Music Writing: Arrangements My Way

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Another long loved hobby of mine is writing music.  I grew up in a musical household.  My mother has played piano and organ for churches since before me and my siblings were born.  She taught piano, and started each of us on it when we were about five years old.  I sang in church choirs, played French horn in the school band and at special church services, and even sang solos in our church every so often (as did my sister).  One of the things I grew to love about music was music theory.  Creating something from strange symbols that actually came out of my mind.  Clutter and chaos into rhythm and melody.

The first type of music writing I learned to do was arrangement: writing a known song in a different style.  For French horn, this was as simple as transposing the song as is into a key more suited to my range.  I did that a lot.  A more unique form of arrangement is taking a piece of music and putting your own style to it.  Look at Christmas music every year, and you will hear arrangements.  In fact, Christmas music is where I started.  I would arrange pieces for me or my sister to sing in church, for me to play on the French horn, or my sister to play on her flute, with our mother to accompany us.  I loved doing this, and every year made two or three new arrangements of our favorite songs.  My favorite Christmas song to arrange is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  I love the plainsongs.  My sister liked to look up more unique songs, and my favorite from her list is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree“.

Arranging music is not hard.  I always start by just humming the tune, over and over, over a few hours or days.  Not always out loud, but let it run through my head.  I do this at work, while doing the dishes, doing homework, any time my humming wouldn’t really bother anyone.  Eventually, if through nothing more than sheer boredom from repetition, I would hear my head adding harmony.  Or I would hum the song slower, faster… the possibilities are different each time.  That is when I would try to write the music down or record it somehow.  Today’s phones are great for this, because I always have mine in my pocket or purse.  Then, I have to focus my mental energy (which is very hard for me) and try to lay the music down in my own particular order.
First, I lay down the melody.  This never takes long for me in an arrangement, because it has been stuck in my head for quite a while.  Then I choose the tempo and time signature, in that order.  I rarely set the key signature until the song is finished, because I am not always sure if the key I start arranging in is the one I will finish in.  I just write all the notes as flats and sharps until a key signature jumps out at me.  Time signature is the easiest for me, because I have no problem picking out the pattern of the song, even in it has changed from the traditional time signature for whatever piece of music I am working on.

After melody comes harmony.  The harmony in my simple arrangements is usually played by the right hand of the piano accompanist.  Sometimes, if I want more gravitas in the the song the harmony is played by the left hand (normally bass clef notes), but I try to keep it fairly simple for Christmas arrangements.  I also love to have a counter melody that the piano plays in the middle of my arrangements, something that I make up completely by myself.  The counter melody, to me, sounds like a second singer coming into the song, singing in conjunction with the main melody.  It also gives the piano accompanist a chance to shine, as it is usually played a little louder than just a harmony.

Lastly, I put in what I call “filler.”  this is the balance of the pianist’s accompaniment that rounds out the feeling of the arrangement.  Syncopation, or playing notes on or in between up beats, is something I like to use to add the feeling of complexity to a simple tune.  And I knew my mom could do any syncopation I could write.   If I wanted the arrangement to have a more traditional feel, the left hand would play two and three note cords on every beat, which would be reminiscent of what you would find in a church hymnal.  The filler, to me, is the most unique part of my arrangements, and what would take the most time in the writing.

And this is the method I would use to write an arrangement.  Until very recently, I would do this on a piano (when I lived in Levelland) or my Casio keyboard with staff pages I actually made myself (sometimes with a ruler and a pencil).  Now I use a freeware program called MuseScore on my computer.  When my arrangements became more and more complex, I realized that I started writing completely original compositions.  It was made clear to me that I could do this when I made a piano solo arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in the style of Chopin; specifically my sister’s favorite nocturne, Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72 no. 1.  I played it in church at the Christmas Eve service, and asked the pastor’s wife after the service what she thought of it.  She said she loved Chopin.  No one had realized that it was an arrangement I had written.

I would love to post these pieces for you to hear and critique.  But when I moved to Alabama, I left them in my mother’s house in Texas.  I am still working on getting them sent to me, and will post them as soon as I get them.  But finding them is troublesome.  I, with my scatterbrain, know I kept them in a folder, but cannot tell my sister where they are.  But she keeps looking.


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