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Basics of Arranging: 4 Types of Ensembles That Will Inspire Creative Covers

So you’ve recently started working on writing your own arrangements, but are struggling to come up with novel ways to test your skills. Finding a fresh take on a beloved song can be a struggle for any arranger. There are so many things that can be altered in order to breath new life into an old favorite, but one of the most noticeable is to drastically alter the instrumentation. Here are some examples where changing the type of ensemble performing the piece made a huge difference.

A Cappella

Society seems to perceive a cappella as either music for somber occasions or competitive singing for catty sopranos. In reality, vocal arranging doesn’t have to turn into something depressing or cheesy.

Take for example pretty much everything the group, Singers Unlimited ever did, including this stunning take on “Fool on the Hill.” Their arranger Gene Puerling really understood the human voice. Notice how background vocals aren’t limited to singing boring oohs or ahs, but instead alternate between lyrics and carefully selected vowels that bring an added level of drama to the arrangement and blend nicely with the lead vocal. The reharmonization is sophisticated, but not so far out that we forget what song we’re hearing. The dynamics are treated with careful deliberation, which is incredibly effective in an all vocal setting.

Technology and artistic ingenuity have led to all sorts of fascinating vocal performance styles. In the above Pixies cover, Julia Easterlin uses her voice and a loop station to interpret a great song in an entirely new way, and the result is breathtaking. In it, we hear layers that offer an interesting alternative to traditional percussion, reminding us that an excellent vocalist doesn’t need to be limited to oohs, ahs, or lyrical melodies.

Instrumental

On the other hand, removing voices from the piece altogether can also be effective.

I’d say Vitamin String Quartet was a guilty pleasure for me, if I felt at all bad about indulging. The group primarily does pop favorites, reworked to take advantage of the versatility and soul-soothing timbre of a string quartet. This cover of Bon Iver’s “Holocene” is my early morning go-to. Of course, writing for strings can be a bit tricky, since the instruments are capable of so much more than most people would ever suspect. When in doubt, ask someone who plays the instrument, or explore some of the incredible resources out there like our brand new course Orchestration for Strings (use the code FRIENDSOFTHEFLY for 30% off).

Acoustic

Sometimes stripping a song down to its basic components can give it a potent quality. Consider Jayme Dee’s addictive version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” What the video lacks in motorcycles, mile-high exploits, and diamond-studded body suits, it makes up for in its ability to bring focus to the actual song. Removing all the production bells and whistles allows the listener to focus on the melody, lyrics, and vocal delivery. Notice that there are no drastic changes to harmony or form, yet the whole vibe has changed, giving the performance a unique character overall.

+Read more: Before you record your cover and throw it up on Youtube, check out our article “How to Legally Cover a Song”

Orchestral

Admittedly, most of us don’t have the body of work or celebrity pull needed to be accompanied by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Still, check out this arrangement of Sting’s “Roxanne.” Originally performed by just three people, the song is powerful in a very different way when played by Sting and a full orchestra. And check out those cello and clarinet solos! For more like it, check out the rest of Symphonicities.

Do you have a favorite example of a creative take on a classic song? If so, share it in the comments!

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Mahea Lee

Mahea Lee is a classically trained pianist and composer who has a degree from a jazz school and leads an electro-pop band. Her greatest musical passion is lyrical songwriting, but she's been known to write the occasional fugue. She graduated from Berklee College of Music, where she majored in Contemporary Writing and Production and minored in Music Theory. For more Mahea, check out Soundlfly's course, The Improviser's Toolkit.