How to arrange music part 2 – Know Your Strings

Like a bus, you wait ages for one blog on arranging music and then two come in quick succession! Due to Alice spending yet another weekend away, this time in Berlin of all places, I, Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy am here to continue our musical journey. If you missed part 1 you can read it by clicking this here sentence, I recommend you go check it out, we’ll wait. How’d you find it? Now that it’s all fresh in your memory I’m going to go into a wee bit more detail about knowing your instruments, because they are numerous in number and tricky in capabilities. You probably already know that there are various families of instruments that share similarities of use and construction, the String family for example includes instruments that, unsurprisingly, produce sound from strings while the Woodwind family produce sound from blowing into them. There are 5 main families, the aforementioned Strings and Woodwinds alongside Brass (trumpets, trombones etc.), Percussion (drums etc.) and Keyboards. Within these groups there are further subdivisions, such as bowed strings, plucked strings and struck strings, with each producing a unique sound which in turn can be used to flavour your arrangement.

Let’s start with the Strings, the leaders of any orchestra and ostensibly the dominant set of instruments most arrangers use. These instruments use strings (metal, gut or nylon) of various sizes strung over a resonating chamber (or body) to create sound. The strength of strings is a rich, even sound across the dynamics and a HUGE range over the family, with a double bass alone getting as low as C1 (very low) and as high as D4 (very high, depending on skill). Admittedly, a high double bass can sound a bit intense but this in itself can be used to highlight certain moments in a great arrangement; Richard Strauss in particular used a very high double bass note to highlight Salome’s obsession in his 1905 opera, Salome. Bowed Strings are also exceptionally versatile, being able to produce long drawn out notes with the bow and droplets of sound with a pluck of the strings. The most common use of plucked techniques is found, once again, in the double bass as it can be used to drive the rhythm like a pitched bass drum. You see this most often in jazz and country musics where the bass is considered very much part of the rhythm section and if arranging for one of these ensembles you would always make sure that a strong plucked note was heard at the start of a bar or phrase, preferably in lock-step with the bass drum. One of my favourite bass players at the mo is Paul Kowert, a progressive bluegrass player with Punch Brothers, The Prairie Home Companion and a whole host of the brightest and the best. His style uses a whole host of techniques that highlight the unique qualities of the bass, from percussive plucks to ominous drone.

In that video, alongside Paul Kowert’s incredible demonstration of how the double bass’ variety, you would also have seen Brittany Haas tear it up on the fiddle. There are few real differences between the fiddle and violin but one of the more important ones is a slightly flatter bridge which allows the fiddle to play three notes at a time (triple-stopping) instead of two. When arranging for the greater string family (violins, violas and cellos) these double-stops can be life savers for filling the tonality of a piece. The most common ensemble for arranging is, of course, the string quartet; an exceptionally romantic group of two violins, viola and cello. On the surface it should be fairly simply to arrange for, melody in violin 1, bass in the cello and the rest of the material filled out by violin two and viola. Problems come up if the chords needed have more notes than strings available, this is where double stops come in handy. It’s why, if available, I love to arrange for bowed strings to get that versatility and lush depth of sound.

The other important schism of the String family is the plucked (or strummed) strings. That’s not to dismiss the struck strings, such as the dulcimer or clavichord (the piano is considered halfway between the percussion and string families), it’s just that they aren’t so common in a large scale arrangement. Plucked (or strummed) strings on the other hand, they’re likely the most common set of instruments you hear due to one massively important instrument, the guitar. These instruments share an equal versatility with the bowed strings but focus heavily on the rhythmic aspects with their ability to strum chords as an accompaniment to a melody instrument. Personally, I prefer the mandolin to the guitar and like to use it as an accompaniment to many of my songs as heard in the above MusicForMy commissioned piece, The Nightingale. The mandolin has a higher sitting range than the guitar so together with Alice we decided to sit the vocal in a lower, folkier range giving a really nice warmth to counterpoint the mandolin. That’s always the goal with arranging, balancing the tones so that every piece feels complete. That’s what I always strive towards with each and every MusicForMy commission, creating unique works for your special occasion. For more information email harry@musicformy.net.

How to arrange music: part 1 – The basics

Hallo! I’m Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy. Alice is away this week (something about enjoying the wilds of west Wales) so I’m stepping up to shine a light on how I approach my musical arrangements. Whether it’s reducing a pop song to string quartet or a symphony to organ, the way I start is always the same, with extensive listening. When we love a song so much that we want to hear it as we process down the aisle we’re not just thinking about the melodies, we’re thinking about how those melodies make us feel. By listening intently we can strip the song to it’s very core and then build something truly magical.

You see, music is greater than the sum of it’s parts and when we change the arrangement of a piece there is always that danger of collapsing the very thing that makes a song special. When I first started arranging Sibelius’ Symphony no.5 III Allegro for Alice’s wedding I was lucky to have known the piece from a very young age. I think part of the reason Alice chose it was the memories my siblings and I had driving up to Scotland and listening to an old Sibelius cassette as the hills rolled by. Even then, knowing the orchestral piece as I did, difficult decisions had to be made in setting it for organ. The soul of this piece is it’s dynamics and percussion, thrilling you with their intensity and vigour. Church organs (unless you have a super fancy one) tend not to have percussion and really struggle with dynamics. Luckily an organ does has a very ‘percussive’ sound for a split second when you open a pipe, something you can hear for yourself by blowing across a bottle, so I could happily put an approximation of the timpani hits in the bass. Equally I knew that to get that sense of pomp at the beginning I could pull out all the stops and blast out the chord. But then I faced immediate problems with where to place the melody, which neatly brings me to my second point.

Know your instrument. It seems such an obvious thing to say but knowing all the ins and outs of the instrument (or instruments) you are writing for is absolutely vital. Every instrument is different and they all have little secrets that you can exploit to hide their limitations. The organ, as mentioned, can give a sense of percussion even if it can’t make the percussive sound itself. But you must always remember that the organist only has 10 fingers and two feet and you always want to make the music as playable as possible. If using percussive bass lines with the organ I am always careful to make sure I have enough limbs to keep the melody and harmony moving satisfactorily. Another good example of this is my arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man. The original orchestral piece is on the surface very simple, individual brass melodies following each other in beautiful Appalachian harmony. The problem in this case is that the genius of the original is the way it slowly gets thicker and thicker in tonality until the final chords blare out across the octaves. I could only realistically score for 10 notes at once so had to be acutely aware of which hand I needed to put which melody at which time. I also had to make sure that all the counter melodies were present as the interactions they have dictate the harmony and make this piece (at least to Alice) special.  It was no mean feat but with a little trimming and much use of the pedals I managed to create something truly awesome!

So that’s a little primer for you on how I approach my arranging; I always listen intently first and then make sure I know the instrument well enough to satisfactorily make any arrangement a magical experience. Those two rules form the basis of all my arrangements, classical, popular, folk or other, so that at MusicForMy the only limit is your imagination!

If you would like to know more or have a chat about how we can add to your special day, send us an email at harry@musicformy.net.