Arranging Rangy Melodies

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For all that people of my parents’ generation can be quite rude about the popular music of anyone even slightly younger than them (or is it just my Dad?; the way he tells it, the rot set in with the Rolling Stones), much of the music of the last 40 years uses a significantly wider melodic range than the tunes of the 30s, 40s and 50s to which they are unkindly compared. You often don’t notice just how rangy they are because the singers handle them so well. I hadn’t realised, for instance, how wide a range George Michael covers in ‘Kissing a Fool’ until I heard Michael Bublé (not precisely an inflexible singer himself) cop out of the high notes in his cover of the song.

These songs presents something of a challenge to the close-harmony arranger. With a range that may exceed in the melodic line alone the usual range expected of an entire close-harmony ensemble, what do you do? There are three main options:

  1. Just give the whole tune to the lead, and accept that sometimes they are going to pop up above the tenor or down below the bass in the process. This is in many ways the best option in the way it maintains the integrity of the original, but only as long as the singer(s) on lead can manage it. If they don’t have the range and the confidence to use that range, it suddenly becomes a bad idea.
  2. Split the melody between parts. Giving the particularly high bits to people on the higher parts and the particularly low bits to people on the lower parts solves your ‘can they handle the notes?’ issue. The thing you need to be careful of here is continuity of vocal colour. Even in quite well-blended ensembles, you often get a somewhat different approach to the vocal sound in the different parts, developed largely in response to the different roles they usually play in the harmonic texture. When they are asked to switch from that harmonic role to a melodic function, they need to sound like a realistic continuation of the line that’s been handed to them.

    There are two ways to facilitate this. The first is to make sure that all the singers involved are well immersed in the original version of the song, so they are all developing their performance from the same reference point. The second is in the arranger’s hands: it helps a lot when handing melody between parts to give people complete musical and lyrical statements. Handing over the melodic line just for two or three notes doesn’t give the receiving part any time to take on the character of the tune, nor for the part handing over to get into the harmonic role. These kinds of hand-over are routinely flubbed in performance.

    And I tend to think: if it’s only needed for a couple of notes, you can probably get away with Option 1. But if the leads really can’t handle those out of range notes, at least give tenor or bass enough music to get their teeth into.

  3. Collapse the rangy melody into a smaller tonal space, by bringing low passages up an octave and/or high passages down an octave. This can often be combined with Option 2 – a passage that becomes uncomfortably high for the lead will often lie, when transposed down an octave, in the prime range for the bass to sell the melody.

    The issue to be careful about here is expressive register. As Heather Lane has observed, melodies often explore different parts of the voice for different types of communication. Passages that sit lower tend to be more introspective, whilst stretching up often betokens a sense of reaching out. If the arranger transposes everything back into the lead’s vocal comfort zone, they risk erasing these built-in emotional hooks. (This is the specific problem I am grappling with at the time of writing – and the reason for the whole post.)

    This is why it can be effective to combine Options 2 and 3 – at the pitch where leads are vocally middle-of-the-road, basses are in full declamatory mode.

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