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Arranging Guidelines

by Carlos A. Hann Commander

with thanks to:

Mike Chan
Mark Lee
Rob Lindquist
Matt Wrather

This is a mix of steps and suggestions to take when you’ve decided to arrange a song for the YPMB. These steps should provide a solid outline. As you arrange, you’ll learn the myriad concepts of music theory, from chords to chromaticism. You may need to break the rules once in a while in order to produce a better arrangement. Hopefully, by then you will have enough experience to know how to do so successfully. Rock.

1. Decide on a good song to arrange.

Different arrangers have different opinions as to what constitutes a good arrangement. Some people opt to arrange only recently released songs, some stick to classics. Some arrange their favorite songs, however obscure, while others cater to the whims of the public. Try to pick a song that has at least a melody and a bass line. Whatever; as long as you think the song rocks, you’ll enjoy arranging it. In any case, all arranging is, at the least, good practice for you.

Ex.

a. “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” by Ricky Martin, is well-known, with a clear melody, bass line, and other voices thrown in. It would make for a good arrangement.
b. “Con tè partiro,” as sung by Andrea Bocelli, is not very well-known (I’m pretty sure). Moreover, the song does not rock, and it would make for a poor arrangement.

2. Tell the Stud you’d like to arrange a song.

The Stud is here to get you started on the right foot. He/She can help decide whether the song is arrangeable, get you arranging software, and alert you as to whether the song in question is already in the repertoire, among other things.

Ex.

a. “Play That Funky Music”, by Wild Cherry, has never been done for YPMB, and would be a fine arrangement.
b. “Hey Ya,” by Andre 3000 of Outkast, was recently done for YPMB (and quite well). I would strongly recommend against arranging it.

3. Read the “Music” section of the YPMB website.

Get to know the feel of the organization so you can visualize how you will do your arrangement. Know the effective instrument ranges. We accept all applicants to the band, so you can’t count on everyone being an All-State musician. Bear in mind that you can go higher or lower than the suggested ranges but either not everyone will be able to play it, or the section will be out of tune. Every arrangement should have the minimum parts: Flute, Clarinet (Bb), Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Horn in F, Trumpet (Bb), Trombone, Sousaphone (Tuba), KBB (Drum Set). Add Guitar and Bass parts to fit.

Ex.

a. “My Girl,” by the Temptations, is simple and not too extreme in terms of range. It would be a good arrangement.
b. “Sandstorm,” by Darude, has a ridiculously fast lick for a melody, and would require double- or triple-tonguing. It would make for a bad arrangement.

4. Assign the melody to the trumpets or trombones.

These are the most easily heard sections in the band. Depending on the makeup of the band in any particular year, you may need to always assign the melody to only one of these sections. In the 2004-2005 season, I always gave the melody to the trumpets because there were so few trombones. If both sections have enough members to carry the melody, decide whether the melody’s range should dictate your choice, or if you’re going for a particular sound. Don’t forget to give a break to whichever section’s carrying the melody.

Ex.

a. “Tainted Love,” by Softcell, has a great melody. In the version we play, our arranger wisely chose to give the low areas of the melody to the trombones, and he gave the higher parts to the trumpets. It is a good arrangement.
b. “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” is a great song. The verse, however, is spoken, not sung, and would make for a poor arrangement.

5. Assign the other section a rhythmic or chordal accompaniment.

Whichever section is not playing the melody should have an accompaniment or countermelody figure. These can be simply chords (don’t be put off by simplicity; this is very effective) or else something more complex. Think of the end of “Down the Field” when the trombones play a countermelody to what the trumpets are playing. When writing a rhythm or chordal part, don’t assign continuous driving eighth notes, as this will deplete the chops of the players.

Ex.

a. “Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones, has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in popular music. In our version, the trombones play this riff, accompanying the trumpets’ melody, making it a sweet arrangement.
b. “Candy Shop,” by 50 Cent, is pretty much just a bass line and a melody, with no other voices. It would not be a very interesting arrangement.

6. Assign the bass line to the sousaphones.

And don’t just plod through the roots of all the chords, either. Keep it interesting with passing tones, neighbor tones, and other novelties. Simply transcribing a lively bass part from a recording is also a good idea. Avoid whole notes and, to an extent, half notes; sousaphones sound best on shorter notes. Also, while this applies to other parts as well, keep leaps as small as possible.

Ex.

a. “Disco Inferno,” by the Trammps, has a sweet bass line. It would make a fine arrangement.
b. “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, has no bass line, and would make a poor arrangement.

7. Double parts aggressively.

Double the melody and accompaniments in woodwind parts. Double the bass line in the tenor saxes or horns. Sometimes it might be best to double at the third for a melody, or at the fifth for the infamous “power chords.” No section’s attendance is perfect, and doubling is your insurance that the melody will be heard, even if certain sections are underrepresented. It has the added benefit of keeping each part interesting.

Ex.

a. “I Get Around,” by the Beach Boys, is rich with chords and has a very thick texture. Many instruments double at thirds and fifths in the YPMB version, and it was a good arrangement in its day.
b. “Big Pimpin’,” by Jay-Z, is very thin, and does not allow for much texture, making it a bad idea for an arrangement.

8. Keep each part interesting.

No one wants to plod through quarter notes from beginning to end, and playing whole note harmonies all the time isn’t very fun at all. Don’t underestimate the woodwinds. Flutes, clarinets, and saxophones in unison are in fact quite formidable, especially in the band’s hockey or basketball configuration. The horns would breathe a sigh of relief if they never had to play any offbeats again.

Ex.

a. “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom,” by the Vengaboys, has a good intro, solid melody and bass line, and plenty of nifty countermelodies thrown in, making everyone happy. It still is one of the band’s finest arrangements.
b. “Blue Monday,” by Orgy, was a good idea for a song, but the arrangement was pretty simple and uninteresting. It was only played once at rehearsal.

9. Make the parts easy to sight-read.

Sadly, in the band, the concept of practice is stigmatized. We don’t even play the Yale songs very well, so you can’t expect every Johnny Trumpet to go over that run of sixteenth notes you wrote in his spare time. Pay attention to instrument ranges. Write flute parts above the staff. Don’t make anything too fast. Keep rhythms as simple as possible. Don’t stray to the “weird” keys. Avoid codas, second endings, and too many repeats.

Ex.

a. “Get Busy,” by Sean Paul, played perfectly the first time through. Short, simple, and with one repeat for good measure, it was a good arrangement.
b. “I Was Made for Loving You,” by KISS, was a bit too hard to read the first time through. The trombone part was especially hard. This arrangement was never played in its entirety after that rehearsal, and it now lies in a file cabinet, gathering dust.

10. Pay attention to the rhythm sections.

KBB and the guitars do not have the luxury of being able to use flip folders at games. Their parts should be simple enough to memorize, but feel free to alter rhythm patterns or chord progressions at evident points in your arrangement to mix things up. Write bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal parts on one staff. If necessary, write quad parts on a separate staff. Specify whether the snares should play hi-hat or ride cymbals. Don’t be switching between hi-hat and ride cymbals every eight measures, because cymbalists get tired. Write guitar parts in rhythm notation (ask the Stud). Remember that electric basses play an octave below what is written.

Ex.

a. “Secret Agent Man,” by Johnny Rivers, has all drum parts on one sheet, with clear directions as to what rhythm to use. It is a great arrangement.
b. “Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen, is too complicated. There are several repeats, a D.S., and a coda. To top it off, bass, snare, and cymbal parts are all separate, making for difficult reading.

11. Keep it short.

Members of the Junta should remember that we are arrangers, not transcribers. We adapt popular music to be played by a less-than-professional-not-so-much-marching-but-rather-ambling band. Ideally, every arrangement we release should rock harder than the original. It’s OK only to arrange the chorus of a popular song. You don’t have to arrange the distortion intro to “Magic Carpet Ride.” Don’t repeat the chorus more than you have to. If your arrangement gets too tedious to play, the band members will not enjoy playing your song, and the audience will get bored before it gets fired up.

Ex.

a. “Let’s Get Retarded,” by Black Eyed Peas, was only about eight measures long, encompassing the chorus. It was a good song to play during short breaks.
b. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen, is an awesome song. However, the arrangement took up two pages, and there were time and key changes. That was not a good idea.

12. Revise and finalize.

Send your completed arrangement to the Stud, who will look over your arrangement and suggest some changes. When it’s ready, give your arrangement a name, extract the parts to separate files, and print. Either print in landscape format, or configure your arrangement so that the wind parts can fit in a flip folder: 6” wide x 5” high. KBB, guitar, and bass parts should be half of a 8.5” x 11” page.

The band librarian and the Stud will make copies for rehearsal. You will conduct your arrangement the first time it is played by the band. Make sure the song sounds OK, and watch for things like tempo and any difficult passages. Bravo.