How To: Arrange for A Cappella, by Callum Au of The Oxford Gargoyles

Callum Au is a member of The Oxford Gargoyles, and in 2008, won honors for Outstanding Arrangement at the Western Europe ICCA semifinals. This week, Au shares his unique insights on how to arrange music for an a cappella group.

A cappella is its own genre of music, and its charts require a skill-set of their own in order to write them. The basic mistake that can be made is to attempt to sing something that wasn’t really written for vocals--while you can get away with basically transcribing a song as played by a band, you can’t use the same voicing and textures that they originally used--parts have to change in order to be vocal-friendly. The group which I arrange for, The Oxford Gargoyles, is a mixed 12-piece jazz a cappella group (2 Sops, 4 Altos, 3 Tenors, 3 Basses) from Oxford University--so obviously this is the sort of group that I am most familiar with--however, I think that a lot of the technique is constant over all a cappella charts, independent of style or group. Here’s a list of some of the more important points...

1) It’s really important to take into account exactly who you’re writing for. A cappella is exposed moreso than any other genre of music, in that the group members don’t have an instrument to prop them up, so it’s entirely up to them to nail whatever they’re given (and they can’t blame a broken reed or weather conditions). Thinking about people’s breaks, their stamina, their range is really important--there’s no point giving someone an un-singable (for them) line due to something silly like this. This is doubly important when writing for a soloist – it’s always best to have someone in mind when writing a solo for them.

2) Think about textures and syllables--what effect do you want to achieve? Certain scat lyrics can create certain textures and volumes. Listen to any of the best a cappella groups in the world and you’ll hear that a huge amount of time has been spent on the scat lyrics. Make everything as exact as possible on the sheet music, so that there’s no room for doubt later on.

3) Think about what people are actually capable of doing musically. With the best will in the world, not many people will be able to sing a Coltrane solo note-perfectly (Bobby McFerrin springs to mind, and after that things start to get slightly more difficult)--and therefore, even if you write an awesome chart on Giant Steps with the Coltrane solo harmonised in big band sax section voicing, it will never sound good. Conversely, simplifying things too much also sounds terrible (take all the chord extensions out of Giant Steps and you’ll see what I mean). It’s important to strike a balance between things being singable and things sounding right. As a general rule, 2 extensions per chord is enough. Don’t be afraid to transcribe stuff if it works, but don’t make a straight transcription if it then becomes unsingable.

4) Try and make the chart as interesting as possible for everyone. No-one wants to sing a song where there’s a soloist throughout and the rest of the group sing a two-bar pattern on repeat. Through-composed charts are great--again, most of the best a cappella groups in the world use through-composed charts--it keeps everyone’s interest (and therefore concentration) up.

5) Think about balance. Although ideally there is never any more than one person per part in any a cappella group, in a collegiate system this is difficult (not least because of commitment issues) and therefore balancing numbers on parts to make the right bits stand out is essential. This is the reason the Gargoyles have only 2 sopranos – the top voice will always cut through more, and therefore does not need as much power behind it to be at the right level in the mix.

6) Arrange things that you like. Seems like a no-brainer, but charts on tunes that you don’t really like will inevitably end up less good than charts on tunes you do.
Other than these things, it’s really up to you. The main thing to remember is: if it sounds right, it is, and if it doesn’t, it’s worth re-doing so that it does.

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.