Take a letter, Miss Smith…

From the beginning, budding arrangers have sharpened their skills by listening to the best examples of recorded work and transcribing them onto paper, usually to try them out with a local band. In the early years, schools of big band and jazz writing (and playing) didn’t exist so that young writers had fewer opportunities to learn. Added to this, legitimate ‘rules’ often lose their significance in the saturated harmonies prevalent in jazz. Some people believe that jazz has reached such a state of maturity and evolution that a study of legitimate styles is no longer necessary. I’m not convinced of that myself, as explained in the book and, in any case, the suggestion clashes with my own dislike of labels and my interest in a melting pot of global influences in this ‘shrinking’ planet.

This blog attempts to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned over many years of ‘taking them down’. Relax, Miss Smith. I wasn’t referring to you.

Listen through headphones, it’s amazing how much more you’ll hear. Moving into another room and listening from afar may reveal other subtleties you may have missed.

Listen to the whole piece making sure the key signatures are sensible (record decks do not always play at the correct speed). Most keyboards allow you to change pitch (essentially becoming transposing instruments) to overcome this problem, or you may be able to change the deck speed. I hate changing the pitch of the keyboard since ears become accustomed to concert pitch. Although we can’t write-off keys with 4 or more sharps and 7 flats (=5 sharps), their presence might tell you something. Obviously, 6 and 7 sharps can be enharmonically transposed to their equivalent flat keys for the benefit of some brass instruments.

(Sharp keys are more prevalent in string arrangements and a vocal arrangement can, in principle, be in any key because a semitone up or down can make a difference.)

Be methodical. Having confirmed the correct key, write in the melody and lead instrument lines next, working ‘by ear’. Include any prominent countermelodies, ‘riffs’ or descending (or ascending) unison lines, that are often an integral part of the original composition. They will help identify the chords. Now put in the double bar lines and repeat bars (if any). If you do this too early in the procedure, you might have to erase a large portion of your work or ‘cheat’ by dividing one bar into two to ‘catch up’. Next write in the bass part, especially in cases where it’s written in with the ensembles or sections. Where the bass backs a jazz solo, chord symbols will suffice, except where the bass is written into the background harmonies etc. The bass trombone and baritone sax will often be written at this point, too.

Now you can start to unravel the chord sequence but don’t get bogged down (never get bogged down, just move on for a while, or take a break). It’s always preferable to obtain an authentic reference for the melody and chords if you can; there’s so much stuff online these days.

The voicings are next and an experienced ear will be able to identify common styles (semi-open, 5 part, 5 part semi-open, block writing, ensemble etc.) very quickly. Strange things can happen here. A reiterated lead note over changing harmonies may appear to change pitch. It’s the musical equivalent of the parallax in visual orientation. Also, because of the difficulty of ‘tracking’ individual parts in close harmony, a voice my appear to go in various directions due to the fact that each vertical cross section of the music will always vary slightly in section balance. It simply isn’t possible, even with the best bands, to control the blowing force with absolute precision. You might be trying to pick out the first alto part and you could stray into the second alto line by mistake. It’s so easy, after listening to a phrase for the trillionth time, to convince yourself of all manner of things, especially when fatigue takes over. It’s far better, in such circumstances, to write the parts the way you would have written them of your own accord. That way you’ll avoid creating a monster. Learn to listen to that still small voice in the back of your brain telling you, despite the learned reasons given to justify what you have done, that something just ain’t right.

It will assist you at this point to put the work on one side and sleep on it, if possible.

You can remove one step in the process if, instead of writing a sketch in short score first, you write straight onto the finished score. Copyists charge more for transposing which is one reason for the transposed score tradition. In a computerized world it’s less relevant because you can change pitch and key signatures automatically. Watch out for the silly accidentals some computer programs create and amend as necessary to arrive at a logical, easy to follow scheme. Short score sketches can be useful to hang on to after you’ve parted with the full score.

Transcribing from a sketch score straight onto a computer score will save time and energy. If you’re inserting notes manually use the keyboard shortcuts to speed things up and keep the flow. Block scoring can be confusing in short score layouts because of the profusion of contradictory accidentals that sometimes occurs. I always write chord symbols above passing chords etc. and take the intonations for the parts from these, rather than trying to squeeze accidentals in.

Finally, when using a pencil, use a 2B grade. You can still get a sharp point but it’s easier to rub out and gives a nice black image. Please note: the item used is an ‘eraser’. This is often called a ‘rubber’ in Britain. In the USA they’ll direct you to a ‘drug store’ (GB: ‘chemist’), not a stationery shop.


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