Sunday, September 16, 2012

How close should a vocal arrangement be to the original song?

I’m in the middle of doing some voice-only arrangements of Queen songs for a weekend workshop I’ll be running at Farncombe Courses in the Cotswolds this September (I want to break free: the songs of Queen). So I’ve been listening to a lot of Queen recordings lately!


It’s made me wonder: how close do I need to stick to the original recordings when doing voice-only arrangements?

When people come to learn a well-known song they expect an arrangement which is close to the original that they’re familiar with. If it strays too far then they will be disappointed.

In the pop world, the opposite is often the case. When someone covers a well-known song and it sounds too much like the original we wonder what the point is. We love it when someone makes a cover version their own and brings new life to a familiar song.

However, in a workshop, it’s the love of the original song that has attracted people in the first place. They want an arrangement that reflects the original recording.

My dislike of choirs singing pop songs is well known (see Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs). One of the things that I really don’t like is when the voice impersonates instruments and there are lots of ‘dum dums’ and ‘doo doos’.

But it’s often the instrumental breaks which give the original songs their flavour and uniqueness. Take the riffs away in your arrangement and it becomes a different song.

So how does one do a purely vocal arrangement that is true to the original yet doesn’t slavishly copy it or have to reproduce all the instruments?

I’m learning several things while I attempt these Queen arrangements:
  • you don’t have to arrange the whole song to capture its essence
  • people automatically fill in bits of the original in their heads when singing, so you don’t need to copy all the instrumental parts
  • instead of ‘dum dums’ and ‘doo doos’ it’s often possible to substitute words, especially in the bass part. This also makes the song easier to learn
  • often it’s the structure of the song that people find difficult when learning. Especially with Queen songs which can sometimes be mini operas. I need to make sure that I break down the songs clearly when teaching them. A clean and slightly simplified arrangement can help this.
  • nobody really remembers the original recording accurately any way!
I’d love to hear you experiences of either singing or arranging well-known songs. How do you manage to stay faithful to the original, but using voice only? Is it possible to do a radical arrangement of a pop song and not disappoint people who know and love the original?

Do leave a comment and share your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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