate your learning curve with these suggestions.
I once heard it said that a good arrangement is one you can’t wait to sing and one you wish you’d done yourself. Arranging is a learnable skill. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Start with a good song.
This is probably 80% of arranging. A great song has compelling harmony, interesting lyrics, and/or a good hook. Dominant sevenths and tritones generate forward motion and keep the harmony compelling and moving. An interesting lyric is one that tells a story. A good hook or repeated thematic material like the ooga-chaka recurring rhythmic pattern in “Hooked on a Feeling,” the surprise note in the refrain of “Daydream,” the infectious beat of “Happy,” or the simple singable riff in “All About That Bass” are excellent examples.
If your song does not contain compelling harmony, interesting lyrics, or a good hook, your project is fighting an uphill battle. There just aren’t many ways to dress up “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (as good a song as it is).s
2. Sing through all four parts.
Can an average singer perform all four parts? As arranger Don Gray put it, “If you can’t sing it, probably no one else can, either.” Ask yourself if there is a smoother way to get the sound you’re after. The old woodshedding (ear singing) rules of thumb should apply: “Don’t move unless you have to (or if the melody takes your note), and if you must move, move the smallest distance you need to move to complete the chord.”
You can execute anything with computer software, but that doesn’t mean you should. Eventually, someone has to try to sing it.
3. Do not double the lead with the baritone.
Many novice arrangers will inadvertently double these parts—an easy mistake given the similar ranges and different clefs. But doubling a note in the chord means something has been left out
4. Eliminate weak bass writing.
At least initially, get used to writing your bass on roots and fifths of the chord. Yes, there are times to give the bass first inversion or even third inversion (often in a so-called bass/ tenor scissor, for example). Give the bass the root or fifth, even if you have to write multiple jumps in the arrangement to make that happen. The bass part is most accustomed to large leaps.
Avoid “divorced bass,” which is when the bass is one octave or further from the next lowest note in the chord. Yes, there are moments when this is used to good effect (the tag to Walter Latzko’s arrangement of “As Time Goes By”), but having the bass too far removed means the upper three parts will be singing in efficient range while the bass is not. This lessens potential for the chords to lock and ring.
5. Get feedback.
Ask for help and mentoring. Even great arrangers often bounce their arrangements off another set of ears for feedback.
6. Listen to the recording(s).
A great song will often have been covered many times by multiple artists. A careful listening of several versions of the same song can reveal more layers to you as an arranger. What elements in the different orchestrations come to the foreground? Each iteration will give you a nugget to build on.
7. Utilize the original score.
It’s well worth paying a few bucks, particularly if you are a beginning arranger. The piano/vocal score, the lead sheet, and guitar tabs are all excellent tools for the arranger. The score reveals the harmonic progression, rhythmic timing, and phrasing. Many scores show the pop/jazz analysis (G7, F#6, etc), giving you quick reference to the chords. The original score is vital to capturing the intent of the original composition.
8. Ask "does it circle?"
The circle of fifths is a cornerstone of barbershop music. If you haven’t yet seen it, Dave Stephens’ “What Are We Trying to Preserve?” is a masterclass.
Given time, patience, and plenty of practice, you can move from dabbler to bona fide arranger.
About the Author
Adam Scott is on faculty for Harmony University.
This article originally appeared in the July/Aug 2021 issue of The Harmonizer.