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How I'm Writing A Full-Orchestra Arrangement

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Have you ever written a song that you just can't let go of?  Or, that just won't let go of you?  Just such a song, for me, is called Young Men, White Gloves.  The song is a different sort of war-protest song.  Specifically, it protests the well-oiled marketing engine that tries to make "war" a thing of honor and adventure.  It appeals to young men, especially from poorer families, by promising them a sense of belonging and of pride the likes of which they may have never known, along with a military uniform that might be the nicest piece of clothing they have ever owned.  But it doesn't tell the truth.  Iwo Jima becomes a glorious flag placed on a hill – not a bloodbath that killed or wounded over 26,000 Marines including most of the ones who raised that flag in the picture.


You can hear it here on MacJams, but I was never satisfied with that version.  For one thing, when I started peeling the layers back off of it, I found that it contains a lot of musical mistakes.  So, I've started over.  This time, I'm writing for a full orchestra.  Some of the elements will remain the same – the piccolo, the general structure (with an added Interlude) – but I'm going for a much richer musical texture.  And I'm beginning my (re-)work with a dedicated open-source music scoring program, MuseScore.  And here is how I'm proceeding.


The first thing to go down is the melody, which is one line with lyrics.  (This becomes the "lead sheet" that will be needed for US Copyright registration.)  This then becomes the basis of a vocal guide track, which will be in the singer's headphones as he sings.  Just before the start of each new phrase, the first note of the phrase is included (more quietly) to cue the singer of what note is coming next.  In recordings, it is muted.


Then, an accompaniment guide track which is the leading and most-featured note line within the accompaniment.  This might be a counter-melody to the melody.  In the case of YMWG, it is basically the piano part that you first hear in the overture.  This guide track will be muted.


Most intricate is the chord guide track, written-in by hand using some suitable keyboard-like patch.  This is a block-chord arrangement of the entire chord structure that will be played by any piece of the orchestra.  The chord structure begins simply and becomes more elaborate and forceful with each go-round of the verse so that the song builds to a climax.  First, select and position the main chords, which I somehow refer to as "landing chords" or "thump chords."  These are the chords that the accompaniment "lands on," and uses to step from one point to the next to the next, with anything in-between being more or less window-dressing.  The chords are suitably decorated with 7ths, 9ths and so-on.


The song should now sound very good using just the guide tracks.  You really want to perfect the chord-guide track because this will dictate everything that the audience will hear any instrument play, no matter what instrument plays it.


The next step is to partition those guide chords among the various instruments, once again bearing in mind, "don't give it to 'em all at once."  Instruments have different flavors, tones, and power – and, weaknesses.  Starting with a simple mix of instruments, later on in the song you add more instruments and tones to the arrangement.  All of the tones that you select should come from the guide.  The chords that are played are those in the guide.  How those chords are played is up to you.


Also, an ensemble of any size sounds best when there is overlap in time.  Instruments might arrive at the thump-chord points at different times and by taking different paths to get there.  This creates the luxurious musical textures that good ensembles are known for.

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Mike, I read your lyric but was unable to play the song. I think that there should be a lot more songs like this although I feel that if you are going to the trouble of orchestrating it you might consider bringing the location more up to date like Afghanistan because it is still in most people's memories. The second world war is now 72 years in the past and all but a few are still alive to remember what it was like.


I wrote a song about war myself but didn't mention a time or place for it because it could apply to almost all wars. I used a fathers narration explaining to his son what war really meant. It's definitely a song that I have never been totally happy with and the mix which was done by a co-writer could have been a lot better. It's on the showcase board if you would like to give it a listen. It's titled "All for the mad"

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I think you have to have Flash Player installed to hear a song on MacJams.  In the future, I will be posting it to SoundCloud and other places.


The inspiration for the song came specifically from the billboard that I show in the photo on MJ, and several others like it which are being promoted by the US Marine Corps.  It was a very "dark and stormy night," and in the short distance I saw "that billboard."  Other advertisements in the same series display a young black man standing in his best dress blues.  (My original title was "Black Men, White Gloves.")  Others show armored personnel carriers, with hatches open, driving down a beach.  Others show the flag-raising at Iwo Jima ... minus the hail of bullets and mortar shells that killed most of the young men in that photograph.  Others show an intricately-decorated sword that is "Earned. Never Given.™" 


In the MJ discussions which followed, I posted another image – of a toddler in a Marines uniform saluting his dead father's coffin –which as I say on MJ, speaks volumes.  That is to say, the oh-so young widow's vacuous expression.


And the song is really – and, specifically – a protest against "sanitized, bloodless, war advertising."  They promise young people, especially poor and disadvantaged young people, that they can be part of something greater and more heroic than their own lives will ever be.  But, horribly, it isn't the truth.  And, as the US Military well knows, their target audience isn't yet worldly enough to know, let alone fear, the truth of War.


In my copyright application, I offered an alternative to "Semper Fi™" in the words, "Do or Die," but my heart was never in it and I didn't sing it.  Nevertheless: this song is not a protest against the people who serve or who have served the United States honorably in any branch of Service – specifically including the Marine Corps.  Rather, it is a protest against those very-despicable (to me ...) people who attract young people to "the glory of War" using utterly false and deceitful pretenses.


I developed the song while pacing around in the War Memorial (Auditorium) in Nashville, TN, an oddly sepulchral place that tries its best not to look and feel like a gigantic tomb – and fails.  My original rendition of it included a fully-orchestral overture to back the incessant military drum, and my orchestral treatment of it is even more so, expanding on the gap between the "AB" sections and also trying to find a musical treatment that matches the changing emotions while also musically emphasizing the contrast between one section and the next.


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Ok Mike, Got it now.


I totally agree with you about the deceit that is endemic in enticing our youth to join the military although I do think that Many who joined up or were drafted during WW2 had a pretty good idea of what they were getting themselves into because their was only an interlude of 21 years since WW1 where Britain lost a whole generation of our youth. In both WW1 and WW2 it was a just cause fighting the Nazi's and Japanese Empire because they were the agressors.


More recently we have seen enough body bags, coffins and flags from the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan on the news and other media to put anyone with half a brain off war for an eternity. Unfortunately much of our youth believe themselves to be invincible and are attracted to what they see as excitement. There was never any justification for these particular wars and the military rank and file must see that their legacy has been ISIS and other terrorist groups and major instability in the Middle east.

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Ray, I think that the current crop of "military industrialists(!)" rather dearly hope that no one within the sound of their voice associates "the flag-raising on Iwo Jima" with anything other than ... "a glorious flag."


You say:  "More recently we have seen enough body bags, coffins and flags from the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan on the news and other media to put anyone with half a brain off war for an eternity ..." But, is that actually true?  No, it is not.  Even though "military transports stuffed with coffins" have been arriving at Edwards Air Force Base every night for many years now, today these transports land on empty runways.


Very quickly, the Military Industrialists(!) realized that the American People have no(!) objection to "War."  (In fact, they spend billions of dollars a month on it, entirely without objection.)  Their only objection was to the military draft.  As soon as they knew that they could never be "called up," they were perfectly content to allow wars to be fought by ... "them."  The under-class.  In other words, the expendables.


A generation later, they calculate, "the flag-raising on Iwo Jima" is ... "just a (glorious) flag."  Like all the other symbols that they now use in their advertising, it's all just "a symbol."  A symbol of a thing that has nothing at all to do with ... dying.


- - -

But anyway, "yeah, that's what this Song is About."  Now, I just gotta orchestrate it.

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