What makes a good close-harmony arrangement?

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tickI spend quite a lot of time helping other arrangers learn their craft, and one of the things they give me in return is the chance to reflect on what makes a good arrangement.

I think about this in three layers:

1. Competent

This is the basic question of whether the chart is fit to be seen out in public. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you shouldn’t be asking anyone to spend time rehearsing it.

  • Are the primary harmony choices plausible?
  • Do the passing chords (i.e. harmonisations of non-harmony notes) work?
  • Are the voicings complete and accurate?
  • Is the voice-leading sensible, and (related, but not quite the same thing) do the lines sing easily?
  • Is the form balanced and coherent?
  • Do the embellishments make sense of the song?

2. Elegant

This goes beyond basic competence to a stage where the arrangement seems assured. There are two classic signs of an elegant arrangement:

  • Solutions to technical challenges are not merely functional, but add to the artistic value of the chart
  • It makes the singers sound as if they are of a higher skill level than they sound in other pieces

There are lots of technical elements that elegant charts control, and it is worth listing some of them because they are the kinds of things that arrangers working at the merely competent level are not thinking about, let alone manipulating:

  • The individual lines all have internal artistic coherence, in terms of direction and/or motivic content
  • There is a clearly-crafted sense of growth/development arising from:
    • embellishment choices
    • control of harmonic charge over the form*
    • control of tessitura and voicing over the form
    • control of tessitura and voicing in relation to harmonic charge*
    • matching vocal demands to the song’s emotional trajectory
  • There is a coherent relationship with the original style or well-known version of the song; gestures or embellishments that index other genres also make sense in a close-harmony context
  • The choice, placement and voicing of ‘colour’ chords give clear hints to the performers about dynamic and pacing of the delivery of the lyric

3. Sophisticated

There is a third layer that has the relationship to elegance that elegance has to competence. It has all the elements of technical mastery, but cannot be reduced to them – you could tick them all off on a checklist and still not get to this place. But there are some key indicators that tell you when you’ve got there:

  • You are more aware of the song than of the arrangement
  • The song presents a distinctive individual identity; it has a clear ‘persona’ of its own
  • The arrangement choices appear, in retrospect, to be simultaneously blindingly obvious and perpetually surprising
  • It’s so good you want to giggle

Meeting a sophisticated arrangement is like being in love. You can list all the things you adore about the chart/your beloved, but when you look at the list you think, well that’s all true, but it doesn’t explain the magic.

* n.b. I’m going to write about harmonic charge in more detail in future posts.

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