Arranging with no sharps or flats

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Close harmony styles are traditionally harmonically rich. The earliest accounts of what came to be known as barbershop harmonies in late-nineteenth-century America tell of the participants’ pleasures in discovering ever more rich and outré chords. Jazz styles later extended the harmonic vocabulary: while barbershop officially resisted the encroachment of ‘modern’ (i.e. swing) chords, barbershoppers unofficially found that the prohibition made the new dirty chords even more enticing.

But these days, ‘modern’ no longer means tunes from the 1930s, and groups that want to sing music their audiences recognise find that more recent pop is generally less harmonically rich than older popular traditions, shifting its focus much more onto rhythm and timbre as central points of interest. Richness of chording is no longer an index of hipness.

Contemporary a cappella as a genre deals with this precisely by engaging with texture and timbre. Amplification permits the exploitation of vocal sounds – especially, but not limited to, vocal percussion – that acoustic ensembles couldn’t produce loudly enough to be effective. And these groups will generally have at least five or six parts in order to layer up more complex textures than the basically chordal approach of barbershop, jazz or doo-wop traditions. As an arranger for acoustic ensembles, I can’t borrow these techniques wholesale, but they’re useful to study, nonetheless.

I have so far done four arrangements that are so simple harmonically that they feature not a single sharp or flat. (Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes is already available; the others will show up over the next year after the groups they were written for come to the end of their exclusivity periods: Valerie, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, and Fields of Gold.) That’s enough to start making some generalisations about what I’ve learned.


  1. You need to be sparing with straight homophony. In the absence of harmonic variety, rhythmic unison hasn’t got that many wares to display. Reserve it for key moments where you really want to feature the lyric.
  2. Diatonic pieces are much more forgiving of incomplete chords, so that frees you up to think about individual lines and about composite textures. So long as it has things to get interested in, the ear will grasp the overall harmonic shape without it all having to be spelled out.
  3. Diatonic dissonance is fine. Pedal points, or crunches that arise from lines interacting, or just naughty chords (dominant 13th in 3rd inversion, anyone?) add the bite that the progressions themselves don’t provide. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say an a cappella arrangement with neither chromatic notes nor diatonic dissonance is going to really struggle to project itself with any sense of character.
  4. Use texture to create the sense of growth/narrative. Barbershop arranging traditionally uses the embellishment strategy to achieve this, because it builds on the default of a homophonic texture. In this world, homophony is an effect, not a structural given, so you need to use the texture as a whole to build the emotional trajectory.
  5. Telescope up to make the a cappella version significantly shorter than the original. Elide cadences, layer together riffs or motifs that appeared sequentially in the original, omit vamps. Don’t give your listeners the opportunity to think, ‘hmm, there’s really nothing to this song, is there?’ Think of the arrangement as presenting not a replication of the song, but its essence. (Actually, that’s not a bad principle even when you have sharps and flats to work with!)

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