The Joy of Arranging II: Process

by Alyssa Reit

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on arranging which expands the presentation the author made at the AHS 41st National Conference in New Orleans in June 2014.

Here’s the scene: sitting at the harp or piano, blank music paper and pencil, a familiar melody running through the head, and the thought “I’d like to make an arrangement of that!” What next?

Let’s leave aside those times when we are deeply inspired and the desired arrangement is very clear, stylistically, emotionally, and structurally.  Those kinds of moments, when the living music calls to us, are treasures and need very little help.

Waiting for inspiration can tempt one to pull out some formula or to look for quick tricks.  And sometimes it leads to the frustration that accompanies dissatisfaction with the ideas that are flowing into one’s head, or, more accurately, the experience that quality ideas just ain’t flowin.’ 

The important principle is to explore the material harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and emotionally: to experiment without attachment to what you find; tune in to whatever you hear; select later.

I have certainly found that I cannot count on feeling inspired during any particular work session.  Luckily, the truth in the adage “No inspiration without perspiration” comes to the rescue!  Maybe those inspired moments are more often earned than not.  So what is the process? What efforts can we make?

There are a few ways to begin.

A) Break associations: play around with the tune

There are two aspects to this. One is to identify how you typically hear the piece, and discover what elements are a part of its defining characteristics for you.  Often there are variants to a melody and an even bigger palette of harmonizations. And while many pieces have a typical, fairly narrow tempo range, there are some that lend themselves to great extremes.  Some melodies allow a fairly broad expanse of emotional flavors. How you have always heard it may be colored by how mom sang it, or by a favored recording from your teen years.  The more you know about how you hear it, the more you know your point of departure.  For example, growing up, I heard the beautiful Deutsche Gramophone string orchestra recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D many times, and that version of that piece is “what it is” to me.  Those associations are quite different from the ones someone would have who learned it from repeated hearings of commercial club date versions.

So let’s say you’ve identified your customary associations with a piece. Now what?  Well, here’s where the fun begins!  At one point I took an acting class with a wonderful teacher named Jordan Charney. He had us play a game called “emotional living room,” in which we might speak about some very ordinary event, like breakfast, but, on his cue, go from one specific intense emotion to another.  The result was hilarious, like weeping about boiled eggs, or describing the cappuccino in a sinister tone.  The same game can be played with music.

Example 1: Applying Other Set Forms
Example 2: Changing the Mode
Example 3: Changing the Mood
Example 4: Finding the Structural Pillars
Example 5: Clarifying Harmonic Function
Example 6: Clarifying the Essence of Melody

Try breaking every rule you have set in place about the piece. This is where you get to free yourself from the universe of “right and wrong” and begin to have some ear-opening musical adventures. Having an ample musical toolbox can be a real blast. Use different rhythms, unfamiliar harmonies, changes of accompaniment, strange dissonances, new tempi. Pick some familiar forms that don’t usually get paired with the melod, like “Oh, Suzanna!” as a waltz or a tango—and see where that takes you See Example 1. Put the melody in a different mode. See Example 2. Pick an opposite emotional quality to your usual sense of the piece and see what that does.  A great example of the use of this technique is in the show The Music Man, where Meredith Willson turns the tender ballad “Goodnight, My Someone” into the rousing march “Seventy-six Trombones!” See Example 3

Of course, any of these experiments will involve more than one musical modification; any change of form, mode, or emotional tone will require new rhythms and harmonies.  But each is a different point of view for experimentation, and so may evoke wonderful surprises.  And at the end of it all, you can return to your familiar sense of the piece, or you might incorporate some of your discoveries. But regardless, the experiment allows you to expand your musical thinking, instead of simply going to the default.

B) Define the tune’s essential characteristics

This means having a sense of the most basic structural parts, without which it becomes a different song. Much of this is intuitive, once a real relationship with a piece is established.
So how can we establish that relationship?

Let’s start with harmony.       
1) Identify your basic harmonic “pillars.” This is much like architecture.  In a home, there are structural, weight-bearing walls and supports, as well as those that can be moved, added, or removed.  So to explore the harmonic possibilities, you need to determine what harmonies are essential and which are not. If you are working from a lead sheet, or another arrangement, there may be many added chords. Don’t be attached to these extra harmonies in this part of the process, even if you like them and you think you will want to use them.
To find these pillars, often I will begin by putting the entire song over a tonic or dominant drone.  It is surprising how often that can be in itself the basis of a beautiful setting, perhaps for one verse.  By starting with the simplest possible harmony, it becomes very clear where that harmony absolutely must change. And once those changes are clear, it becomes easier to see where substitutions or supplemental chords can add to the arrangement. See Example 4.

2) Clarify the structure of the harmony. There are two parts to this: the harmonic function, and the harmonic rhythm.  These two elements have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a setting, and can add drama and “growth” to an arrangement in a very direct way.

First, harmonic function. It can be useful to think in terms of three harmonic functions: the tonic, or “home/rest” chord, the dominant, or main “counterbalance” to the tonic, and the subdominant, or what could be called the “spice” chords—everything else.  In a typical composition in a major or minor key, the tonic is the “I chord,” the dominant is the “V chord,” and the subdominant is the “IV chord.”  However, the dominant could be any chord that fills that function, and often is, especially in modal tunes.

Why does this matter? Are these just academic names? No! The actual names may not matter, but understanding how the harmony functions is essential. Not knowing the basic harmonic functions in a piece is not so different from building a house and not knowing whether a room is a bedroom, a living room, or a kitchen.  It opens the gateway to successful substitutions, which can give tremendous color and variety, even in the simplest of settings See Example 5

Harmonic rhythm is another item to have on your radar.  This is the rhythm of when the harmony changes: how many beats per chord. It can match (to some degree) the overall rhythms of a melody, or it can be dramatically different; regardless, it is a fundamental layer to the rhythmic structure of a piece.  A fast harmonic rhythm can create inner tension, complexity, excitement, or a sense of imbalance.  One example is John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which has a different chord for each melody note.   A slower harmonic rhythm can leave space, and create calm, such as Carl Orff’s “Chum, Chum Geselle Min” from Carmina Burana, where one chord accompanies the whole section. A regular, repeating harmonic rhythm, such as the one that underscores Bach’s famous “Chaconne” (from the D minor Violin Partita), sets up a very different harmonic field and emotional territory than a piece which has an erratic harmonic rhythm. 

Now to touch on melody.  I have often wondered how it is--and why it is--that we can recognize a melody, even when dramatically altered.  Perhaps it is that real melodies are like living things, and we can recognize them just as we know a friend with a new haircut, or change of clothing, or even after years of aging. There is something mysterious about knowing what makes a melody “itself” that goes beyond any definition we can give it. 

            That being said, there are ways to explore the essence of a melody. Here again we look for what is structural, and what is elaborative.  Usually some of the primary melodic elements can be changed, as long as enough remain the same. Here are some basic questions to ask:
-what is the contour?
-what is the rhythmic shape?
-what notes are auxiliary or ornamental?

Let’s look at “Greensleeves” as an illustration.  It has a very strong repeated quarter-eighth rhythm, a series of regular phrase lengths, repeated melodic contours, and a relatively simple harmonic structure.

            Once the basic contour is identified, all kinds of elaborations are possible without losing the sense of the melody. This means that the approximate location of high and low points can move a little sooner or later, passing tones can be added, ornamental notes can embellish, less essential notes can be left out, the rhythm or time signature can be modified, all without losing the sense of identity. See Example 6.

Why does all this matter? To paraphrase what the jazz great Bill Evans said, “It is better to play one tune a hundred times than to play a hundred tunes once.” The more deeply you explore a piece, the more intimate the relationship, and the fuller the understanding.  This brings more freedom to explore the unconventional, greater expression of feeling, and can more readily open the doors of inspiration.

About the author:

New York Based performer, composer and arranger Alyssa Reit has performed with artists and arts groups ranging from Anonymous 4, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera, to contemporary music groups and traditional Irish bands. She teaches at the Westchester Conservatory, Hunter College, and the pre-college division of the Manhattan School of Music.