Something To Sleep On – An Introduction to Song Arrangement – Part 2

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Almost immediately after writing the first part of this series (Arranging Things), I received an email telling me, first, thanks, and secondly, pointing out that the notes of the melody of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star all, conveniently, are part of the accompaniment chords. Also, he noted, that this was not the case in most songs.

All of which is certainly true. And also the main reason behind my choosing that particular piece as our first lesson into guitar arrangements. If you’re going to start something new, there’s no reason to make things so hard on yourself that you’re forever discouraged from trying it again. But, now that we’ve got our first success out of the way, shall we move on now to something, say, only slightly more difficult?

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

I say “slightly more difficult” and I mean that in terms of learning to play this piece. But you’ll soon find that we’re going to have a lot of different choices to make and each choice will, potentially, lead us down different paths. Without wanting to make too big of a noise about it, this is where knowing more about theory, particularly chord construction and conventions of chord progressions, can be a big help to you.

Our song for arrangement today is a classical piece, Brahms’ Lullaby. It’s something that you’ll all recognize it once you’ve heard it. So, why don’t we look and listen:

Melody line 1
Melody line 2
Melody line 3
Melody line 4
Melody line 5
Melody line 6

Everyone got it? Good! You’ll notice that I’ve already placed the melody in the key of G major and, for good measure, gave you the chord progression that comes with it. Those are the chords the second guitar is strumming in the background of the MP3. This arrangement is very basic, mostly in order to continue to start us off on this series with pieces that will both sound good and also boost your confidence.

I’ve chosen to do this in G, as most of you might guess, in order to keep us dealing with the easy chords we all know and love. And the melody, for the most part, is on the first two strings. But, even with something as seemingly simple as this, you might find surprises lurking around the corner!

I took the liberty of numbering the measures of this song, so we’ll be able to keep referring back to it. Please note that this song is in three-four time, as opposed to the usual four-four. That means that each measure is three beats long. There’s a “pick-up” measure of two eighth notes (both G notes at the open G string) to start us out. And in the first two measures, the melody line conveniently consists solely of notes that make up the G major chord, namely G, B and D.

Before moving on, let’s take a moment and review what we might want to know about chords, at least the chords used in Brahms’ Lullaby. As we’ve seen, we’re using three chords, G, C and D7. If you’ve read any of our beginning theory pieces here at Guitar Noise, then you should be able to break each of these chords down into its component notes. I’m going to add the regular D chord, since the seventh is simply an addition to it (as you can see):


Let’s now look at measure three. Even though the chord accompaniment says we’re still playing a G chord, then melody goes from G to F# to E. Likewise, the first note in the melody of measure four is E (the note of the open high E (first) string), which is not part of either D7 or a regular D. It certainly didn’t take us long to find out that what that one reader emailed me is certainly true – melodies, as a rule, will contain notes outside of the accompanying chord.

So what shall we do? Okay, get ready to grimace because you know the answer that’s coming up: there’s all sorts of things we can do! And this is where you have to make choices. I’m going to show you a variety of answers to this, but please be aware that there are even more than I’m giving you.

For the sake of making this illustration simple to follow, let’s suppose that we’ve decided to play out Brahms’ Lullaby all in block chords, much in the style of our first version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. One answer would be continue using only G, C and D chords. When you think of it, that’s not that big of a stretch since every note in the G major scale is a part of one or two of these three chords:

G major scale

So, keeping all that in mind, let’s look at one way to deal with these two measures:

Example 1

That certainly will work. If we want to branch out a little bit (and perhaps flex a bit of our theory muscle!), we could realize that this little phrase resolves to the D chord. Why not stretch out and “borrow” the fifth of D (A or A7) and make this resolution a little more dramatic:

Example 2

Amazing what a difference a single chord can make, no? If you’ve taken the time to play both examples (and I want you to! That’s why there’s no MP3 with these – you should be learning to hear these things and the best way to do that is to play it yourself!), you might find that you like the first one more than the second. You might also prefer Example #2 to Example #1. You might even like them both equally.

Well, brace yourself because there’s still more! Let’s suppose, again merely for the sake of an example, that I want to play this and keep the accompaniment as intact as possible. Is that too much to ask? Not at all! Remember that each note of the melody is also the note of what I call an embellished chord. If you’ve read my (very) old theory article, Building Additions (and Suspensions), you should be able to follow along with this chart:

G scale D chord

Are you still with me? I hope so! Have a look (and play it!) at what we’d have if we opted to use these “embellished chords:”

Example 3
Example 3 alternative

Now that’s sounding pretty nice, right? I hope you took the time to play both examples here, because there is a wonderful difference between the first, using the Dsus2, and the second, which starts out measure four with D9. To play this voicing of D9, by the way, start out by playing a C7 chord (take a regular C chord and add your pinky to the third fret of the G string) and then slide the whole chord up two frets. The fingering should be X54530. There won’t be a test, but this will come back to haunt you later on. Promise!

Also notice that in the first example, we end on D5. Again, referring to Building Additions (and Suspensions), you know that this is a D chord that has no third; it’s just made up of D and A notes. Guitarists these days call this a D power chord, which is really funny if you think about it. Imagine Brahms telling people, “It’s a power chord, dude…”

As nice as both versions of Example #3 sound, let’s try playing these two measures without using “block chords.” Strum the whole G chord and let it ring while simply playing the remaining melody notes:

Example 4

This is what’s called “passing tones.” The notes of the melody which are not a part of the accompaniment chord are “passing” from one chord to the next. Here the F# and the E create the sound of the embellished chords Gmaj7 and G6, respectively, when you play them while allowing the G chord to ring under them. Likewise, playing the D chord underneath the E note that starts measure four creates a Dsus2 which then resolves to D5, or “D without a third,” if you will.

And I don’t know about you, but after trying out all these examples, I’m most taken with this last one. So that gives me two things on which to concentrate as I put together my arrangement: sticking as close to the original accompaniment chords as possible and allowing the “non-chord” notes of the melody to simply be passing tones instead of trying to come up with a block chord for each note. There aren’t many places where this happens, just enough to help us learn a thing or two!

After playing around a bit, I also come to realize that the finger style arrangement (the third one) we did in the last lesson might be the best choice here, so let’s give it a looksee, remembering, as always, that my playing isn’t (as always) always spot on:

Example 5 line 1
Example 5 line 2
Example 5 line 3
Example 5 line 4
Example 5 line 5
Example 5 line 6

First off, let me note that the melody line is indicated by the notes with upturned stems. Any notes with downturned stems are the accompaniment. I’m using the relatively normal (pun intended) “rule of thumb” here: notes on the D, A and low E (sixth) string are played with the thumb. The three high strings are played with the fingers, usually the index on the G, the middle finger on the B and the ring finger on the first (high E) string. This example will give you an idea of what I mean:

Example 5a
Example 5a continued

Pay special notice to measure three. Here I pick the bass note (with my thumb) along with both notes on the high E (first string) and the B string (picked, respectively, with the ring and middle fingers) and then use my index finger to play the open G string on the off-beat. You can just as easily not play any of the notes on the B string during this measure; they are not, after all, part of the melody. I just like the way it sounds.

In addition to the picking fingering shown in the TAB, take a moment to look at how I try to make things easy on myself. Unlike Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I don’t feel that I have to fill up every space with an eighth note of accompaniment. If the melody is two eighth notes, as in the third beats of measures two and three, then the accompaniment can be a single bass note of a quarter beat.

In fact, look at measures five and six in Example #5. All of the accompaniment in these two measures (as well as later in measures eight and twelve) consists of quarter notes. What we’re doing here is allowing the song to have its own rhythm and not making it chug along in a steady beat of eighth notes from start to finish.

In measure eleven, I go back to that D9 chord we discussed earlier. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! One of the things I discovered during our “experimentation” stage was that I liked the way this voicing allowed the strings to ring out. This fingering gives all three notes of the melody (C, D and E) the chance to spill over onto one another. I think it sounds very dreamy. I like it so much, in fact that I use it to start measure fifteen as well.

Speaking of measure fifteen, I use the F# note on the second fret of the low E (sixth) string in order to have a nice lead up to the G in the final measure. You could just as easily opt for an open D string there.

I want you, as you study and play this, to again pay special attention to how all the accompaniment is dictated by the chord shapes. And to how easy this makes it to play! When we move on to more complicated songs which will involve moving further and further up the fretboard, the logic of finding a good chord fingering will still apply. In fact, it’ll be even more important for us to keep in mind!

Finally, I’d like to share with you an alternate thing to try in measures eleven and twelve:

Example 6

When I was putting together this arrangement, I found this to be a nice way of playing these two measures. If the whole D9 thing just throws you, give this a try.

I hope you all enjoyed working out this song arrangement. Those of you with little ones have no excuse not to practice this a lot! Next time out, we’ll check out Greensleeves, which should give us a chance to work in a minor key and deal with all the inherent fun things that tend to go along with songs in minor keys!

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…


Also check out… An Introduction to Song Arrangement Part 1