Monday, June 6, 2016

Pentatonix and Trying a Little A Cappella Arranging Myself

Yesterday, I blogged about Pentatonix. I'm sure many people, like myself, have been inspired by their work to try our hands at a cappella arranging. I'm working on an arrangement of my own at the moment, which I hope to share at some point (once I finish and record it, of course).

Part of the research involved in writing a good a cappella arrangement is doing a lot of listening: listening to the songs one is arranging, listening to other a cappella arrangements, and finally, listening to experts. That's why I decided yesterday evening to finally sit down and start reading Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell's book, A Cappella Arranging.

Deke Sharon is responsible for the a cappella arrangements in Pitch Perfect and was a producer of The Sing Off (where Pentatonix got its start), and Dylan Bell is an arranger and producer, producing for instance the Swingle Singers' amazing album Ferris Wheels, one of my absolute favorite a cappella albums (seriously, listen to this arrangement of Annie Lennox's"No More I Love Yous", from that album).

The book is full of words of wisdom, not just for would-be a cappella arrangers, but for musicians in general. The sixth chapter is especially relevant for all musicians, by dispelling five myths about music. For instance, that difficult-to-execute music is good, simple music is bad, and there is a hierarchy of music falling between those two extremes. Instead, they say that music is like food - it nourishes us and if it does that, it's good. Eating only one type of food forever, no matter how exquisite, would get boring. The same is true with music:
If you like pop music, don't consider it a guilty pleasure. Keep your ears and mind open: Bach may fill you with a sense of wonder, Led Zeppelin may get your motor running, and Josh Groban may make you weep. Dump the good/bad baggage and embrace it all.

One thing from the book that really resonated with me is how the act of breaking music apart is similar to an engineer disassembling a machine:
Like a budding engineer who takes apart an engine to see how it is built, there is no better way to understand the inner workings of an arrangement [than transcription]. Pick a song you like and an arrangement you respect, then use the process of transcription to figure out what makes it great.
They recommend that arrangers have 3 characters or personalities when they work: the Dreamer (raw, unbridled talent, all art, not much editing), the Editor (who takes the Dreamer's work and, well, makes it work), and the Critic (who finds the weak spots and brings them to light so the Dreamer can dream up something new and/or the Editor can rework it).

This book is a great opportunity to peak under the hood at two great a cappella arrangers.


  1. Love the five myths—makes me want to evaluate my own preconceptions about music.

    1. This book definitely changed how I look at music. I'll admit, I also had the good/bad belief, and thought of some of my favorite pop music as guilty pleasures. Now I realize that's silly and I should just let it go. And the great thing about arranging is, if there's something you really like a pop song, you can work with that part and develop it further. It's an approach to arranging Sharon and Bell call transformation - taking a song somewhere new in the arranging process. Like I said, the whole book has changed the way I look at music - even if I never finish any arrangements, I learned a lot about music and music appreciation from the book.