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How to Avoid “Keyboard-itis” in Arrangements

I made that term up a couple of years ago while teaching a sequencing class. I’d frequently encounter piano (or other keyboard) players whose sequenced arrangements had a “cramped,” muddy quality. They were voicing string, brass, and woodwind chords the way they would fit their left hand on the keyboard – usually a span of about an octave. Thus, keyboard-itis – the act of stuffing all your notes into a narrow range.

The cure for this syndrome is the use of open voicing in your accompaniments. Also called a “spread,” this technique is easy to learn and can be applied not just to orchestral instruments but also to any combination of sounds you choose. Here’s the part to remember: Every section of an orchestra – woodwinds, brass, strings, and even percussion – contains soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. Use all of these ranges when musically appropriate to give your arrangements real depth.

Here’s where the Transpose function on your MIDI sequencer can really help you. If you have a harmony part that’s a third above the melody, select that phrase and try dropping it down an octave, to a sixth below the melody. Double your melody with violins or flutes one – or two, if possible – octaves higher. Just about anything your left pinky plays can be transposed down an octave and still be in bass violin or tuba range.

Open voicings are particularly effective on sustained chords behind a melody. Choose an ensemble string sound on your favorite device and try this: first play a C Major chord beginning on Middle C. That’s C3 – E3 – G3 – C4. Now open up that voicing to take advantage of the ensemble sound: C1 – C2 – G2 – E3 – C4. Sound more full?

This information isn’t just for keyboard players. Many hunt-and-peck arrangers also fall into the too-narrow-range pool.

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