First check to see if the LowKeys have the song claimed in the Arrangement Database. If not, make sure to claim it yourself. If the song you care to arrange is currently claimed by another A Capella group, talk to the LowKeys music director.
Choosing a song
Choosing a good song is the first step. There are several factors that make a good acappella song.
- It should be a good song. Make sure that you personally love the song, i.e. you like to hear it or sing along to it; liking the song yourself will make your arrangement process a lot more fun, you’ll be more excited and interested, and the final product will be much better as a result.
- It should have interesting parts or harmonies in the instrumentals or backup vocals that would translate well into voice parts.
- If it doesn’t have interesting parts, be prepared to arrange creatively so that you don’t have a boring whole-note arrangement. Have interesting counterlines or rhythms in mind, unless the feel of the song suggests otherwise.
- It should be reasonably well-known. Although we sing for ourselves, we also invariably cater to an audience, so it’s best to perform songs which our audience will be familiar with. If it’s not well-known, then the pleasing/fun factor should carry more weight.
- It should be sing-able for a soloist. Check for the vocal range covered in the solo to make sure it’s practical for a girl or for a guy (see “Ranges”). You’ll also have to consider if the tone of a voice in certain ranges will match the tone needed for the feel of the song, and if there is anyone who can also sing with the style needed. It’s controversial whether or not one should arrange a song specifically for one person as soloist, since everyone should be allowed to audition and have an equal opportunity to sing the solo; nevertheless, you should have at least one soloist in mind as a possibility. Changes can always be made for singability: switching the gender of the solo, transposing the song up or down, or splitting high/low parts of the song between two people.
Once you’ve decided on a song, check the Harvard acappella arrangement database to make sure that another group hasn’t already arranged and performed this song. If another group has already claimed it and you still want to do it, it’s your responsibility to contact that group to see if they’d be willing to let us do it.
Then start asking other members of the group, especially the MD and AMD, to gauge their enthusiasm about your song. If people don’t know it, send out the mp3, or post it on your Harvard webspace. It is ultimately the group’s decision through the MD and AMD what songs we sing, and it’s a waste of effort to arrange a song the group doesn’t want to sing. The MD and AMD should also provide guidance about arrangement and give opinions about what songs may or may not be good to arrange.
Notating your arrangement
Ask other members for good music notation programs, like Finale, Sibelius, Cakewalk, etc.; or look around online for downloadable programs, like Noteworthy Composer or Finale Notepad. It is easiest to work on a computer, because you can save your work, the computerized notation is easy to read, and you can listen to MIDI playback. But it is totally possible to work with pencil and paper if you can’t get a program, with a piano or other instrument, or your very own voice (which is actually the best tool for “real” playback of your arrangement; MIDIs don’t provide the tone of actual acappella). All you need is to buy manuscript paper or print it from the internet. But after you’re done, it should eventually be entered into some music notation program for printing and readability; you can do it yourself or ask someone to help you.
One of the first steps is to decide how many different parts you want. Arrangements usually contain at least 4 parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Mezzo (between sop and alto) and baritone (between tenor and bass) are optional 5th and 6th parts. Consider how complicated the song sounds (how many independent parts you hear) and how complicated you want your arrangement to be. Also, try to have few enough parts that you’ll have at least 2, preferably 3 or 4, people on each major part. Temporary splits, randoms, or harmonies with the soloist can be covered by a single person, but avoid too many one-person parts, since one person will have to breathe and leave gaps in his or her part, or one person’s absence means the loss of that part. Try to have approximately the same number of people on each part; if you’re going to have more people on a part, it should be a part you want to come out, or a lower part (for better blend: higher parts stick out more easily). Remember to take into account that 1 girl or guy (or more depending on duets/trios) will not be part of the block, and that the percussionist, if there is one for the song, will also not be part of the block.
Each part has its own range of notes that are practical for arrangement.
[For reference purposes, uppercase letter notes ("C to B") refer to the notes from C two octaves below middle C, up to the next B. Lowercase letter notes (c to b) refer to the notes from C one octave below middle C, up to the next B. Lowercase letter notes followed by a 1 (c1 to b1) refer to notes from middle C, to B above middle C. Lowercase letter notes followed by a 2 (c2 to b2) refer to notes from C one octave above middle C, up to the next B. Those conventions will be used from this point on.]
In general, guys can go down to at least F and up to at least around e1/f1. The lowest note you can get from a low bass is around C/C#, and the highest note from a tenor, around g#1/a1. F to d has a bass tone, e to d1 has the strongest and most controllable tone (tone often switches to much brighter around a/b), e1 and above has a weaker, less reliable tone or can sound scream-y if forced. With falsetto, guys can go up to c2 or higher. Falsetto is often weak and difficult to control, but can potentially blend very well with girls. However, everyone’s falsetto has a different range, tone, and volume.
- Basses should be able to go down to an E comfortably and to hit at least an Eb. Anything lower may be possible depending on the particular bass’s range, but it will almost invariably sound froggy. Basses can go up to c1, usually higher as part of a normal guy’s range; however, once basses go above around e, they start to lose that bass-y sound essential for supporting the rest of the group tone. Notes at the lowest end of the range should not be held for long, sustained rhythms, and open vowels should be used for volume. Best range is approx F to d.
- Baritones usually go down to G and up to c1. They tend to weaken below c and above c1. Baritones often have decent tenor ranges and can take on tenor parts. Guys’ voices tend to have a break in tone around e, below which has a sort of bass-y tone, and above which has a more chest tone. Best range is approx c to a.
- Tenors usually go down to d and up to e1. Any notes e1 or higher should not be held for long notes; e1 can even be hard to hit with the wrong syllable (something closed like dm), and long notes in such a high range can get incredibly tiring. Guy’s voices tend to have a break in tone around a, above which the tone gets increasingly brighter.
In general, girls can go down to around e and up to around g2.
For some people or for some songs, it might be easier to create an arrangement completely by ear, but it almost always helps to have chords or sheet music in front of you.
You can find chords by searching for the song and “chords” or “tabs” online. Using chords, you can often map out a proper bass line, figure out other notes you hear in the song, and compose notes not in the song that would agree harmonically. This may require some knowledge about music theory; make sure you ask someone if you don’t know too much about chords.
Piano sheet music is often published for pop/rock songs, and it can be incredibly useful in creating an arrangement since it will often provide chords, a solo melody, and sometimes even instrumental lines within the song. You can search for the song and “sheet music” online. One of the websites I’ve found to be quite resourceful is http://www.musicnotes.com; it has a lot of sheet music available for purchase, at around $5 a song. Sometimes you have to wait to have the sheet music mailed to you, but you can often download and print the music out right away.