This case study is on subdivision in parts, both within the bass and the upper voices. Additionally, we'll touch on a few other techniques, such as accommodating vocal backup parts within your arrangement, changing the feel of a tune, and arranging from memory instead of from a recording. Let's shall, yes?
The tune of the moment is by The Temptations: "Get Ready." This is a pretty fantastic classic tune that comes with built-in vocal harmonies; but in the original version, we hear not only the backup singers, but a full-fledged orchestra and choir plus rhythm section. How on earth to boil this down to its root components? First, listen to the Temptations themselves; the sample we'll be dealing with is the first line of the chorus (I'll be giving you a love that's true, so Get Ready, so Get Ready):
One way to do this is to arrange from memory. Listen to the song a number of times (or perhaps even only the part you're interested in working on) until you have it well in your head. Then, sing it back or even try to arrange it based on your memories. This process takes advantage of your personal impression of the most important parts of the song, and helps to create something that reflects your individual flair. The following recordings were made without listening to the original, since I happened to know the song very well from childhood. Listen again and get it in your head:
So pause, take a breath, and sing what you think maybe one line of the backup should be singing. Does anything stick out? What do you remember as being the most important rhythmic moments? The melodic shape? After you've done that, compare with what I came up with. Side note: The recordings we'll be looking at were made as I was first learning to sing, a number of years ago, so listen for the mistake of humming /n/ or /m/ before the actual onset of the note. This is a big mistake that makes your group sound muddy, so try to encourage other singers to attack only on the starting consonant or vowel. Do as I say, not as I do!
Example One: Pure Homophony
What I produced, of course, is not "right" or "wrong," it's only what I happened to come up with. Yours might and should be different! What you hear in this recording is a TTBB treatment plus soloist; the backup parts ALL sing the same rhythm and the same words. This is called "homophony." So where did the partwriting come from? Two parts.
In the original recording, there is one section that seems to be repeated in the chorus. Listen for the big grandiose choir there and listen to what they're singing. First time through, it's something like, "Ah ah ah ah ah. Get Ready, Get Ready." Second time is MUCH more interesting, something like, "Ah ah ah ah ah, baby, Get Ready, Get Ready." Should you include the "baby"? Signs point to "HELL YES!", mainly because it's a hidden gem that makes the arrangement much more fun to sing, and helps your singers from getting weary of counting repeat signs in their heads. However, if your singers are not good enough to the point that they can hold their own on sections like that, it'd be fine to simplify and actually repeat the previous material. Here today, we will only look at the first four bars, however.
After the choir sings their second "Get Ready," the string section becomes much more obvious with two clear rhythmic hits on the "&" of 3 and 4. Hear it? These emerge from the texture powerfully, so it's a good idea to include them in your a cappella arrangement. If I were to do this over, I might do it more obviously (by adding a hard consonant to each of these offbeats), but you can still hear them emphasized by a change in notes on the word "Ready."
Example One had all parts singing in unison, and this article is supposed to be about subdivision in the parts. So onward!
Example Two: Uppervoices Homophony, Independent Bassline
My friends, never underestimate the value in an independent bassline. The moving bassline in the above example is improvised and not particularly well thought-out, but it makes its point, with simple dooms and the like all the way through. It stands out because its /u/ and /m/ don't match the /a/ sung by the block. It's not a particularly good bassline, though, since it seems to interfere a bit. A better solution would be to change the bassline such that it was a perfect combination of the previous two examples: the bassline would be an independent line of dooms during the long /a/s on top, and then would chime in with the words "Get Ready" to match the rest and give the whole thing some unity. Nonetheless, as it is, the group sounds like it has much more motion; the job of the drum section and the bass player from the original is done by this new rewritten bass part, and the arrangement sounds much much more directional.
Example Three: Uppervoices Subdivided Homophony, Independent Bassline
One more example to show how subdivision might effect the upper voices. Here, instead of sustaining an /a/, the upper voices punctuate each beat with a /d/; this helps add to the percussion in the arrangement (remember that vocal percussion is only a string of consonants, and their jobs are interchangeable). It's a subtle change, and I'll leave it up to the listener to decide which they prefer. Although adding the /d/s to the voices helps make the harmony much more clear and to pound away at the beat, it takes away some of the smoothness of the voice's line. Remember, if you write for a group of a dozen college kids a whole note as in Example Two, they're likely to fall flat on it and give it no life; if you write a series of four quarter note /da/s, you'll get a group of people jackhammering away inelegantly, distorting their vowel each time they move their tongue up for a /d/.
This is not pessimistic, however! This is opportunistic and instructive: which option you choose will determine which lesson you'll be teaching through your arrangement -- which challenge the group will next overcome. After they learn to sing whatever you write wonderfully, then they will be enriched in that way, and better able to tackle the next task thrown at them!
You Know, I Learned Something Today
Have faith in your mind's ear to recall what is truly the most important part of the arrangement to include. Then, let your ears reveal the special idiosynchrasies that make an arrangement fun to sing and engaging. Subdivided, independent basslines can be used very effectively to give motion and energy to an a cappella arrangement, since it can act like a drumset and fill the rhythmic roles of the other instruments in the original. The way you write the upper voices is likely to sound different, but an amateur choir will exaggerate these differences -- score wisely and use the arrangement to help teach awesome musicians to be even more awesome.