This tutorial is going to look at arranging chords – specifically changing them from static blocks of sound on one instrument, to single melodic lines across multiple instruments.
There are some traditional theory words that we need to meet and greet here.
We are going to start off with some basic static chords: C minor, F minor, Ab major and G minor.
You’ll notice from the midi piano roll below that I’ve written these chords as static blocks – the notes in each chord are all played at the same time:
This is known as homophony – no sniggering at the back!
This is just the traditional theory word that means the rhythm is the same across all the notes – and this is one of the things we are going to change.(Just so you know, some other related words worth knowing are: Polyphony, which is where you have more than one melodic line and they play different notes and rhythms. Heterophony (still no sniggering please!) – where multiple instruments or voices play the same melody but with individual variations. This is not so common in Western music – more often appears in non-Western traditional music. Counterpoint – the art of writing interweaving melodies that create harmony. This is what we are aiming to do in this tutorial!)
Our first step is to split the three note chords into the three separate instruments.
We have a decision to make here – how to organise the notes.
Step One – splitting up the chords.
To start with we keep it simple and just assign the top notes to the first track, the middle ones to the second track, and the lowest notes to the third.
In terms of working with midi, I just create two new instruments, copy and paste the loop into the new ones, and then delete the notes that I don’t need.
This leaves the midi for each track looking like this:
And on their own they sound like this:
Now these don’t sound particularly…er…enthralling on their own do they?
However – even this one single step of arranging the notes across three tracks without any other changes opens up some new possibilities.
We can change the sounds of the tracks and mix them in stereo – here’s a few examples using the un-altered midi from the above examples:
There are countless variations on this…feel free to go mad with it!
However if you want to get more sophisticated with the harmony side of things we need to keep moving forward.
So the next step is to give each line a bit more character.
Step Two – Making the lines more melodic
This step gives us the chance to add some character in two ways – through adding more notes and/or changing the rhythm.
We’ll start by looking at the note possibilities…
One thing that often happens when you split up chords into single melodic lines is that they hang around the same notes – or repeating a single note lots of times.
This can leave them sounding boring – see track three above in particular!
So we will want to add a bit of shape to each line, but also be aware of how they work together.
The difficult part of writing like this for the first time is getting used to holding onto a few different levels of ideas in your head – when some of them are unfamiliar it can be a bit overwhelming!
We need to keep in mind the chord sequence: C minor, F minor, Ab major and G minor.
And the melody line we are working with – but also keep in the back of our minds what the other ones are doing. This can be challenging to start with – but it’s a skill that get easier with practice. It used to be an artform that composers might study for years.
Adding some identity:
A great way to get started with this is to use a simple but distinctive idea, and use it in each melody line. The effect will usually be of an idea being echoed between the instruments.
In our example we can start to add a simple variation, bearing in mind the chords we are using we don’t want to create any nasty note clashes!
So here’s I’ve added a little switch between notes on the first beat and again on the third beat of the bar.
In both changes the notes go with the chords so they are “safe”. We’ll look at more advanced possibilities later on!
And here’s how it looks with the other parts added in:
And here’s the audio for these – I’ve switched to a piano sound for clarity:
Ok…so that’s added a little bit of life to the arrangement – but let’s keep going.
We’ll do the same thing to the middle line – we’ll use the same pattern – but send it in the other direction, and place it at a different point in time:
Let’s hear how the texture is building up now:
So…there is still one line left to work with.
Because some of the “space” in the bar is getting full now where I’ve added some rhythmic variation we are going to use the same pattern but place it in a different point in the bar – halfway through the chord.
The other two melodies use it right on the beats where the chords hit – also, I’ve divided some the other notes in half to increase the movement of the whole thing too.]
Here’s the change to the lowest line:
And here it is combined with the rest of the lines:
I know it looks pretty complicated now, but I hope you can see how each step was not that hard – just the addition of a simple pattern and some variations to each line, placed so they add some spice to the pattern as a whole.
You can now hear the last line and the final complete version below:
This is by no means a masterpiece – but I hope it gives you a first step into working this way.