Some remarks on arranging for the 20er

It has now been more than 5 years that I started arranging for crank organ. At the beginning, I only arranged for 20er, but in the meantime, I have created many other arangements - for 26er and 31er, the Triola Zither, various reed organs, etc. - in other words: for almost every sort of mechanical organ. Still, most of arrangements are for the small 20er scale. Why? I don't really know ... but one reason certainly is the challenge that comes with this limited scale. It is a genuine harmonic puzzle: You have only a little more than 2 octaves of b-flat and two natural e's. How much harmonic variation can you do with that? It turns out that you can vary quite much - the arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton's Shreveport Stomp has modulations to 6 different keys!

My first arrangement was ... well, I threw it away. The eye-opener (or is it "ear-opener"?) for me was the beginning of an arrangement on Melvyn Wright's homepage (for a Busker organ; the arrangement is still at, but when I heard it first, it sounded much brighter). When I wrote it down, I found out four important things:

  1. I needed 4 staffs to write it down! 20 notes altogether - and 4 staffs to write down an arrangement. Why is that so? Simple: 20er arrangements (and all mechanical music) are not limited by the "number of hands" - like piano music - or even hands and legs - like (church) organ music. Therefore a barrel organ must be handled more like a (very) small orchestra: You invent voices without regarding "physical limitation" (hands, legs), but only by "function" or "purpose":

    These three are usually the minimum number of necessary voices. Additional optional voices are:

    My standard template for arranging has 4 staffs, for "ornament voice", melody, countermelody or accompaniment, and bass. Depending on the density of the arrangement, it is sometimes convenient to have two staffs for melody and/or bass.

    When writing arrangements, I usually start by putting down melody and bass, followed by accompaniment. These are then "fattened up" (with parallel thirds, chords in the accompaniment, maybe a piece of "walking bass" here or there). After that, I add ornaments to the melody or as a separate voice. Finally, additional voices are "squeezed in" if there is any space left - which happens amazingly often! But ...

  2. ... the "music" that comes out of this process often sounds quite dull when I play it the first time (listen to the current version of "The Chrysanthemum"!). The reason is that the "naked notes" are only one half of an arrangement: The other half is musical expression - for a small organ, this essentially translates to "note length": Staccato or legato, tiny breaks before or after notes, pulling an ornament into a previous measure so that it starts a little "early" - all this is necessary to make the music "live" (and I am still at the beginning of learning how to do that!). Some of the rules are easy to find out:

    There are probably many more wisdoms of this sort - maybe I'll learn a few of them in the next decades ...

  3. 20er music, because it has so little possibilites of variation, needs ornaments. Treatises for correct ornamenting were written from the 1600s onwards, and probably I should read one of these - because there are so many possibilities, and so many possibilities to make it wrong. The greatest sin is overdoing ornaments. I am definitely guilty of that ... The second great sin is to use "standard ornaments" - always the same trill or the same run. In my opinion, only two of my arrangements vary their ornaments sufficiently: The Christmas song "Ihr Kinderlein, kommet" (where I found out that retarding an ornament could heighten its effect) and the "Entertainer". More to learn ...
  4. The last thing I learned from Melvyn Wright's arrangement is that you can trick the ear. Listen to it: There is an e-flat (if the arrangement is in b-flat) at the highest end of the ornamental run in the introduction - even though this e-flat is not present in the 20er scale! Our ear extends the scale to its logical end by inventing additional notes. Another trick is to remain on a wrong bass note for a short time (if you do not have the right note) - you will notice that "there was something", but most people cannot pin down what happened - and then its already gone (example in the introduction to "Weeping Willow"). However, tricks of that sort work - as far as I know - only in faster passages.

Ok - that is all my wisdom. Items 1. and 2. above are the most important ones; they probably cannot be ignored by anyone arranging music. For the rest (especially all the other important aspects I ignored - e.g., there is nothing about rhythm here!), wait until I learned about them. Maybe I'll extend this text a little - so come back again!

P.S. Only after I wrote that, I saw that I did not give any examples (written and/or sound). Maybe I find time for that somewhen ...


(c) 18.9.2004 H.M.Müller