Contemporary Vocal Arranging

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Authored by Bill Elliott, Sharon Broadley-Martin


Course Code: OCWPR-334

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 3

Level 3

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


In recording studios, sound stages, and rehearsal halls, singers need simple, straightforward, effective arrangements that they can grasp and perform quickly. This music arrangement course is designed specifically for students who want to write vocal charts for music industry professionals that are easy to understand, cleanly written, and musically satisfying.

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Through guided study using video demonstrations, audio clips, and writing exercises, Contemporary Vocal Arranging explores how to write for a variety of vocal ranges and timbres and how to create interest by utilizing numerous arranging tools. The course starts by introducing the basic concepts of vocal writing—how singers use their voices and what they need from writers, in addition to proper notation and setting of text to music. The course then explores how to create rich textures through two-, three-, and four-part background harmonies, increasing in complexity. You will study a capella writing, stressing the importance of constantly changing texture to maintain interest. Each week, you will have the opportunity to rehearse and record your own arrangements, thereby hearing what you've created.

This music arrangement course also emphasizes how to organize and communicate creative ideas and present them in a clean, concise, professional format. It addresses vocal writing in a number of contemporary styles and idioms—everything from jazz and folk to pop and R&B—and discusses stylistic appropriateness with regards to harmony, rhythm, ornamentation, and interpretation. The course ends with the crafting, scoring, rehearsing, and recording of a multi-voice, instrumentally backed arrangement. The course is designed for anyone who likes to write music for vocalists in a contemporary or pop idiom, particularly for writers who want to learn how to create background vocal lines with harmonies that sound good and instrumental writers who are trying to demystify the craft of writing for vocals.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Understand the basics of vocal technique
  • Identify the appropriate ranges for all vocal parts
  • Optimize a singer's performance by selecting comfortable keys and writing accordingly
  • Organize arrangements in a clean, concise, professional manner
  • Harmonize vocals in two, three, and four parts to support the melody
  • Properly score an arrangement for vocals with basic instrumental accompaniment
  • Arrange vocals in an a cappella setting
  • Score, rehearse, and record a multi-voice, instrumentally-backed arrangement
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Lesson 1: The Voice

  • Voice Technique
  • Voice Ranges
  • Timbre
  • Vocalists: Reading and Rehearsing

Lesson 2: Vocal Writing Mechanics

  • Vocal Writing vs. Instrumental Writing
  • Setting Text to Music
  • Notation Basics
  • Layout

Lesson 3: Vocal Harmonies: Two-Part and Unison

  • Parallel Motion
  • Contrary Motion
  • Oblique Motion

Lesson 4: Vocal Harmonies: Three-Part

  • Multiple-Part Score Layout
  • Three-Part Close, Including Melody
  • Three-Part Close, Backing a Separate Melody Line
  • Three-Part Call and Response
  • Score Format

Lesson 5: Vocal Harmonies: Four-Part

  • Thickening the Harmonic Texture
  • Guide Tone Lines and Voice Leading
  • Making it Sound "Jazzy"
  • Mixing it Up

Lesson 6: Intro to A Cappella Writing: History and Listening

  • Early A Cappella Formats
  • Recent A Cappella Formats
  • A Cappella Arrangements

Lesson 7: A Cappella Arranging: Harmony and Melody

  • Placement of Melody and Harmony
  • Sounds and Syllables
  • Alternating Text and Sounds Effectively

Lesson 8: A Cappella Arranging: Rhythm and Groove

  • Groove vs. Rubato
  • Role Playing
  • Sounds and Syllables

Lesson 9: Contemporary Vocal Arranging: Accompanied and Unaccompanied

  • Planning Your Final Project
  • Vocalist Roles
  • Writing for Varied Vocalist Roles

Lesson 10: Sketch Turns Into Score

  • Laying Out the Score
  • Simplifying and Developing
  • Filling in the Details
  • Refining and Rewriting

Lesson 11: Final Project Requirements

  • Score Readability
  • Holding the Listener's Interest
  • Recording and Rehearsing

Lesson 12: Final Project

  • Icing on the Cake (Last-Minute Edits)
  • Sharing Recordings
  • Final Project Evaluation


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Arranging 1: Rhythm Section or equivalent knowledge and experience is required. Recommended experience in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of choice.


  • No textbooks required


  • Students are required to record either themselves singing or use other vocalists. Multitrack recording may be necessary. Instrumental accompaniment should include guitar or piano at a minimum, either recorded or created using music production software.


  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or multi-track audio editor/recorder. Free options, such as GarageBand (Mac), Cakewalk by BandLab (PC), or Audacity, are acceptable.
  • Students are required to produce scores and submit them in PDF format. Options include:
    • Notation software (recommended option), such as Finale (full version), Sibelius (Artist or Ultimate), Dorico (Elements or Pro), MuseScore (free), etc.
    • Handwritten notation captured by a digital camera or a scanner can be used in lieu of notation software.


  • Students are required to capture their performance, as well as monitor audio output. Options include:
    • Input (one required):
      • XLR microphone and audio interface (recommended option)
      • USB microphone
      • Built-in computer/mobile device microphone
    • Output (one required):
      • Headphones (required if multitracking and/or input monitoring)
      • Studio monitors and audio interface
      • Built-in or external speakers
  • Note: Depending on your setup, you may also need an XLR cable, microphone stand, and pop filter.
  • Recommended: Printer, if you would like to print out examples used in the course.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Bill Elliott


Bill Elliott has been teaching arranging and orchestration in the Contemporary Writing and Production department at Berklee College of Music since 2004. His original songs and arrangements have appeared in many TV shows and films, including Dick Tracy, Northern Exposure, Nixon, Independence Day, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Cats Don't Dance, Gilmore Girls, Cinderella Man, and Wedding Crashers. Elliott has worked as a song arranger for Disney's Home Video productions, such as Return of Jafar, Aladdin & the King Of Thieves, Kronk's New Groove, and Bambi II, in addition to composing scores for several Disney Channel films, independent films, and the ABC TV movie Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story. He arranged and produced Michael Feinstein's Grammy-nominated album The Sinatra Project and Australian singer David Campbell's album On Broadway.

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Elliott began his career as a pop piano player, working with a number of local Boston artists and spending two years in Bonnie Raitt's band in the late 70s. He then became involved in studio work, first as a player and then as an arranger, working with such diverse artists as Stevie Nicks, Donna Summer, America, Robbie Dupree, Johnny Mathis, and Smokey Robinson. Since 1993 he has led the 19-member Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra, which has performed widely and recorded four CDs. Elliott has recorded two CDs of orchestral music for children with actor John Lithgow. As Lithgow's music director, Elliott has conducted the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, and San Diego Symphonies, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Carnegie Hall. Most recently, he has been widely praised in reviews for his orchestrations in the new musical Robin and the Seven Hoods at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Read Less

Sharon Broadley-Martin

Author & Instructor

Sharon Broadley-Martin is an associate professor in the Contemporary Writing and Production department at Berklee College of Music, where she has taught vocal writing since 2002. She is the coauthor, with department chair Matthew Nicholl, of the advanced vocal writing curriculum. She has recorded four CDs with Nippon/Columbia Records and two recordings with Pausa Records as composer, arranger, and vocalist. Broadley-Martin has 30 jazz vocal arrangements published through UNC Press. She has performed around the globe at such prestigious festivals and venues as George Wein's Jazz Fest (Japan), Montreal Jazz Fest, Sea Jazz Fest (Finland), and the Boston Hatch Shell. As a studio singer, she has worked on several projects with Emmy-winning producer and writer Brad Hatfield (also a Berkleemusic instructor). She has also directed the Berklee Jazz Choir, Boston College's B.C. Bop, and numerous all-state and college ensembles around the country.


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