The Arranging Process

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I think of arranging in four stages. Three of them can be reduced to method, but one remains mysterious to me – though I always recognise when it’s happening.

Arranging Process

1. Transcription

If I’m working from a recording, this is taking down the melody and harmonies by dictation. I always wonder why people go to such lengths to create online collections of song lyrics, but at this stage I am grateful to them – copy-paste is much quicker than writing them out myself. If I’m working from sheet music, this is simply laying the score out. In either case, there are some basic musical decisions to be made at this stage, such as key, and whether or not to conform to contest-barbershop style rules. This stage is usually completed in a couple of hours at most.

2. Magic Happens Here

This is the most important bit of the process, and the one I really can’t explain. It’s the time when I’m looking at the song nervously and thinking, ‘WTF am I going to do with this?’ I’ll spend a fair bit of time listening to recordings and/or sketching out ideas at the piano, and I may do a couple of trial runs at arranging small sections of it. I’ll then put it to one side to let my brain get on with it, while I get on with the other stuff in my life. I never know how long this phase is going to last – could be only a week, could be months - but I may find myself singing bits of the song, periodically, or vamping fragments when I wander past a piano. I may go back to the initial sketches of arranging and have another fiddle if I think I’ve had an idea, but I won’t slave away if it doesn’t flow.

This is the bit where my brain decides about things like texture, feel, embellishment strategy, key scheme – the overall artistic effect that we’re aiming for. It is also where a lot of the technical problem-solving goes on – how to handle the hard-to-harmonise bits, where to find enough 7ths (if it’s barbershop), or how to make diatonic harmonies interesting (if it’s not).

3. Rough-Cut Version

This is where I basically hammer in a complete arrangement top-to-bottom in a complete enough state that you can play someone a midi file and they get the feel of the whole thing. The odd thing about this stage is that I only know that Stage 2 is over when I have finished Stage 3. It’s probably a matter only of 5-6 hours, tops, to do a rough-cut version (often spread over 2 sessions), but it’s impossible to complete it before my brain has finished chewing over the tricky bits. I don’t know exactly how all the details are going to come out while I’m doing it, but I usually find that I’m not surprised by the results. There’s a certain amount of trial and error process here in producing a material outline that fits what is a well-developed but largely unarticulated intuition. This is probably my favourite part of the process.

4. Polishing

I used to think that I was nearly there by the time I finished the rough-cut version, and that tidying up the score was just a matter of making it legible for the performers. But in fact there’s a surprising number of artistic decisions still going on during this final stage. Walking through the detail of what word sounds (or nonsense sounds) each part sings when is not a mechanical process, but has a big impact on overall performance effect. And it’s important to find and iron out all infelicities in individual lines, since these present unreasonable obstacles for both performers and audience. Sure, polishing is about the surface, not the vision, but it is the surface that the performers sing and the audience listens to, and they can only grasp the fundamentals if the surface is transparent enough for it to shine through.

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