Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Are ALL songs suitable for purely vocal arrangements?

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as When is a song not a song? in October 2007

I’m always on the lookout for new songs to use with my singing workshops and choirs.

singer songwriter

Sara Bareilles in concert by Anirudh Koul

There might be a stunning song that I’ve known and loved for years, but when I come to arrange it for unaccompanied harmony, it doesn’t work. How can we decide which songs will work for a choir and which won’t?

First off I need to ’fess up (you probably know this by now!). I don’t like:

  • ‘dum dum’ bass lines
  • choirs singing pop songs (see Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs)
  • voices impersonating instruments
  • beautifully enunciated traditional songs
  • lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ under a single melody line

Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for me to use. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group.

Many recorded songs these days have integral instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song. Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing.

I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original.

My reaction was: “What’s the point? Why bother?” Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply use a trumpet. I just don’t get it.

I’m not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or there’s no point in doing an arrangement for voices only. Where the voice is concerned I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. I was once told by an ethnomusicologist that in singing traditions which have lots of harmony, the words are always very simple, often repetitive, and not the most important element of the song. Whereas in cultures where the lyrics are important and tell complex stories, there is seldom a harmony tradition.

So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but it’s not true that anything can be adapted for voices alone.

For me, I want voices that sound like voices, an arrangement that sound like it was only ever meant to be sung using voices only, and lush harmonies without too many tricks (or cheesy key changes!). If you can’t make the song your own, then leave the original alone.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time.

I’ll be writing more about how you can “make a song your own” in few weeks’ time.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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