July 22nd 2008 by Eddie Lewis
Let’s say you want to make an arrangement of a big band tune for brass quintet. You get your hands on the score for the big band chart and start picking and choosing the parts you want to put in your quintet arrangement. What’s wrong with that?
When you arrange this way, you are taking a huge chance that the arrangement will not work. And if that is how you decided to do the arrangement, then you probably don’t have the arranging skills it would take to fix the arrangement afterwards if it doesnt work.
The required skills are centered on something called the seven orchestral textures. If you don’t have a working knowledge of the various orchestral textures, then your arranging skills will always be limited.
In order to consistently and intentionally write good sounding arrangements, you have to analyze the original work to see which textures are used in which areas of the composition. Then you rebuild the composition, with that information in mind, for your new instrumentation. This is a process far removed from the cut and paste approach.
According to Walter Piston, the seven orchestral textures are:
- Orchestral Unison
- Melody and Accompaniment
- Secondary Melody
- Part Writing
- Contrapuntal Texture
- Complex Texture
I have learned that these seven textures are universal to all types of music. They are not only associated with orchestral music.
Let’s take a look at just a few of these textures to see why cut and paste arranging doesn’t work. We will start with Chords. Chord texture is exactly what the term suggests. It is a place in the music where the chord is the essence of the music itself. A great example of chord texture used in a jazz context is the held (sustained) last note. It is not a melody. It is not counterpoint. It is just a chord. But that chord has musical validity in and of itself.
A skilled arranger re-voices the last chord of a big band chart for the new brass quintet instrumentation. If the chord was just cut and pasted, then the quality of the chord would possibly be compromised. I say “possibly” because you just might be lucky enough to get something that sounds good, even though you did not re-voice the chord. Using a cut and paste approach is risky, and ultimately results in unpredictable voicings when the approach is applied consistently. Some times the odds will be in your favor and the sound will be good. But the odds will not always be in your favor.
The same applies, but even more drastically, to Melody and Accompaniment. When music is in melody and accompaniment texture, there are as many as five (or more) different, functioning roles. The melody is a given. However, the accompaniment will sometimes have both a bass line and three or four (or more) harmony notes. Once again, a skilled arranger would break these down into individual elements to be rebuilt in the new setting. However, when you adopt a cut and paste approach, you destroy that structure and risk producing an arrangement which is either incomplete or lopsided, or both.
I have played MANY bad arrangements where my middle voice accompaniment note was doubled with that of another instrument. This means two things. First, it means that the doubled note is too prominent. After all, it is just a single note of the accompaniment so there is no need to emphasize it. The consequence of this flaw in the arrangement is that by doubling that note, another note of the chord is left unplayed. A more significant flaw is evidenced when the melody or bass line is doubled in this context. If you are writing for five parts and the melody and accompaniment has five elements, then you cannot double anything.
The biggest trap for the cut and paste arranger lies in the original composition having parts which switch from one role to the other for a few beats and then switch back again. This results in the most lopsided, cut and paste arrangements. Everything sounds fine for a while, until the switch. Then it sounds weird for a few beats until it switches back again – if it switches back again. The short period of weirdness may be enough to ruin an arrangement.
This may all seem like an insignificant pet peeve of mine, but I see this approach to arranging being implemented often, and I think many musicians are beginning to accept cut and paste arranging as standard practice. This complacency with poor arrangements and apathy towards sliding standards is an insult to the skilled arrangers who make the effort to implement good arranging practices.
More skilled arrangers break the composition down into the basic elements and then rebuild the piece for the new instrumentation. This way, all of the practical and functional roles of the music are covered evenly. When this practice is followed, there is no risk that the arrangement will not work. There is no incompleteness, no lopsidedness, and no periods of erratic, weird sound when you arrange this way – the arrangement always works.