Arranging Acrobatics: Changing the Melody

“Together” by Sia for SSAA w/ divisi

Sometimes a subtle change is all it takes to breathe new life into a stagnant arrangement. Using my most recent a cappella project as a model (“Together” by Sia), I will demonstrate a few techniques to consider when writing your own arrangements. I find these strategies especially effective for pop tunes that already have a habit of being naturally repetitive!

Listen to me first!

1. Change the contour of the line.

End of verse one

In the original tune, the verses are nearly identical in terms of pitch. The above image shows the final four bars of the first verse as performed by Sia. When I’m arranging, I generally like to leave the first verse/chorus in tact so the audience can familiarize itself with the source material. Later on, however, I will add variation. Pictured below is the second verse as heard in the original. You’ll notice that it basically looks like the first verse except for the change in rhythm to match the words.

Verse two – original

Now, take a look at the last bar in the image below. First, I changed the direction of the melody on “hello to tomorrow.” In the original, the melody started high and ended low. In my variation, I did the opposite. Not only did I change the contour, but I also used a triplet to stand out against the rhythms that proceeded it. This is the first and only time in the entire song that a triplet is used in this way, so the new energy that it brings really propels the tune forward into the pre-chorus.

Verse two – variation

2. Establish a new high point.

Copying and pasting your choruses can be an easy way to whip up a quick arrangement, but adding fresh variety is as simple as changing just a couple notes. The image below shows the standard melody for the chorus. It’s a four-bar phrase that is normally repeated verbatim to create an eight-bar chorus in total. You’ll see that the highest note in the phrase is a C, and it occurs in every measure. Hearing the same note over and again like this trains the ear to pass it off as insignificant.

First four bars of first chorus

In my arrangement, though, rather than making the second phrase identical to the first phrase, I change the last measure to now include a D as the highest pitch. This pitch sticks out to the ear, and suddenly the phrase garners new interest from hearing that difference.

Last four bars of first chorus

In a later chorus, I take this idea one step forward and change both the contour of the line and introduce a new high point. Pictured below, you can see I changed the direction of “raise your face to the sky my love” and used that same high note, D, on both “face” and “higher” to highlight the important parts of the lyrics. This could also be considered “text painting” because I’m literally raising the “face” in the melody.

Last half of second chorus

3. Change the key.

In a song where the melody stays basically the same over each verse and chorus, a key change is a guaranteed way to kick up the energy for your performers and your audience. I generally like to put my key changes after the bridge going into the final choruses. This feels like a natural point in the song for this type of change as it isn’t too early nor is it too late. In the example below, after introducing some new ideas in the bridge, I use a simple dominant chord (Eb7sus) to raise my key a half-step from G major to Ab major. Additionally, I vary the texture here by dropping the low voice and the vocal percussion while having the ensemble clap instead. What audience doesn’t love clapping on a key change??

Key change up a half-step to final chorus

So, there you have it. You now have three simple tricks to add new variety to your arrangement without going over the top. Whenever I’m in a rut, I look for creative changes like these to breathe new life into my work. Tiny variations can prove to be strangely effective in tunes that are repetitive by nature. I hope you find these ideas to be helpful for your future projects!

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