So, I’ve been through the task of selecting songs (I’m never short of songs… in fact, I’d like to do more but over time I’m learning that it’s better to do a few things properly that loads of things badly) and now, I come to arrange them.

What do I mean when I say ‘arrange songs’? Im talking about deciding who sings which bit and when. It would be very dull if everyone all sang the tune through the whole song. It would be like having a monochrome song and I like glorious technicolour!

I listen to the song in as many different places as I can. Pre-lockdown, I used to listen to songs in the car – the different speakers enable to me to hear different things. I have been known to pull over, sing something into my voice recorder on my phone so as not to forget, then carry on my journey. Listening on headphones is also good because I can identify nuances in the songs which I might’ve missed before. If the song is unfamiliar, I might need to listen to it 100 times or more.

Photo credit Ursula Kelly @Studiosoftbox

Let’s take a simple song – like Chasing Cars. Snow Patrol songs are marvellous! They are often written with only 3 or 4 chords and one melody line so the harmonising potential is endless. So, I know this song really well (I love it) and so I know the tune. I sometimes can’t tell if the harmonies I can hear are actually in the song or in my head – it kind of doesn’t matter though. Once I’m sure of the tune I usually take the upper harmony first. I spend a few times singing what I think goes with the tune in notes above it. This harmony melody line can be influenced with aspects of the tune or maybe I’m taking notes from other instruments – my red sopranos often follow a violin line. They might singing words, they might wafting around singing ahhhhh and oohhh like beautiful angels. It depends on the song.

Not every song I choose has loads of harmony in it. In fact, apparently, you can over-harmoinise a song! I deliberately choose some songs which are very simple so that they are easily achievable (for example, Viva la Vida which splits into just 2 parts as a call and response at the end – and just has a small amount of wafty red harmony in the second verse). It’s good to be able to challenge singers but also for them to have easier songs almost as respite from the hard ‘learning’. My rehearsals are structured in that way. (More on how I structure rehearsals in another blog).

Where I differ from some other arrangers is that I am not notating anything. I’m not mathematically working out which intervals go where and which notes will sound nice. It’s very intuitive and fluid. I sing and sing and sing until I’m happy. I now realise that I’ve ben doing this since I was a child. These days I have access to my husband’s home studio so I can lay down an instrumental track (usually from but occasionally I’ll have a track made by Rich or even create a piano track myself) and then layer up the voices on top. So, yellow (tune) first then red (soprano). I even colour code them as per my singers – it’s less confusing for me this way.

Ableton Live

When I’m sure these two sound blend well, I then start work on the lower harmonies. I love the green section – I think it’s my favourite. It’s a very easy range for me to sing and this tends to be where the harmonies are a little more unorthodox – they don’t necessarily go exactly where you’d expect them to. I like to keep my greens on their toes. So I record this underneath and then I can check to hear if it all lands together well. The process involves a lot of singing, listening, tweaking, listening and singing again. 

There’s no formula to my arranging – I keep singing until it sounds right. Sometimes that’s very quickly, sometimes it takes longer. I recorded Sweet Disposition at Rich’s studio a couple of years ago and did all 6 parts in one take each. When I came to do We’ve Only Just Begun, I needed to separate the 4 part backing harmony and record it a line at a time because it was so close and tricky. That’s why it’s often easier to write my own version than try to copy someone else’s! Sometimes I’ve bought sheet music to check what’s going on – I usually glance at out, go ‘oh yeah’ and then I’m done. I can read music, I just don’t usually need to for arranging.

Ringstead Studios

The blue section sometimes gives me a little more trouble. Often, in terms of the actual harmonies, it’s just an octave lower than the red. Or sometimes an octave lower than the tune. But I’m a lady (ha ha ha!) and I can’t always get that low myself so I need help. Luckily, Dave from the Online Liberty Singers is a) very good at singing b) has a very good home set up and c) kind enough to help me out. Every time.

Creating arrangements is the only ‘public singing’ I do. I don’t class myself as a singer. I have a very plain voice which is great for teaching as people can follow it easily – and that’s what I’m aiming for.

This gives me a four part harmony version. Sometimes I add in more….. sometimes there is less. Sometimes everyone is singing the tune and so there are rarely harmonies throughout the whole song. Each part can be separated out for teaching purposes and hosted on my website so that singers can download them and listen at home.

My next task is again to listen to it. A lot. On every available speaker. Loud. Quiet. On headphones. I sometimes send it to ‘trusted pairs of ears’ to see what they think. I sleep on it and listen again the next day and go through the whole process again.

Liberty Singer
Photo credit Ursula Kelly @Studiosoftbox

Only when I am satisfied that all of the parts work am I ready to present it to the choirs and start to teach each part to them……

Photo credit Ursula Kelly @studiosoftbox