Write It Down!

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2009-04-04

There is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes a simple song requires nothing more than a few simple harmonies that are easily achieved with nothing more than your ears.

However, that's the exception, not the rule. I believe notating your arrangements has great value for many reasons:

* You can look at each chord and each moment vertically as well as horizontally. "Earrangements" tend to be strong on melodic/polyphonic elements, but are not usually nearly as complex when it comes to harmonies and interwoven rhythmic elements (like arpeggiations). Ideally, an arrangement is strongest when it considers both the individual vocal lines as well as the overall effect, and this is far easier when you're using your eyes as well as your ears.

* You can use both hemispheres of your brain. When arranging by ear, you're usually thinking big picture, and following what sounds good. When you write down your arrangements you can far more easily apply critical analysis and music theory to your work. Yes, there are a few people who will be able to tell that their raised third in the secondary dominant chord will be more effective if it resolves downward to the seventh of the next chord, but for everyone else, it's nice to see the notes to understand your decisions and consider other options.

* You can jump around while arranging, focusing on whatever section of the song appeals to you at the time. When arranging by ear, it's far more difficult to leap right to the tenor line in the second measure of the bridge.

* You'll have a far easier time teaching the music, as people with sheet music in front of them have something visual to follow along with (and can always learn by ear as well). Plus, rehearsing specific sections and moments is easier when you can jump right to them, and everyone has a reference so they can all see how their notes relate to other parts (the tenor gets their note from the altos in the previous measure) and work together in a cohesive whole (the baris have the ninth of the chord, so they should back off against the tonic in the bass line).

* You can still do everything you'd do with an arrangement by ear. You lose nothing.

* You can make changes over time much more easily, as you have the original arrangement to easily reference and alter.

* You can share the arrangement with others more easily (via pdf file, xerox), and receive feedback along the way (it's possible to send partial audio files to others, but far easier to share a piece of paper).

* Your group will be able to hand the arrangement down more easily (if you have several generations, like a college or high school group) or revisit it in a decade, and you'll avoid "generation loss" as happens when an arrangement is passed down over time by ear.

Yes, music notation takes some learning, but it is far easier to arrange with today's computer notation programs (which will play back your work with a variety of sounds, and allow you to easily transpose, copy, paste...) than it used to be twenty years ago when you had nothing more than a piece of staff paper and a pen. For example, modern notation programs will let you know when you have too many (or not enough) beats in a measure.

And if you're still not convinced, consider the following analogy: you might be able to create and remember a short statement or poem by ear, but if you want to write something substantial, carefully edit it,  and share it with others, you're going to write it down. Music is the same thing... yet all the more complex, as you have pitches, rhythms, dynamics and other timbres interwoven with the lyrics.

So... write it down!



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