Arrangement process: A Shelter in the Time of Storm

Today I am kicking off a new little series that will be of interest to many of you. I am going to walk through the building of an arrangement from start to finish. Ideally I would like many of you to work on this along with me and we will see what comes from it. The arrangement does not exist yet. I will be writing it as we go.

I probably don’t need to say this but will anyway: there are all kinds of ways to arrange and my way is my way and nothing more than that. I want to work through my arranging process with you but you certainly don’t have to do it exactly like I do it or for that matter, anything like I do it.

We are going to be working with a gospel tune “A Shelter in the Time of Storm.” This is a very typical gospel tune in that it is 16 bars long and sort of AABB in form. I say “sort of” because you could argue that it is more AABA. The last line is a combination of the A and B. It does not matter too much one way or the other.

There is nothing special about this tune except that it is part of the church. It is very typical of the simplistic gospel song era from 1850 to 1950 that is not exactly known for great music but nevertheless produced hundreds of songs that still greatly impact the church even today. This is one of those songs and that is why we are going to consider it worthwhile to work on.

As is fairly common of these kinds of songs, the original harmony is just I, IV and V chords. That is both good and bad. It is good because it leaves a ton of room for creativity. It is bad because you need to know how to change those chords into something else. There was a time where you might be able to keep just I, IV and V chords in your arrangement but those times are pretty much gone. The bar is much higher now.

So what is the first thing I do when I arrange? Very simply, I make sure I know the melody of the song and I decide on what chords I am going to use under the melody. Most of the time, I don’t even write them down. I just memorize them. If they are more complex, I scribble them down on a piece of scrap paper.

However, for this exercise, I actually wrote out the chords I want to use so you can see them. Here they are.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm - Harmony Sketch


Here are a few thoughts about this sketch. First of all, remember that the goal is only to establish harmony. There is almost nothing in this piece at all; it is just a set of open voicings. When you play it and it feels like something is missing, what you are missing is texture, development, and a host of other things that make music music. We will flesh out those things later.

Second, if this harmony seems a bit complex to you, that is because it is. We are going to stretch the harmonic palate with this piece. I will give you a few overarching ideas:

  • Use of bass lines moving by step is prevalent in the first two phrases. That is actually referred to as a descending line cliche.
  • The last two lines are full of tritone substitutions and other dominant substitutions. For example, the Em7(b5) – A7 progression that leads into the chorus is a tritone substitution for Bbm7 – Eb7 which would be an obvious ii/IV – V/IV setup for the IV that starts the chorus.
  • Use of color throughout. A lot of the chords have somewhat unusual (for church music) color notes added.

I am going to be working with this harmonic plan but you are welcome to change it. If you want to simplify, try deleting a lot of the chords that appear on beats 2 and 4. Most of them are not necessary.

Once you have a harmonic plan, it is time to address the texture of the first verse. That is what I am going to do next and I would love for many of you to do it with me. I will post my idea next week. Feel free to send me what you come up with either by recording yourself or writing something out.