How to arrange a song medley - with Ed Blunt: Part 1

We're very happy to introduce a new contributor to you in this article. Ed Blunt is an arranger, pianist and choir director working across a wide range of musical fields. Alongside performing as a freelance keyboard player, his recent commercial arranging work includes scores for orchestra Ensemble Animato, string arrangements for rock band Deaf Havana and in-house arranging for sheet music publisher Music Sales Group.

A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Ed established Camden Voices, a 30-piece auditioned contemporary choir based in Camden Town, in 2013 and continues to write for and direct the choir.

Composition and arranging are areas that we haven't covered very much on Total Choir Resources to date, for the obvious reason that Christine and I aren't composers, so we're really delighted to welcome Ed, who has some fantastic advice for musicians wanting to develop their composition skills. 

A quick caveat. With a worldwide audience, we can't deal with issues of copyright and licensing for all jurisdictions. What might be fair use in one country might not be in another. So please ensure that whenever you use someone else's music, you get the necessary permission to do so. And with that, let's dive in.

Part 1 - Song Selection and Structure

Putting together an effective medley can be compared on the whole to trying to solve a Rubik’s cube; when you think you've fixed in place the complete puzzle, you uncover yet another element that needs putting right. In short, what started out as a fun-filled creative vision can end up being more of a nightmare for the arranger.

In my experience, there are several main factors that compete for the arranger's attention when crafting effective medleys, and that often make you feel like you've come up against a brick wall (and banging your head against it, repeatedly). So what are these problem areas? Well, I’ve narrowed it down to the following: ~ song selection ~ navigating tonal (or key) centres ~ threading a sense of narrative and pacing through the entirety ~ keeping to a reasonable duration These elements more or less come under the umbrella of 'structure', and thus sketching out a clear roadmap of the entire form before even reaching for any manuscript paper is the way to go when starting out arranging a medley.

SONG SELECTION Let’s get the first nightmare out of the way - choose a theme or artist on which to focus the medley, and pick the songs you are going to include. This will be your first test of self-control. Even if you think your audience will mutiny if they don’t hear the entire back catalogue of S Club 7 (including ‘the later years’), be picky and keep to a concise selection. I would say 5 or 6 choices is a good upper boundary. Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that if you are focusing your medley on a well-known artist or band, there will be at least 952 different published medleys already in existence- make yours stand out by choosing some lesser-known and under-appreciated repertoire, rather than the old hackneyed favourites. Your audience, and choir, will thank you for not having to sit through Joyful Joyful again (if, however, you are pursuing a Michael Jackson theme, be advised that inclusion of Man In The Mirror is non-negotiable). Lastly, do remember to check, and avoid infringing on, any copyright held to avoid getting in legal squabbles.

SKETCHING THE STRUCTURE You’ve chosen your songs. Well done, the worst is over. Let’s keep going and flesh out a structure. This initial framework sketch can be very simple. It is usually a list of songs, with main tonal centres and key changes indicated beside, all put in an order that has a semblance of narrative. Be prepared to go through several different song orderings before you hit on the one that feels right, and be liberal with crossing ideas out and starting again. It really is worth investing time in this step to save re-ordering stuff later on.

Alongside creating a logical narrative and contrast in tempo and feel, smoothly navigating between tonal (or key) centres is a hugely important part of keeping a medley flowing smoothly. Certain key changes are easy to steer through, for example Cmaj to Dmaj, or Cmaj to Gmaj, however others (eg Cmaj to F#maj- best of luck with that) will prove rather more of an ordeal, and thus require some harmonic inventiveness on the part of the arranger. And one more thing about key centres: in my experience, it’s best to keep to the original key that the song was recorded in (and thus sounds best in). If not, moving it up or down by a tone is tolerable if it helps glue together the medley structure.

Once I've done this initial ordering, I can start to jot down which specific parts of each song I'd really like to include in an ideal world, eg ‘chorus’, ‘a capella breakdown’, 'that cool horn riff'. Again, be stingy with this - it’s a medley, not a musical.

Only once I've arrived at this point will I fire up Sibelius or grab some manuscript and start writing down some music, and that's where I'll pick up for Part 2.
Don't underestimate the knowledge you can give to your choir members
How to arrange a song medley - with Ed Blunt: Part 2

1 comment

Victoria Hopkins

Hi Lilli, so glad we could help.
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