We are flooded today with a wide variety of musical arrangements. Through the years, I have heard Bach's Toccata in D Minor used as a video game accompaniment, Mozart's "Turkish March" in a toy cell phone, Poulton's "Aura Lee" (a.k.a. "Love Me Tender") played in a very quick tempo for a dog commercial, and Chopin and Bach melodies serving as the basis for popular songs. Other examples include well-known classics, such as the theme from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony modified with contemporary rhythms and instrumental combinations, and Gregorian chant with percussion accompaniment. Certainly, nothing about today's arrangements surprises me!
Other compositions composed originally for the piano are often arranged in simplified versions. Whether we teach one-to-one lessons or teach students in groups, we often use arrangements to help teach fundamental technique and as an aid to develop reading skills. Additionally, these arrangements can help motivate students to practice and can introduce them to famous composers and different genres of music.
Students have often brought arrangements of their favorite songs or instrumental themes to their lessons. I consider four factors in choosing to teach these arrangements: the validity of the adaptation, how well the arrangement uses the acoustical properties of the keyboard, the coordination difficulties, and the appropriateness of the accompaniment style. In the following discussion, the term "piano" will refer to any type of acoustic or digital keyboard.
Validity of the Adaptation
Consider the adaptation's validity. Identify the most important rhythmic and/or pitch elements in the original composition and determine the quality of these elements in the arrangement. Rhythm changes can affect the sound, both negatively and positively. For example, in comparing the melodic rhythm of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" with an arrangement that simplifies the syncopation, an essential feature of the ragtime style is weakened (see Excerpt 1).
Excerpt 1: Rhythmic change in "The Entertainer," by Scott Joplin
Excerpt 2b: Meter change in Canon, by Pachelbel
When evaluating how the arrangement uses pitch, consider the original melody, compositional techniques, and chord progressions. If the arrangement contains any changes to these elements, the original music can be adversely affected. For example, in the Welsh carol, "Deck the Halls," a change at the end of the phrase from B to D is easily noticed (see Excerpt 3). However, for other melodies, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," many acceptable versions exist.
Excerpt 3: Pitch change in "Deck the Halls"
The addition or change of parts in "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" significantly negates the original counterpoint created by the bass, a most critical aspect of this music (see Excerpt 4).
Excerpt 4: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," by J. S. Bach
Similarly, the simplification of an important chord progression occurring in an arrangement of Verdi's "Celeste Aida" changes a vital element of the original music (see Excerpt 5).
Excerpt 5: Left-hand chord changes to "Celeste Aida," by Verdi
In "The Entertainer," the addition of a diminished chord and other chords, inverted in a higher register, detracts from the rhythmic and melodic clarity of the syncopated melody (see Excerpt 6).
Excerpt 6: Changes to left-hand of "The Entertainer," by Scott Joplin
To maintain the original composition's organic qualities, the primary elements should be retained as much as possible. Elements such as ragtime's syncopation, the pitches and rhythms of well-known melodies, Bach's counterpoint, and important chord progressions are all necessary—even in the arrangement.
Some music originally composed for other instruments or voice may not be easily arranged for piano. For example, a popular singer's song that is dependent on percussion and additional instrumental back up may not sound satisfying with piano alone. It is also important to keep in mind that the distinct sound of an acoustic piano is different from that of a digital keyboard, although high-end digital pianos are now able to come close to the sound of an acoustic piano.
Changes in register and transposition to different keys can effect melodic and rhythmic clarity. A faster melody with strong pitch and rhythmic patterns, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," is projected more clearly in a middle, rather than higher, register (see Excerpt 7). The high placement of melodies such as this results in a tinny, and thus weak, sound. In contrast, a slow melody with many long notes, such as Jarre's "Lara's Theme," would have maximum clarity in a higher register (see Excerpt 8).
Excerpt 7: Register change in "When the Saints Go Marching In"
Excerpt 8: Register change in "Lara's Theme," by Maurice Jarre
The theme from Vivaldi's "Spring" and the melody from the famous Minuet in G Major from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook lose their original melodic and rhythmic clarity when arranged in the lower key of C (see Excerpts 9 and 10).
Excerpt 9: Transposition of "Spring," by Vivaldi
Excerpt 10: Transposition Minuet in G Major, from Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook
Next, consider the use of different registers for contrast. Strong dynamic changes can be achieved with the addition of the melody in octaves and full chords in the right hand to achieve a richer and louder sound (see Excerpt 11). Additionally, a musical pattern can be repeated more softly an octave higher (see Excerpt 12).
Excerpt 11: Full chords to create a rich sound
Excerpt 12: A musical pattern repeated an octave higher
When a melody has a narrow range and much pitch repetition, such as Stookey's "The Wedding Song," the subtle dynamic contrasts are more easily achieved through singing, rather than when played as a piano solo.
A well-composed accompaniment can support and enhance a melody. Good chord balance, pitch and rhythmic continuity, smooth voice leading, and textual consistency are all important considerations for effective accompaniment patterns. For example, a broken-chord accompaniment with a full sound will effectively support a slow melody with many long notes (see Excerpt 13); faster melodies, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," need a strong and simple chordal accompaniment (see Excerpt 14). In Foster's "Camptown Races," a single-note accompaniment does not support the melody well. A lighter, broken-chord accompaniment on beats one and three would be more effective (see Excerpt 15).
Excerpt 13: Full accompaniment sound
Excerpt 14: Accompaniment pattern for "When the Saints Go Marching In"
Excerpt 15: Accompaniment patterns for "Camptown Races," by Stephen Foster
Awkward leaps in the accompaniment can detract from the melody (see Excerpt 16). Additionally, proper chord balance can be achieved by eliminating continuous, large gaps between the hands, careful use of the lower register (see Excerpt 17), and avoiding placing too many notes together (see Excerpt 18).
Excerpt 16: Awkward leaps in the left hand
Excerpt 17: Careful use of the lower register
Excerpt 18: Muddy sound as a result of too many lower notes
Because the piano sound begins to decay immediately after a key is struck, careful attention must be given to primary and secondary accents in each measure (see Excerpt 19). Both blocked and broken chord patterns can provide rhythmic continuity for melodies with long notes (see Excerpt 20).
Excerpt 19: Accompaniment patterns and accents within the measure
Excerpt 20: Accompaniment patterns for melodies with long notes
Good arrangements translate the composition's original sound to the piano, using careful choices of registers, keys, and accompaniment patterns.
A third factor to consider when evaluating arrangements is the technical difficulty of the composition. Sometimes the difficulty is found in the melody; many melodies, such as "Happy Birthday," have awkward pitch or rhythm patterns that are more easily sung or played on other instruments. Also, the arrangement should be able to be learned in a reasonable time period. For some students, an arrangement originally composed in D-flat major could be more quickly learned if arranged in C major.
Sometimes a more difficult accompaniment can be changed to reduce the amount of practice time necessary for learning the piece (see Excerpt 21).
Excerpt 21: Change to a more simple arrangement
In Excerpt 22, the use of continuous low octaves with a right-hand chord in the Middle C range can be dense. Using the root in the left hand with a broken chord in the right hand is lighter and cleaner (see Excerpt 22).
Excerpt 22: Lightening the accompaniment
Some arrangements can include unnecessary complexities. Chords that require a hand-span of an octave or more can be difficult for students who may not be able to reach an octave. Quick hand changes with large ranges are impossible for these students (see Excerpt 23).
Excerpt 23: Difficult passage with thick chords
The left-hand shifts in an accompaniment for an arrangement of "The Entertainer" can be challenging for some students; the difficulty would be greater if syncopation were added (see Excerpt 24).
Excerpt 24: Left-hand shifts in an accompaniment for "The Entertainer," by Scott Joplin
Arrangements that include broken-chord patterns that continue for many measures, as seen in arrangements of "The Wedding Song," can become physically tedious and can perhaps expose uneven technique (see Excerpt 25).
Excerpt 25: Broken-chord accompaniment for "The Wedding Song," by Noel Stookey
When evaluating arrangements of classical compositions, including inner voices can make the arrangement more difficult to play. Omitting these voices can reduce the texture, creating a more playable arrangement (see Excerpt 26).
Excerpt 26: Simplification of an arrangement of Canon by Pachelbel
Octaves, frequent hand changes with large intervals, and rhythmic complexity can all affect the difficulty level of an arrangement. These factors will determine the amount of practice time necessary to learn an arrangement, and must be considered when choosing these pieces for your students.
Accompaniment style can be a controversial subject, but should be considered when choosing arrangements. Arrangement styles that are especially debatable include romantic settings of Pachelbel's Canon or arrangements of hymns. While these piano pieces sound impressive and utilize piano sonorities well, the original music's use of intervals and rhythms is not enhanced by such arrangements. Excerpts 27 and 28 show examples of these accompaniment patterns.
Excerpt 27: Accompaniment for Canon, by Pachelbel, with sixteenth notes spanning a large range
Excerpt 28: Descending sixths accompaniment for a hymn
The validity of an arrangement's adaptation, the appropriate use of the piano's acoustical properties, the coordination difficulties, and the accompaniment style should all influence your choice of repertoire for you and your students. Choosing appropriate piano arrangements will result in more successful and enjoyable lessons—both for yourself and your students.