I work with a pianist every few weeks by Skype and am currently working with her on an exercise that I want to share with you. it will give you some insight into at least one way to look at arranging. It is not the only way but is a common way I look at the process. Because it is Christmas, she wanted to do an arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I am going to pretend like you are a student and tell you what I told her.
As we get started, here are three early considerations: the hook, the shape, and the form. I am going to talk about these three things in the context of this particular song and then talk about how they relate to each other.
When I talk about hooks, I am referring to a common idea that ties an arrangement together. I have written about this a lot so won’t repeat myself. However, here is the hook I gave my student and will pass on to you: a 2-bar descending line cliche chord progression that works well in minor key songs. In D minor, the progression is as follows: Dm – Dm/C – BbM7 – A7(b9). Unless I am mistaken, I recorded this song using that progression on Seasonal Spice.
It is easy to improvise little riffs using the notes that belong to the D minor scale over that progression to create a intro, interlude and ending. You can also play almost the entire song on top of that progression except for the third line. So essentially, that simple progression can become a hook that is used over and over throughout the arrangement.
I have not talked much about shape here on the blog. It is covered in depth in my Arranging course. However, shape is simply the big picture or story of an arrangement. Songs should not wander aimlessly; they need to go somewhere. A power ballad for example starts quiet and builds throughout, climaxing at the end. Other songs climax in the middle and end quietly. Other songs may not really climax at all.
The shape I recommend for this exercise is similar to the power ballad, starting simply and more quietly and gradually growing in complexity and intensity.
Form refers to how the arrangement is laid out: decisions about how many verses, interludes, etc. Very often, form is a pragmatic decision in church based on the length. In the case of this song, my student is playing in time at about 90 beats a minute (a much slower feel than you might expect). In 4/4 time at 90 bpm, it takes just under 45 seconds to play 16 bars (the length of a verse). With that in mind, we decided on an 8-bar intro, a verse, a 16-bar interlude, a verse, and an 8-bar ending. That is a total of 64 bars with a length of 2:45. Keep in mind that if you play it faster, you might need more verses.
Now, let’s sort of put these three things together. We have defined the sections of the form: intro, verse, interlude, verse, ending. We also know that in general, each section needs to be more intense than the section in front of it. The second verse needs to be louder and more complex than the first verse. The interlude needs to sort of bridge that gap. The intro probably needs to be very simple and the closing needs to be big and flashy.
My advice is this kind of situation is to work on the verses first to determine their texture. You basically need a simple idea and then a more complex version of that idea for the second verse. Again, don’t throw away what you came up with on the first verse when you get to the second verse. Just develop it.
Once the two verses are done, start working on the interlude. The interlude needs to be interesting and it needs to take listeners from the simple texture of the first verse to the point where they are ready for the more complex texture of the second verse. My advice would be to break the 16 bars into 4 four-bar phrases and work to make each of those phrases slightly more complex than the one in front of it. The last phrase can be pretty flashy if you want. My student developed quite an elaborate run for that place in the song.
Once you have the verses and interlude done, you just need an intro and ending. The intro basically can borrow the texture from your first verse with possibly a twist on the melody, an alternate melody or no melody at all (just vamping). The ending can essentially borrow the texture of the last verse, maybe with a small twist and a hint more complexity.
Once you have those pieces developed, put them together and smooth out the transitions. Guess what? You have an arrangement.
I know I sort make this sound easy and it is not quite as easy as it sounds. However, I do think that looking at the process in this way takes a lot of the intimidation out of it. There is no magic going on. It is just building a song sort of like you build anything else.
PS: I just realized that I did a video on this song a few years ago and I used the same chord progression. It is with Kelsey on violin so not quite the same but you can get a few ideas possibly. Here is the link if you don’t see it below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzXF534eukk