Sunday, June 17, 2012

Arranging songs for your choir 2: the basics of arranging

Last week I wrote about choosing suitable songs to arrange.

Tuesday 19th September 2006 Menorca, Sa Mesquida.
Jigsaw pieces - a selection
on bridge at Sa Mesquida

This week I want to get down to the nitty gritty of how to create an arrangement.

As I pointed out before, there is no way that I can teach all about harmonisation and song arranging in a blog post! But I can set out a basic approach and elements that you need to consider. I hope it helps.

So here is an outline of one way to approach song arranging for voice only. I’m sure there are plenty of elements that I’ve missed out, so please, please do leave a comment if you’ve got anything to add.

how to approach song arranging

  • listen, listen and listen again – if a recording of the song exists (especially if it’s a well-known song) then listen to it repeatedly until it really gets under your skin.
  • listen to different versions – try to find as many different versions of the song you’re going to arrange, not just voice-only ones. Even cheesy versions have something to offer.
  • steal bits you like – if there’s an idea you like in a recording, then steal it and make it your own. Mix and match from different versions. 
  • record the basic melody – set down the basic melody of the song by recording you singing it (or use notation if you’re that way inclined).
  • try singing harmonies against it – some songs have really obvious harmonies so just sing along and see what works. Some songs are more tricky. If it’s not working out, try a different harmony part (e.g. instead of trying to harmonise above the melody, try one below).
  • play along with chords – if you play an instrument and have some musical knowledge then work out a chord sequence to the song and play along with it. If you can’t work it out, then use the internet and sites like or Although most of these are for guitar (and focus on contemporary songs), they can set you off on the right track. Remember: there is no ONE chord sequence that fits a song. 
  • use the chord structure – if you have the musical knowledge to know what the chord sequence is, then you can just pick and mix notes from the chords to make up your harmonies.
  • the more parts, the less options – as you begin to add harmony parts, you will find that there are less options for the subsequent parts you add.
  • which part has the tune? – sometimes the tune is in the top part with all the harmonies below it, but for other songs it makes more sense to have the melody lower down with harmonies above it. You need to decide how important the basic melody is. If it’s very important, then make sure the harmonies don’t swamp it. Some traditional songs from Eastern Europe have no clear tune and the harmonies work as a whole to make the song.
  • structure vs. harmonies – the easiest way to arrange a song is to use block harmonies, i.e. every note of the song is harmonised by every part. But that doesn’t suit all songs and can get a bit boring. So pay attention to song structure. You might not want to bring all the block harmonies in at once, or you might want to have some harmonies that are in a different rhythm or act as a call and response to the main tune.
  • distributing the lead line – rather than have one part sing the melody all the way through the song, it’s fun to give different bits of the lead line to different parts, either within each verse or across different verses.
  • don’t forget the men! – people often say that men have a hard time holding their part. That’s often because it’s very boring and repetitive and simply echoes the root note of each chord! Try to make the bass part ‘interesting’ to sing, that will make it easier to learn and remember.
  • make all parts singable – the best arrangements (in my opinion) are where each part has a tuneful part to sing – not all one note or just slight variations, but a decent tune. If you manage this, then every part will think they have the main melody and they will find their part interesting and easier to learn and remember.
  • keep within range – it’s very easy to get carried away when arranging a song only to realise afterwards that your top harmony goes way too high for your singers or the bass is way too low. Keep in mind the singers you’re arranging for and what the range for each part is.
  • unison is no bad thing – I have the tendency to want harmony everywhere because I love it so much. But it can become like a meal where every course is smoked salmon – nice for the first couple of courses, then it gets really too much. So put some unison in. It can be real surprise to either have a whole verse or one section of a verse in unison after all that harmony.
  • same arrangement for every verse? – don’t assume that every verse needs to have the same arrangement, especially if there are lots of verses to the song. Ring the changes and keep the interest. It might take longer to learn a song, but it is possible to have a completely different arrangement for every verse!

where next?

If these two posts have whetted your appetite for arranging, but you don’t feel you’re quite ready to get started, here are some resources you might consider:

  • books – there are plenty of books on song arranging, but most of them assume that you have some music theory and are able to read and write music notation. They also tend to be biased to either classical choral arranging or contemporary a cappella/ barbershop.
  • courses and workshops – several people in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network run courses now and again on song arranging without using notation: Faith Watson, Nick Prater, Ali Burns and others.
  • online courses and CDs/ DVDs – there are several online resources available, and I recently came across a CD called Harmony singing by ear which introduces some basic harmonising techniques (she also has a phone app which is kinda neat!)

add your suggestions

I’m sure there are loads more useful resources out there, and I’m bound to have missed out some important song arranging elements, so please leave a comment and share your suggestions. We’d love to hear from you!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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