Deep Dive: Vocal Arrangement

John Legend

Lesson time 06:45 min

Learn John’s tricks for vocal arrangement—and how chord progressions can guide your composition.

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Topics include: Deep Dive: Vocal Arrangement


- So let's talk about arranging the vocals and the chords. So you do have to have some kind of either theoretical or just instinctual understanding of what a chord is, what the notes that comprise a chord are, for you to understand how to arrange vocals within that chord. Different chords, whether major or minor, can communicate different emotions to your listeners. For example, b-flat major can convey love, hope, and optimism for the future. So my song "Free" is in b-flat. And a lot of the chords are b-flats, or e-flats, or a-flats. And these are all part of the structure of a song that's in b-flat major. And so when I'm choosing harmonies within any given section, I'm trying to match the harmonies that the vocalists are singing with the chords that are the foundation of the song. So when I'm in a part of the song that the chord, that the piano is playing, is a b-flat major chord, then I pretty much want my backing vocalist to be singing notes that are right within that chord. They could be singing the bop, bop, bop, bop. So those are the triad and the octave of that chord. They fit within that chord. And if they're singing there, it'll sound pretty good usually. And if you start to deviate, you can do like the fourth. Or you can do the sixth of that chord sometimes, and that can be effective. But a lot of times the most effective way to sing on a chord is to sing those important notes within the chord, which are usually the tonic, which in this song would be the b-flat. And then usually the third above that would be the d-natural. And then the f-natural would be the fifth. And usually that's what most people consider the chord. Sometimes you'll throw a fourth in there, which would be the e-flat. Sometimes you'll throw a sixth in there, which would be the g. Sometimes you throw a 7 in there, which would be the a-flat. Or you could throw a major 7 in there, which would be the a-natural. All of those notes could be in the chord, but they can create very different sounds. And by doing that, create very different moods. So they have to make sense in the composition of what you're trying to say musically. And you can kind of tell when you hear it when it's off. And so you have to think about chord structure and the notes that comprise a chord when you're thinking about how do I harmonize in my backing vocals. When I bring in backup singers, which I like to do a lot. I like to have female voices on my songs a lot. And so I will sing a demo version of the song. And I'll usually sing all the parts that I expect the backing vocalists to come in and do. But I'll sing them in falsetto. And falsetto is that higher part of your voice. Sometimes they call your head voice. That's falsetto. Heee. That's my more natural voice. Chest voice we call it. So when I am singing the parts that I intend for a female backup singer to sing, then I'll usually singing in my falsetto. And then I'll bring them in usually in anot...

About the Instructor

When 12-time Grammy winner John Legend released “Free” in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, he called it a prayer for peace. Now the recipient of the first-ever Recording Academy Global Impact Award teaches you how he wrote and recorded the song—and his process for creating hits like “All of Me” and “Glory.” Layer melodies and lyrics, develop your musical point of view, and make music that makes the moment.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

John Legend

John Legend, the EGOT-winning music icon and coach on “The Voice,” teaches you his process for creating music with impact.

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