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A Little Gem
This blog has been waiting a while to be created. The expression “A Little Gem” is one I use with students when we are working on a pop or jazz arrangement. Funnily enough the concept also applies to classical works. It would be worthwhile to discuss that point here too.
- So, what is “A Little Gem”. Well this is an attitude towards the arrangement of a tune. This is what happens to your pop or jazz number if you take the time to really arrange the tune. This means going beyond the chords and melody and looking into the composer’s intent. Thinking about, why is this tune successful enough for me to want to play it? What captures the listener interest? Is it a particular guitar riff and how am I going to achieve that effectively? What gives the tune forward movement? Listen to all aspects of the tune; backing vocals, drums, bass or any other instrument involved. What are their purpose in the arrangement and will those parts be useful in your arrangement? Listen, listen, listen and try to find the motifs (small musical ideas) that the tune is based on. Don’t limit yourself to just piano tunes or the parts played by your instrument. You will miss out on heaps of good material with this approach. Some of my best tunes were originally written on different instruments.
When you think you have listened enough? Go back and listen some more because you probably haven’t listened enough and there is always more to learn. You will be continuing to re-listen to the work throughout the whole process. Once you have some concrete ideas to work on you can start arranging your tune. It is important by now that you understand the harmony and the form of the tune. I advise that you work the chords out yourself even if you find this hard. The internet does provide heaps of sites that will give you the chords if you want them. Use this just to check the tricky ones. The more you work out yourself the more you learn. For example, a C7 chord can be played in so many ways to only know the chord symbol doesn’t tell you much. You need to know how the chord has been played (voiced) and what the player is doing with this chord to make the tune work. Listen, listen, listen what is the composer’s intent.
Once you have found the main ideas or motifs of the tune you can use this to now create your own little gem. Even though you have learnt the form and harmony of the tune there is no need to be strict to them. In the case of the form i.e structure) I feel it is better not to be strict to the form of a song. The version I do of Trouble by Cold Play starts in the middle of the song and only does one real chorus. It does work for the piano though and that is the main thing. When it comes to the form of a song I think it is best to work from the point of view of what is creating interest for the listener.
Repeating a verse three times is not always a good option. Remember the version of the tune you are listening to often has several players, recording techniques and technology to achieve this interest for the listener. We on the other hand are creating an arrangement for our instrument. There is only so much you can do on your instrument to create interest before it starts to sound cluttered, overplayed. Playing the same verse over three times will just get boring for the audience if it doesn’t have some good variations. So, why not just have one or two verses.
Some parts of a tune may not be working for you. Sometimes you just need to try harder. Sometimes they just weren’t meant to be i.e. don’t suit the instrument. Ditch them. Don’t worry if your version is shorter than the studio version, just learn more tunes. Make interest for your listener.
Everything is up for change really. Play with the tune, experiment with all the players parts including the backing vocals and drums and then use the bits you like in your final arrangement. Have some fun, change the harmony take a small solo create your own little gem.
When you feel you really have something, record it and then listen back. This will usually high light the areas that need work. At this stage I tend to play a tune in for a while. i.e. I play it a few times each day and let it settle. Often things that need work are the transitional parts e.g. the movement from chorus to the bridge. The intro and coda or beginning and ending are always important to work on and opportunities to get creative.
The melody. There is so much to say about the melody that it should be the subject of the next blog.
It is important that you bring a good attitude to this work. Tune and chords alone just don’t cut it. There needs to be some thought for the listener and into how the tune has come about. The composer’s intent. We need to create “A Little Gem.
Until next time (A Little Gem II the melody) check in on my sound cloud for the track Trouble by Cold Play. You can tell the parts I really like because I have included them more in the arrangement.
Bye for now