Thoughts on Arranging Music
With so much technology available, is arranging still a skilled art form?
If you fancy doing some arranging, you can switch on a computer today and be presented with a huge panoply of tools to assist you from simple play-in/play-back software to elaborate Band-in-a-Box automatic transcriptions. No more late night sessions copying individual parts from a painstakingly hand-written score with the desperate hope that all will be finished in time for the rehearsal next morning. No more arriving at the rehearsal to discover that the E flat saxophone part has been wrongly transposed from the original G flat major or that two bars of the flute part are missing. Oh Yes! I have relished the past 30 years since I took delivery of my first computer [which had just 4MB of RAM - yes, really, only 4MB! But has it made me a better arranger? No, it’s just made me a more reliable, faster copyist.
What makes a good arrangement?
To create a good arrangement, you need an understanding of the instruments for which you are scoring, a good ear for texture, some knowledge of the history of music and a strong understanding of harmony mixed with a dollop of creativity.
Make sure you’ve got something to say:
Priority number one should be to ensure that the transcription or arrangement is ‘valid’, that it has something fresh to say about the work – there is seldom a point in performing something on four flutes if it is just a pale reflection of the original. Consider what you appreciate in the piece and how that is influenced by the original scoring then think of the instruments you intend to write for and decide how they can best be employed to create a similar effect.
Don’t be a slave to the original:
A flute can’t do the same things as a piano or a ‘cello – it can’t, for example, pizzicato or play endless streams of semiquavers so think of new ‘flutey’ techniques and textures that will create a similar effect but not necessarily rely on precisely the same notes or rhythms. Look at the example from the A-Lister edition of Fauré’s Sicilienne.
Think: can John Smith play legato?
It’s much easier to make a successful arrangement if you write for specific people and consider their individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s even better if you can try it out with them before it goes to final print! For instance, if you know that John Smith can’t play legato, don’t write a solo for him that needs to be slurred. On the other hand if he is brilliant at double tonguing give him that role when it is needed in the music.
Even a bad player gets bored:
So don’t keep one part in the low range unless you really need to – and share the tunes around to make sure that everybody gets an interesting bit to play.
Tunes are easier than counting:
If you are writing for elementary students, remember that weaker players generally can’t count and will try to play the same rhythm as the other members of the ensemble, so give them the tune and ask the more experienced players to perform the harmony wherever possible.
Give everybody a tune :
Arrangements work best when each individual part makes a tune or a logical line – don’t just share out harmony notes randomly.
Should I use a computer?
I wrote this article originally in 2010, and now in 2019 the answer is even more Yes! Definitely! There is some wonderful software available such as Finale, Sibelius and Dorico. It will copy out the parts for you and transpose the music into any key at the flick of a button. Best of all it will let you hear your arrangement and check for mistakes before you let it loose at the first rehearsal. You can even make an mp3 or CD for the players to practise with. But a word of warning: the sounds produced are done so electronically and so the overtones produced will not be the same as in a live performance – there will be occasions when what sounds good on a computer will not sound so effective with real players, especially if their intonation is not perfect.
Why can’t he play loud enough?
It’s vital to understand an instrument’s capability if you wish to create a successful transcription – don’t write thick chords around a low lying melody and expect the tune to be heard. Use the range of the instrument wisely – use wide spaced sounds when you want a ‘silvery’ effect and only write close spaced chords when you want a dark, rich texture.
Why can’t he play off the beat?
Dividing semiquavers between two parts works well but try to overlap the parts on a beat so that each entry does not feel exposed. Many players have trouble with syncopated accompaniments so try to minimise the problems for them wherever possible by adding notes on the beat. For the A-Listers series, I have included rhythms in the accompaniment that support the learning of more difficult rhythms in the solo part – for example the perennial problem of the crotchet (quarter note) tied to a semiquaver (sixteenth)
I’d like to arrange the 1812 overture for flutes but I only have 2 players:
No problem! pick out the essential notes in the harmony and discard the rest. Decide which other elements are important and include them by combining in one part if necessary. Take a look at my example from the Mozart D major concerto (one of the A-Listers editions) – the flute solo is kept as in the original, but the orchestral accompaniment is reduced to one flute player.
It sounds great on 3 flutes but not with flute, saxophone and clarinet:
There are three problems here: firstly unless careful use is made of range the flute will be drowned by an alto saxophone. The duets I have written for flute and saxophone rely on keeping the flute in a fairly high register. More importantly, the clarinet and saxophone produce different overtones so that the resulting effects will be quite different from that of three flutes. Try to keep the instruments spaced fairly well apart.
To be precise:
The words ‘arrangement’ and ‘transcription’ are used often loosely to convey the same meaning i.e to re-write a piece of music for a fresh instrument or instruments. However, there is in fact a small but important difference – a ‘transcription’ is a faithful re-scoring of an original. But an ‘arrangement’ allows the writer to create new textures or material. So before the era of sound recordings it was common for composers to make piano transcriptions of their symphonies in order to perform them more widely. But when Jacques Loussier performs his jazz versions of Bach’s music, he has created arrangements.
If you need lessons in arranging, please feel free to contact me. I also give talks to groups at festivals about arranging.