Arranging as a Step Toward Composing

Trying to decide how to go about composing in a large ensemble can be daunting, especially if you have never attempted it before. In my large ensemble classroom, students start by arranging musical compositions using songs they like and are already familiar with. Though arranging begins with using someone else’s idea, it involves making decisions similar to composing: What will the form be? How many layers of the song will I use? What instrument(s) should I use?

I approach this process of arranging a popular song through listening to a recording, so students are cultivating their aural and arranging skills. They must consider such musical issues as: In what key is the song? What is the time signature? How many times does that phrase repeat? What are the notes in that motive?

Aural Pop Song Arrangements

1. Before you try this with students, go through the process of learning a melody by yourself, and analyze what strategies you use so you can teach them to your students. Strategies you use may include:

  • Isolating a phrase to learn
  • Singing the phrase
  • (Trying, and probably failing, to play it correctly)
  • Isolating the first note and singing it
  • Trying to play the first note
  • Isolating the second note, singing it, then playing it
  • Putting those two notes together by singing them, then playing them
  • Doing this for the rest of that phrase
  • Moving to the next phrase
  • If needed (and especially if you don’t feel confident playing by ear), writing down the notes either using traditional notation or shorthand that you understand.

2. Try this with students in a large group first, without paper or pencils. Students will begin their arrangements through a process similar to the one above. Your role is to play the recording, and as students try to learn material aurally on their own, help them isolate a phrase, sing the notes, etc.

3. In my experience, it is most effective to let students work in small groups to choose songs and create their own arrangements. This group project can be implemented as a unit plan over a period of time (e.g., one day a week during a quarter). Again, students’ grade level and musical maturity will determine how much help and supervision you will need to provide.

4. Have students perform their arrangements for the class. Depending on the length of this unit, students could perform after a couple of class periods or use their performance as a formative assessment for your unit plan.

Sharing final products at concerts or with future students is a valuable recruitment tool. What student would not want to learn his or her favorite song as part of a school assignment? If they are in your class next year, that’s one thing they will look forward to doing! Not only are students engaging with music in a fun and different way, they are also highly motivated to learn because they get to play their favorite songs!

Amy Spears, Arizona State University