Medleys

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is medleys.

Why do groups use them?
There are plenty of reasons for groups to embrace medleys. The act of picking out songs and fitting them together—from arrangement, to learning transitions, to staging—is a lot of fun. Moreover, it gives a group the opportunity to diversify. Want fo “Some Nights” to offer up the epic climax of your set, but also want to avoid offering up the 278th version of that song that the judges are heard? Progress from “We Are Young” to “Carry On” to “Some Nights” and you’ve told a fresher story, besides showing off up to three different soloists and proving your ability to pull off at least one minute of a ballad—it’s a very efficient way to get creative and demonstrate your range while keeping an eye on those precious, limited, minutes you have to perform.

What makes a medley good?
And a good medley does all of that and, in its best form also subverts expectations. A medley can be based around an artist, like the example above, and if it is themed as such a group doesn’t need to stick to top 40 singles—it can explore album cuts and B-sides, or, for an artist with an expansive enough history, cross time periods. Moreover a medley can be themed by topic (travel songs, Christmas songs), or set up to tell a story (say a journey from a love song to a song about disillusionment to a righteous finish of Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” when the love is gone and the rage sets in). In these cases, great medleys tell a story that’s musically coherent (think transitions), linked in a way that people can understand and follow, and still show ambition and ingenuity when it comes to song selection so the audience can’t write off the arrangement as obvious or pandering.

What makes a medley poor?
A medley cannot be comprehensive. I once sat through a ten-minute Michael Jackson medley. Perhaps an arranging wizard on the scale of Deke Sharon or Tom Anderson could make that work—more likely, they would recognize a flawed concept and boil it down to fewer than five songs in under four minutes. Marathon medleys are rarely much good, and have a tendency to come across as forced.

A variation on the concept.
A number of groups have found success by capitalizing on key elements that make people like medleys without fully indulging in the form. There’s the seamless set—not pausing between songs, but rather letting one song bleed into the next. This technique, popularized by groups like The AcaBelles, lends a sense of cohesion to the full set and creates an illusion of immersion when the audience focuses on the music without breaking to clap and process a single song for twelve minutes. There’s also the option of tying a set together at the finish—performing three or four fully realized songs, then concluding by sampling each of them over again or even mashing them together in the closing moments—a technique that can underscore (or even create the sense of) set coherence and cultivate an epic feeling to round out the performance. (this is an approach that I first remember hearing from Buck That! around 2011 but that someone or other probably pioneered much earlier).

All in all, medleys have an important place in making or breaking competitive a cappella sets. What were the best medleys you’ve heard? The worst medley horror stories? Let us know in the comments.