How to Arrange Vocals: A Creative Skill
As with any creative skill, knowing how to arrange vocals requires us to know what we like. Developing a good understanding of your own preferences when it comes to vocal arrangements is a must.
As a listener, are you moved by the addition of harmonies? Do you enjoy the sound of a choir or group or you like to hear individual voices? Do you find the melody is just better left alone sometimes?
If you have never really considered creating vocal arrangements before, listen again to your favorite tunes and pay special attention to the background vocals, every little “ooh” and “aah.” You may discover that you barely noticed your favorites at first because they have the most subtle, melody-serving arrangements.
Case to analyze
A great pop example is You’re Still the One by Shania Twain. This track really stands out for a few reasons.
One reason is the sparsity. The background vocals only sing select phrases along with the lead vocal, instead of hitting every single word, and otherwise are acting as a pad, or a harmonic texture, much like a synth or a string section might.
Another reason is casting. The producer(s) chose to use male voices to contrast and compliment, yet not steal focus from Twain’s lead. This isn’t a rule but is definitely an exciting and creative choice.
Next, variety. The entrance of the BGVs (Background Vocals) introduces us to the chorus before Twain even sings the hook! The tools of pre-delay, echo, call and response, and overlapping the lead vocal have been working beautifully in vocal arranging since Bach chorales and before.
Finally, placement. Tasteful selection of where to place harmonies is key. In this particular track, they make graceful entrances and exits on only the choruses, and during the instrumental solo. They act as a special color and have their place to serve the song.
Let’s investigate these tools of vocal arranging: Sparsity (what), Casting (who), Variety (where), Placement (when) and dive into these qualities one by one.
Things to consider
There are many amazing options for us as vocal arrangers. Our goal is to compliment the melody and make it sing even more.
Adding a 3rd
A favorite tool is adding a single voice a 3rd above or below the melody, usually following a pentatonic scale and/or the chord progression. This color is never meant to distract, always to blend with and highlight the melody, so chose select phrases that you really want to pop. A thicker choice would be a three-part harmony, in which you’d create a triad (tonic, 3rd, and 5th) with three voices.
Playing with the melody
Play with where the melody sits in relation to the two other voices: top, middle or bottom.
Does it weave between a combination of these inversions? If both harmonies are below the melody, it feels like the lead voice floats on top of the BGVs like a raft on a river. If the melody is the base of the harmonic structure, it is grounding, foundational, and the BGVs feel like leaves of a solid tree.
Playing with harmonic dissonance and resolution
Find interesting ways to move the listener’s ear through the chord progression. Experimenting will lead you to what these beautiful voices are actually going to sing. Try certain lines matching the movement and lyric of the lead. Try others on an “ooh” or “aah” that follow the chord structure using voice leading.
The choice of the vowel can actually make or break the vibe.
We tend to use “ooooh” for quieter, more gentle musical moments, and “oh” or “aah” for more powerful, higher energy backup parts. Using other words like “yeah,” or “hey,” is acceptable in contemporary pop music as well. And sometimes they’re not even singing! Many pop songs nowadays have a group of male voices shouting “HEY!” with lots of reverb in the background.
The choice of who will sing BGVs on your track should compliment the lead voice.
Very often, singer-songwriters and pop singers will record their own back-ups.
Blending is key to making a professional track. The easiest person to blend with is yourself! Blending is a subtle skill that vocalists strive to perfect.
The goal is to match the tone, and embrace unison of dynamics, phrasing, vowel shape, and attitude. Easier said than sung! Seamless blending is best for the single voice lines you create.
When recording, most backup parts are “doubled” to add thickness and remove the individuality from the part, making it less distracting. If a group is singing back-up, it may serve the song to have them try to mimic the lead singer, or it may be best to have them express their individuality as a contrast.
Take for example You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones.
They got a small, classical sounding choir, and gave them the entire intro and outro! A choir of Mick Jagger’s voice stacked up would have had a very different feeling. Then, on the chorus, a smaller group of female gospel singers layer 3rds and 5ths above Mic’s melody. Outstanding choices that make this pretty simple rock song a timeless number one hit.
The interplay between lead and back-up voices can really work in your favor as a songwriter or producer.
Call-and-response is one of the oldest most familiar ways humans enjoy music. It’s how we learn a language, how we learn everything as a child.
“Monkey see, monkey do” evolved into “When I say hey, you say ho!”
It’s innate to our being. It may serve your song to have your harmonies sing not with the lead vocal, but in and around it. This echo will repeat your hook, making it even more memorable.
Not everything the BGVs sing needs to be aligned with the lead.
Play with varying where their parts are sung in relation to the melody, remembering to color and contribute, not distract and over saturate your track with busy-ness.
Pro-Tip: The volume of the BGVs is important on your track. If you compose an amazing, intricate 5-part vocal arrangement, it may serve the melody to mix it significantly lower than the lead vocal. Something like a single voice, a 3rd above the melody can be mixed just slightly lower than the lead and it’ll sound more like a duet.
Most contemporary songs lack harmonies on the verses and layer them in for the choruses. If you want your listener to sing along to your hook, why not get those back-ups in there to encourage them?
Part of your process may be to start by over-arranging.
Then edit out the unnecessary harmonies, just like you would cut cookies out of dough. Sometimes it serves the song to write harmonies for the 2nd verse. This changes the listener’s experience and gives them a reason to keep listening until that hook comes back around.
There are major exceptions to this general protocol.
Let’s look at Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. This masterpiece has an entire acapella section in the middle of the song.
Fun fact: the three singers of Queen recorded each harmony part in unison instead of each singer singing a different part. This made the blend absolutely seamless, and their individual voices indiscernible. Take a listen to this track with your ear on the voices, it is an amazing reference.
As you decide where to place your harmonies, don’t forget about the option of choosing unison.
A singer recording two or three tracks of the same melody is very common, and a group of people singing in together in perfect unison can be extremely powerful.
Musical harmony is determined by different frequencies of sound waves complimenting each other, going well together, and existing simultaneously in a way that is pleasing to the ear.
Harmony is a naturally occurring phenomenon that exists on many levels. Music, yes, but also visual art and color balance, architecture and interior design, city planning, compassion and equality in human society, and proper balance in the ecosystems of the planet.
Creating a vocal arrangement that is tasteful, beautiful, and fun can have such a positive impact on our listeners, and contribute good vibrations to the world, literally.