top of page

Appropriate Arrangements

Today, we are flooded with musical arrangements of all kinds. Through the years, I have heard Bach’s “Toccata in D minor” as accompaniment to a video game, Mozart’s “Turkish March" in a toy cell phone, Poulton’s “Aura Lee” (a.k.a.“Love Me Tender”) in a very quick tempo as a dog commercial and Chopin and Bach melodies serving as the basis for popular songs. Other examples include well-known classics, such as Beethoven’s “5th Symphony,” with contemporary rhythms and instrumental combinations as well as Gregorian chant with percussion accompaniment. Certainly, nothing about today’s “creativity” surprises me!

Music instructors choose or create arrangements for their students to perform, whether vocalists or instrumentalists. Although this article describes the four factors I consider in choosing arrangements for any type of acoustic or digital keyboard, such factors could be considered for your own selections:

(1) the validity of the adaptation

(2) the quality of sound

(3) coordination difficulties

(4) accompaniment style


By analyzing the original piece in terms of its most important rhythm and/or pitch elements, and comparing these with the arrangement, significant changes can be identified and evaluated. Rhythmic changes can both negatively and positively affect the quality of the original piece. For example, in comparing the melodic rhythm of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” with an arrangement that simplifies the syncopation, an essential feature of the ragtime style is weakened.

In another example, a rhythmic pattern repeated 24 times in the 3 verses of McBroom’s “The Rose” is arranged with all quarter notes, thus losing the recognition of the original melody. A change from a dotted 8th and 16th note figure to two 8th notes in another arrangement of this melody, however, creates a more playable melody without noticeable loss of the original rhythm.

Lastly, in terms of rhythm, examples of time signature changes in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Pachelbel’s “Canon” significantly alter the original music.

In the case of pitch, consider the original melody as well as compositional techniques and chord progressions. Any changes of these elements in an arrangement can adversely affect the original music. For example, a change of the original note, B to D at the end of the phrase in the Welsh carol, “Deck the Halls,” is easily noticed, whereas many acceptable versions exist for melodies such as the spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The addition or change of parts in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” significantly negates the original counterpoint in the bass, a most critical aspect of this music.

The simplification of an important chord progression occurring in an arrangement of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida” changes an important element of the original music.

In “The Entertainer,” the addition of a diminished chord, as well as other chords inverted in a higher position, detracts from the rhythmic and melodic clarity of the syncopated melody.

In summary, in order to keep the original, organic qualities of the piece of music being arranged valid, the primary elements should be retained as much as possible. Elements such as the syncopation of ragtime, the pitches and rhythms of well-known melodies, the counterpoint in Bach, and important chord progressions are all necessary, even in adaptation. SECOND FACTOR: QUALITY OF SOUND Some music does not translate well as a pure piano solo and may not be desirable for study; for example, a song sung by a popular singer dependent upon percussion and other instrumental back up. It is also important to keep in mind that the distinct acoustic piano sound is different from the sound of a digital keyboard, although high-end digital pianos are now able to mimic the acoustics of a piano.

For melodic and rhythmic clarity, observe the use of different registers and keys. A faster melody with strong pitch and rhythmic patterns, such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,”(a) would be more clearly projected in a middle, rather than higher, piano register. The high placement of such melodies results in a tinny and thus weak sound. In contrast, a slow melody with many long notes, such as Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” (b) would have maximum clarity in a higher register.

Both Vivaldi’s “Spring” and Bach’s “Minuet” lose their original melodic and rhythmic clarity when arranged in the lower key of C.

Next, consider the use of different registers for contrast. Strong dynamic changes are evidenced with the addition of octaves in the melody, and lower and higher register chords to achieve a fuller and louder sound.

A musical pattern can be repeated more softly an octave higher.

In addition, some melodies are better sung than played as a piano solo for dynamic contrast, such as Stookey’s “The Wedding Song” with much note repetition in a small range.

For a complimentary, well-composed accompaniment, observe how clearly it supports, but also projects the melody. Look at whether the accompaniment has good chord balance, pitch and rhythmic continuity, as well as voice leading and texture consistency.For example, a fuller piano sound with broken chord accompaniment would compliment and support a slow melody with many long notes.

Faster songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In” need a strong and simple chordal accompaniment.

A single note accompaniment on each note of Foster’s “Camptown Races” does not project the melody well. A lighter, broken chord on beats 1 and 3 would be more supportive.

An accompaniment to “Lara’s Theme” uses awkward leaps that detract from the melody.

Additionally, proper chord balance avoids continuous large gaps between the hands (a), as well as a careful use of the lower register (b), i.e. not placing too many notes together, resulting in a muddy sound.

As the piano sound immediately begins to fade after a key is struck, careful attention must be given to rhythmic continuity in the clarity of primary, or primary and secondary accents in each measure or beat.

Different types of accompanying chord figures provide rhythmic continuity with long melody notes.

In essence, a good arrangement “translates” the original sound of a composition, whether for a vocalist and/or instrument, into the piano medium, using a careful choice of piano registers, keys, and good composition in the balance and continuity of the accompaniment.

THIRD FACTOR: COORDINATION DIFFICULTIES Consider the suitability of the technical requirements for the individual student or class, both in terms of the melody being arranged and in the use of the keyboard. Many melodies have awkward pitch and/or rhythm patterns that are more easily sung or played on other instruments, such as “Happy Birthday.” The key and the accompaniment should be playable within a reasonable time period. For example, a melody like “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in the five-flat key of Db, could be more easily played with a simple chord accompaniment in the key of C.

Melodies requiring a more difficult accompaniment coordination may demand a disproportionate amount of lesson and practice time.

The use of continuous low octaves with middle C range chords can be dense (a). A root note with a broken chord (b) in a higher octave is lighter and clearer.

Next, to have to play a repeated broken chord for many measures, as seen in arrangements of “The Wedding Song,” is not only physically tedious, but also easily exposes uneven technique, making it better suited as a guitar accompaniment.

Other examples of complexity deal with the arrangements of established classical compositions. Adding the original second violin and viola notes to the treble and bass makes it more difficult to play an arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

In another example, reduction, as shown in the “Canon,” provides a more playable arrangement.

In summary, one must weigh the coordination difficulties of a piece in terms of its required practice and lesson time for an individual student or class. In addition, consideration must be given to the use of octaves or hand changes with large intervals, rhythm coordination, an accompaniment better suited for other instruments, or complexities in an arrangement of an established classic.

FINAL FACTOR: ACCOMPANIMENT STYLE This particular subject leaves much room for controversy, as evidenced by the many different arrangements of familiar songs or classical themes. Arrangement styles that are especially debatable include romantic style settings of the “Canon” or a hymn. While these piano pieces are impressive piano compositions, and utilize the piano sonorities well, the original music, with its particular use of intervals and rhythms typical of its period, is often not enhanced by such arrangements

In final summary, when you choose an arrangement for your student or class, see if it is valid in comparison with the original pitches and rhythms, check the quality of sound solely as a composition, consider the suitability of coordination difficulties, and finally, see if the accompaniment style fits the melody. To choose appropriate piano arrangements means to have more successful and enjoyable lessons - both for yourself and your students.

Authorship: Patricia M. Bissell

bottom of page