Category: Arranger’s Corner

Decided to make a vlog to follow up on a previous post about arranging mashups. That post was my most viewed post of 2012 and highest number of both inbound and internal searches were about 1) arranging and 2) arranging mashups.


Every a cappella group needs songs to sing, otherwise they’re just a group of people awkwardly standing in a curve. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve made the decision to sing and now the question is what. Allow me to help guide your decision process.

If you’re group is a vocal jazz group, a hip hop group, or some other genre specific type of group, most of this will still apply to you, so you can keep reading.

Over the years I’ve have many members come up to me and say, “I want to sing [insert song requiring a Beyonce/Steve Perry type soloist]” with out a thought of who in the group would be able to sing that song. Now it’s not to say that you can’t sing Halo just because you don’t have a Beyonce, but it certainly helps.

Example: My most recent group, Lake Shore Jive, decided that we wanted to sing the now over covered and played Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye back in¬†February. Avant garde, I know. I put together a solid arrangement in part based on the Pentatonix and Peter Hollens versions. (What can I say, I appreciate great arranging.) The only problem was that Jive didn’t have a male lead capable of singing that song in the original key and the arrangement I put together didn’t lend itself to dropping a step or two. Our solution was to have a male sing the verses and have a female sing the choruses. It works and provides an interesting dynamic, but it was not the original intention of the arrangement.

Well, you say you want to do Somebody That I Used to Know, but you don’t have a tenor who’s comfortable on high As and Bs? Well here’s my advice. Bring the song before the group in a rehearsal before you’ve arranged it. Discuss the groups desire to do the song and pick a soloist. Then figure out where the soloist sounds best and feels most comfortable and arrange the song in that key.

Somewhere along the line people decided that a cappella groups should try their hardest to always sing songs in the original keys. I challenge you this semester to never sing a song in it’s original key. Whether it’s because you’re having a guy sing a song that traditionally has a female lead or because the range of Titanium is actually to high for your power soloist by a whole step – change it up to what works best for you group.

The founders of my new group, Suspension, are meeting tonight and one of the things we’re talking about is songs and musical direction. We’ve already planned to take this approach to most of our songs.

Take away: Plan and pick songs around the vocalists you have, not the vocalists you wish you had.

First post back and I’m feeling good. Today in Arranger’s corner I’m going to talk about “The Art of the Mash-up.” I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this because I was labelled my Harmonic Uprising as the master of the mash-up. Wondering why? Watch this video:

Some of your minds may have just been thoroughly blown. Well, I can hope, can’t I? The real question is, Brian, how did you come up with something like that?

When I started thinking about this post, I was trying to decide if the ability to write a mash-up is nature or nurture. That is to say, can I actually teach someone to write a good mash-up. Every year I hear groups try to piece songs together that don’t really belong together or they take two songs that could be perfect together and botch the arrangement. Now I’ve arranged mash-ups in several different ways, but here are my keys to coming up with the best possible product.

1) Decide on a Song. Or a genre for that matter. If you pick one song to start with, it will make finding a second or third song considerably easier. Find a song that has a great, well-known beat or has a really great melody. Try to stray from anything too obscure or you might not be able to find a song to match up with it. For this example, let’s take Beyonce’s Halo. This song has a memorable beat, a solid melody, and a simple chord progression.

2) Figure out what to mash it up with. This is easier said than done, I know. Often times the best mash-ups come to you in a dream (see video above) or completely on accident. For example, you’re listening to the radio and your friend driving with you starts singing a song that is not the song playing because that song has been stuck in their head all day. Sometimes the best mash-ups are discovered as a gift from the a cappella gods. Right now you’re probably saying, “Brian, that’s not very helpful.” You’re right. So try this. Figure out the tempo/beat of your song and memorize how it goes. Then listen to the radio in that same genre, or shuffle through your iTunes. Try singing your chosen song along to other songs. You’ll feel stupid at some point when you try to sing Halo along to Put Your Records On or something by Reel Big Fish, but eventually you’ll find something you like. (Note, if using iTunes, don’t waste time singing anything Beyonce along to anything Reel Big Fish.)

For this example, I’m going to take Kelly Clarkson’s Already Gone. I know, it’s an easy way out, but there’s a point. This song has the same beat as Halo and fundamentally the same chord progression. Both were written by Ryan Tedder and they have the same number of bars and are nearly the same tempo as well.

3) If you find more than one song that fits with your original song, try them all out, then try them all out together. This may require the help of a friend. Pick one who is either in your a cappella group or is musically inclined.

4) Once you have your songs picked, figure out how to put them together. This is crucial. You may have picked three of the most awesome songs that anyone has ever heard and in your head they all mash-up together perfectly. If you can’t translate what you hear in your head to paper so your group can learn it, it won’t matter. This will vary, but as a general rule, I like to use the standard “(Intro) Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus X2” method of writing songs and apply it to my Mash-Up. In my example, I’ll take the Intro and first verse and chorus from Halo, then I’ll take the second verse and chorus from Already Gone. Then in the final chori I’ll layer them over the top of each other and create the actual “Mash-up” part of the song.

5) Sometimes the bridge is what makes the song. Ex. In Her Eyes by Josh Groban. Not iconic, but the one that first comes to mind. In this case, I have a great set up for the rest of my song but I don’t really have an outstanding bridge plan. I could use the bridge from either Halo or Already Gone, but then the song might not feel balance. This is where your third song can some in handy (if you found one.) Or you can do what I did, and figure out what ties the previous two together. In this case, it was Ryan Tedder. So I listened to a bunch of songs by One Republic to figure out one that had a similar chord progression and just all around felt similar. Say (All I Need) was my final choice.

6) Once completed, go back and take little sections (licks or rhythmic patterns) and move them in between songs. This might be the bass line or a certain part from the intro. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, just make sure your end product works.

Remember, the best mash-up ideas in the world and often the best singing can’t save a terrible arrangement. Make sure you make each piece of the mash-up solid and don’t neglect a section because of lack of ideas or spite. (Some of you will know what I mean.) Below I’ve posted what the mash-up described above sounds like. Here’s wishing you luck on your next great mash-up.

In the topic, Arranger’s Corner, AcaMidwest will be covering different steps of arranging music for college a cappella. The topic will also cover new songs that groups will probably start doing in the near future or have already become extremely popular in the college a cappella world. This weeks topic is Syllables.

Normally, when I arrange a song I spend six to twelve hours on music (Depending on the cut and paste-ability of the song/artist) and about an hour on actually coming up with the syllables for it. This is because I don’t like spending time with syllables. They are important though and I’ve settle into a set that I feel comfortable using consistently. Also, different songs call for different sounds and syllables help provide the right feel.

There will be a podcast accompanying this shortly and it will help make the remainder of this post make more sense. I’m going to break syllables into two parts. First the consonant attack and then the vowel. Now the vowel is very important, and I’ll write another post on vowels in the near future. For the purposes of this though, “oo”, “Oh”, and “Ah” are the three most basic and get progressively louder in that order because of the way the human body is designed.

Now, the consonant attack is what will change the vowel to make a line flow, sound like a guitar, or give it the special feel of the genre. “D” is one I have taken a liking to because of it’s ease. It has a sharp attack and easily flows into the vowel. It easily connects with “B” in a line for a simple Ba-Da-Ba-Da, which some may say is primitive arranging, it’s perfectly functional and effective.¬† D is also a very natural syllable for a bass to use as it fits comfortably with the lower register.

The decision by college a cappella groups to sound like the original song and stop doing glee (I mean this in the original sense) versions (Thanks Deke), brought about new syllables as groups tried to emulate rock guitars and other instruments. “J” and it’s use with Jun and Jigga are common place. Unlike “D,” “J” is not a sharp attack and also does not flow into vowels. It slides into them. This syllable is one that I use extremely sparingly. I find it fits well in certain situation, but mostly feels out of place.

Softer attacks have their place in certain songs as well. “Sh” or “Ch” have a similar flow into the vowel and can serve as a solid effect. Some groups us a “W” from time to time. I approve of this as long as the group doesn’t have pitch problems because of it, sliding into each pitch.

When it comes down to it, the song will usually decide the syllables. More bouncy or jazzy pieces will involved different syllables than a hard rock song. Coming soon is a podcast in which I’ll have clips of some different uses. Also there will be another post about vowels in syllables.