How to Arrange Music
The process of writing music has distinct stages that every musician should understand and apply to their workflow.
Arranging is a crucial stage in composing. It makes it easier to develop your ideas into a cohesive, meaningful piece of music that has the greatest impact on the listener.
Much like a captivating speech or a joke that gets people to roll over sideways with laughter, the delivery of the message determines its impact. Delivery is just as important, if not more important, than the message itself.
Composing and Arranging. What’s the Difference?
Composing is usually the first stage of writing music. It’s creating the musical fragments or puzzle pieces, as I like to call them. It’s that moment when you’re sitting at your piano, guitar, or singing and come up with an awesome idea that inspires you.
It’s the raw, unbiased version of your soul that you imprint into each note, rhythm, and chord.
The essence of that moment is what we aspire to capture in a song.
Arranging is the structure or road map of your musical ideas—it’s the strategic layout that affects the listener the same way that inspired the original musical idea. It gives your music significance and is the difference between a good song and a great song.
The arrangement should take you on a journey—over a hill, through the woods, up the mountains, to a beautiful oasis, and finally back home. When it’s all said and done, the listener should have memorable experiences to talk about and view the world in a new light.
It doesn’t matter what music you write, the structure of your song will determine whether it’s fantastic or just average.
Stringing too many ideas together, although they might be great individually, can make a jumbled mess. Instead of one cohesive song, it can sound like three songs going on simultaneously with no glue to hold it all together. This only confuses the listener and is a sign of a bad arrangement...
The goal of arranging is to focus your writing process to get the greatest impact. If your right brain is responsible for your creative impulse, then it’s the left brain that manages its delivery to the listener.
How do we do this?
After you compose your musical ideas, you should define each section with concrete names that distinguish them from one another. I write music in many styles but find that the pop lingo is most natural to me. I’m used to these terms and tend to break a song down this way, regardless of the genre.
Here is a list of the terms that help me arrange my songs:
Most musicians are familiar with these but they aren’t’ the end-all-be-all. You can also use letters such as A, B, C, etc… to delineate each section. This is common in classical music. The point is to name the sections of your song. You’ll know the function of the musical passages, where you’re going with them, and what you’re missing. Making this a habit of your writing process will allow you to craft your song with the same precision of a veteran surgeon.
Five Arranging Tools
Most beginning composers, when they feel like their song is missing something in a verse or chorus, or is just incomplete in general, will create another musical idea to fill the void. This might prove to be the right thing to do later, but I’ve found that that’s hardly the case. More than likely, it’s an issue with development of your ideas themselves, not a lack of ideas.
The way to solve this problem is to dig deeper with what you’ve already written by recycling and reinventing.
There are 5 tools that you can use to develop your song into its final form.
They are as follows:
Variation is the first tool of arranging. It allows you to micro-compose within the musical context that you’ve already established within the song. It’s a small modification that amplifies and differentiates a section from another, but that is not drastic enough to be a new section. This can surprise the listener and provide that extra bit of magic needed.
Some examples include:
- Rhythmic variation
- Meter variation
- Melodic Variation
Say you hold that last E major chord on Verse 2 instead of cutting it short like you did in Verse 1. What if you added more complexity by switching to a sixteenth note rhythm rather than eighth notes in the final chorus? What if you changed the time signature in a measure? What if you added a few extra notes to a vocal line that wasn’t in the first two verses?
The idea is to find a small change that will have a huge impact. If you can do that, you’re on your way to becoming a master arranger.
Register is the frequency spectrum or octave. It’s helpful to think of this concept in relation to the piano. Middle C is named C4, with C1 being the lowest C on the piano. As you go higher up on the piano you add a number. The highest C note on a piano is C8 because it’s four octaves above middle C, or C4.
You should be conscious of what range you are playing in and look for opportunities to vary it. A very common thing you could try is taking your verse or chorus material and playing it higher up on the piano. This works well for intro and outros. Simply changing the register of the notes, instead of the notes themselves, can create dynamics. Make sure to experiment.
Instrumentation is selecting what instruments will play at a given point in your song. It’s using the power of timbre, color, and voice to create a distinct change.
In great music, things happen. It’s not the there is a new idea every second. It’s still the same chords, familiar melodies, and rhythms, but what makes the song different? Think about it for a moment.
Most likely it’s because something sounded cool: an artist’s silky voice, a synth from another planet, or a wicked guitar tone. These are all types of instrumentation!
Instrumentation is what makes a genre, a genre—it makes styles possible. Just think of the iconic sounds of the 80’s. The sound of the synths used during that time are so burned into are minds that when we hear them we immediately think, “80’s MUSIC!”
We should always strive to do something new in our music but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s the small changes that make a huge impact. By removing or adding instruments strategically, you’ll distinguish a section from one another, and will also create excitement. The listener will feel that the song is taking them somewhere and that they should keep listening because things are happening.
Try This: What instruments are playing the chords in the verse? How about the chorus? Try introducing a unique instrument just for the bridge or maybe for Verse 2. Change it up in key moments.
Re-harmonization is changing the chord accompaniment but keeping the same note in the melody. Said in another way, it’s using a different chord with shared notes.
It’s as simple as is switching from a major chord to minor. Imagine that you’ve already established a chord progression of your song. I, IV, V in the key of C which would be C Major F Major, G Major. In the final chorus, you could use and F minor chord instead of the F Major.
Inversions are the order, or stack of chord that you play from bottom to top. All we are doing is swapping out which not is in the bass, or lowest voice, and moving the other notes up. This creates natural movement, or good voice leading, between voices and also adds harmonic interest.
There are only three inversions for major and minor triads, which are chords with a Root, 3rd, and 5th.
They are as follows:
- 1st Inversion = Root, 3rd, Fifth (C E G)
- 2nd Inversion = 3rd, 5th, Root (E G C)
- 3rd Inversion = 5th, Root, 3rd (G C E)
The bass line is a great place to incorporate inversions. It’s better to move to a closer note than make a huge jump to hit the root of your next chord. Large jumps from one interval to another, or a note to another note, can sound unnatural to the ear. Use your voice as a guide. If you can hum or sing the part, it’s probably a sign of good voice leading, hence the name.
Increase Your Productivity - Rule of Thumb
Say you’ve just been improvising for a few hours and have a million new ideas. One melody flows to the next and you almost get lost in what you are trying to accomplish, which is write a killer song!
I love the creative spirit but I think that if we let it get out of hand, we can become unproductive. There are just too many possibilities and with an infinite number of choices, it’s nearly impossible to make a decision.
In the end, our goal is to write amazing music and get it out as fast as possible. The best way to do this is so simple and, at first, may seem lame and counterintuitive, but don’t be deceived.
You Need to Limit yourself. Yeah I said it.
My rule of thumb for musical productivity is to limit your compositional ideas to two or three, only. That’s it! This practice has not only saved me time, it’s helped me write better songs. Try it out and you will see that you will create great music with more focus and clarity than before.
Using the 5 arrangement tools will add sophistication and dimension to your music. These key moments will propel the song forward and take your listener on a journey. The best part is that you’re recycling material you’ve already created when you were inspired. Just dig a little deeper with your arrangement strategy and you’ll be on your way to crafting a fantastic song that will stick with your audience.