Earlene’s Creative Process – Arranging


Happy Holidays to all of you!  I hope you are really enjoying the “hustle and bustle” of the season, and I hope you are finding some time for peace and contentment along the way.One of the most exciting things I do in my work has to do with writing arrangements of pre-existing public domain material (written during or before 1923).  I love the process and challenges in arranging choral voices that will enhance the meaning of the text.

I created photos of a couple of holiday scenes in our home, and thought I might be able to make a few transfers into choral arranging…just by looking at these photos…thinking through the process that has become the “norm” for me…and assisting you in “thinking” like one choral arranger (me) as I begin the process of arranging.

It is so interesting…my husband has the “gift” of visual arrangement…however, the aural arrangement of sounds is my “sphere” of artistry.  There are many, many gifts of “arrangement” out there, so as musicians and choral music writers, we must concentrate on how we get others to “see” new, effective ways of experiencing pre-existing folk songs, orchestral themes, arias, masterworks, hymns, etc.

Take a look at the photo above, and consider the following:

1)  There is an underlying foundation upon which all are resting (the greenery).

2)  All of the participants are easily identified in the “scene.”

3)  There are some unifying similarities in all of the major participants (fur on the clothing, similar clothing styles, color of clothing etc.), yet each is independent of the other…they  have unique, independent contributions in the total “artistic picture” (the mother with muff, the dad with full-length coat, the girl with a plaid skirt, different hats, etc.).

4)  We can recognize each costume without the “face,” but the face gives us a “window” into factors that we might translate as joy, intensity, pleasure, lack of pleasure, etc.

5)  The placement (arrangement) of the singers might suggest importance…you are forefront, I am less important, etc.

6)  The clock…is it “decoration?”…does it have a purpose?…the clock would definitely be missed, if it were not there, and…for some reason it just seems to “fit” in the midst of caroling……hmm……what can we do with that clock?  It is “fun” in the arrangement, but it must ultimately have a purpose.

All of these factors contribute to a visual arrangement.  All of the factors are important for a reason…it is important for us to clarify the reason through the presentation of each.  If we come up with something “neat”….can we find a place for it in the arrangement?  You see, several items in that photo were purchased as part of a “set,” not the clock…we like “the clock”….it seems to complement the total arrangement….can we make “the clock” work?

So many things to be seen in a “visual” of an artistic idea!!

Let’s transfer the visual ideas above into an aural presentation.  Here goes!

As I begin to think about an arrangement, I will generally look at the original song form of the piece I am to arrange.  I will then begin to think about creative presentations I might use in the final product.

General considerations (and opinions) from Earlene…not written in stone…just opinions and ideas.

1)  Most important…I must like the piece.  I am going to be living with this music a long time, so I need to really like the original form of the piece:  text, melody, harmonies, harmonic progression, etc.

2)  Market consideration…my arrangement must be different from all others (Brian Busch echoes in my mind).  How?  It might be a different voicing….it might be paired with another song….it might incorporate a related partner song with identical harmonic movement and length (that means I will also be able to present the songs simultaneously at some point).

3)  Population…who will sing my arrangement?  The answer determines several factors:  key, range, complexity of vocals and accompaniment, ending, general style, etc.

4)  Compositional techniques…for young voices – canon, ostinato, descant.  More mature singers might enjoy using soli, vertical presentations (homophonic hymn-style textures), imitation (polyphonic textures), advanced ranges, and more difficult presentations of those techniques used with young voices, etc.

Structural considerations:
1)  Introduction…might include some melodic/harmonic material from the original song…might be based on a unique element in your arrangement (interest)…might be totally unrelated to your melodic material.  Length:  varies…but…my intros are generally 4-8 measures.  Most important:  write the introduction so that singers can sing the first note of your piece with absolute certainty.

2)  Initial presentation of the first verse…generally straightforward (unison, simple harmonies…branching into more complex textures).  At this point, make it clear as to what you are doing to make your arrangement unique.  Whatever you choose for  the “theme” of uniqueness (harmony, different interval, accompaniment, etc.), make it consistent throughout the piece.  This will prevent a choir director from pulling his/her hair out…and…it makes it much more fun for the students (opinion).

3)  Second presentation…look at the text…how can you present this verse most effectively?  Is it a text that is “spoken” by a male in the song?  If so, then maybe you might assign the melody to the tenor and bass sections.  If “told” by a female, then maybe assign to sopranos and/or altos.  You might want to use an appropriate countermelody on this verse, then both sections come together for the refrain, with simple vertical harmony.

4)  Third presentation…if the text has eventually come to a strong resolve by the speaker, it might be that a key change would be appropriate.  So…maybe it’s time to come up with a good modulation into another key.  Okay…dust off the old music theory books…and take a look at all of those modulations….common chord, half-step, whole-step, abrupt, etc.  This is the toughest aspect for me, in writing an arrangement.  I must modulate to a key so that singers are able to sing any extreme notes, and the accompanist must be able to play the piece in the chosen key.  A modulation is not a requirement, but there must be something that heightens the energy and intensity in this presentation, if the text demands it.

5)  Unify the arrangement…it is time to “wrap it up.”  How can I unify the arrangement to let folks know it is a cohesive unit that makes sense?  Even though the modulation might have left me “out in left field,” I  know where home is located (original presentation), and I want to unify the arrangement by including a bit of “memory” related to earlier presentations.  You might want to repeat a compositional technique that was particularly creative in the first verse or the refrain…if so, celebrate that creativity with repetition.

6)  End it!!!  This is a difficult task for me.  I tried for years to make really good endings, and wound up putting too many ideas in the ending, going on and on…just to make sure I had said everything I needed to say.  As Brian told me, “End it.  Just end it.”  Don’t let it drag on forever, but give singers enough opportunities to be artists.  Give enough time for the listener to be ready to “let it go” (great name for a song, huh?).  No need to go on and on…but the challenge is when to know “enough is enough.”  Decide the emotional response you want for the piece…then write the ending with that idea in mind.  Good luck!!


There are many wonderful resources for choral arranging.  The internet has opened up an incredible world for information on this subject.  The following book was recommended to me back in 1990, and you might find it helpful for getting started in writing your own choral arrangements.  It seemed to provide everything I needed many years ago, to get started in my choral arranging efforts.  Enjoy!!cca