Learning how to arrange a song is critical to it sounding . . . well, good.
Not only will it improve your songwriting skills, but it will help you grow as a musician in a number of ways as well.
It will improve your aural skills, allow you to communicate your ideas to your bandmates better, and teach you more about the instruments that make up your songs.
But to successfully learn how to arrange, you first need to learn the components that make up arrangement.
A Basic Overview of How Arrangement Works
Arrangement can cover multiple stages of a song’s life.
It can simply be the decision to a repeat a section when first creating the song, or as complex as adding an orchestra to your studio version years after.
What’s nice is the same components that work to create simple arrangements also work for more in-depth arrangements, and you’re probably already familiar with most.
Picking your tool of choice
This may seem obvious, but paying attention to the instruments that make up a song is one of the first steps in arranging.
First though, you need to decide which instrument will be your tool for arranging, and don’t worry - this instrument doesn’t have to be the main instrument you play.
The main three instruments most people arrange a song with are: piano, guitar, or computer.
The piano is most likely your best bet, as writing parts on the piano often translates to other instruments the easiest, and piano is more ingrained in western music compared to any other instrument.
Maybe you’re not a great pianist or guitarist though, and can’t translate what’s in your head with them.
This is why using a computer can be great, as it allows you to write and arrange parts on various instruments that may be above your playing level.
Deciding on a key
Knowing the key(s) your song is in, is important for a few reasons.
First, it allows your band members to have a better idea of what notes they should and shouldn’t play. But most importantly, knowing how to transpose your key to another key is a crucial component of arranging.
Most singers would say they have preferred keys which highlight their best tones and allow them to sing more comfortably.
It’s usually a smart move to change your key if your singer isn’t gelling with it.
Using dynamics to your advantage
Dynamics can mean both volume and climatic range, and is useful for creating tension and highlighting certain parts. A song with no dynamics is an easy way to have a boring and monotonous tune on your hands.
Working on a melody
Melody is often what gets a song stuck in your head.
If you’re happy with your melody, but the song feels off, try and mess with other factors first before changing your melody.
Melody and your song’s identity often go hand in hand.
A simple change in melody may completely change up how your song feels, and force you to radically change your arrangement to work with the new melody.
Understanding tempo and groove
Figuring out how to sit your instruments in with the drum groove is critical to having a natural sounding song.
When changing tempo, remember, too fast of a song can leave you and your song feeling fatigued, but too slow can leave your listeners bored and falling asleep.
Most song structures resemble something like: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, chorus, and outro.
This is typically called the pop standard. You’ll usually want to stick close to this formula and learn how to manipulate it while keeping the core the same.
If your transitions into sections are terrible, your brilliant section arrangements won’t make an impression.
Transitions can be simply be hitting a chord harder as it goes into the chorus or it can be an entirely new section of the song.
Critically Analyzing Your Song
It’s all about how you listen
Now let’s put those arrangement components to good use and get the most out of your song. Which, brings us to our first note: it’s all about listening to your song!
When we say that, we mean listening to the song and being critical of it. It’s listening for boring moments, for parts where there is too much going on, areas where the song falls apart, etc.
It’s things like respecting the instruments that are already there and highlighting their best moments before adding anything else.
Basically, you’re listening for ways to improve your song.
Arrangement can and will make you uncomfortable, folks. You’re purposely poking holes in your song, which often can feel like a child to you, but it is needed if you want to create something great.
And if the song comes out great, you won’t care that you tore it asunder before. Ok, back to the action.
First, ask yourself what your song means and represents to you, what do you want to get out of the song?
If your song’s main highlight is it’s emotional and sullen lyrics, you don’t want a barrage of sounds obscuring that.
This may mean that you need to temporarily pigeonhole yourself, ask what genre your song is in, and decide if you’re highlighting the genre’s best attributes.
You also need to find the balance between what you want, what your band members want, and what your audience wants. There is no right or wrong ratio.
If you’re creating music for yourself, that’s great, as well as creating music for the sake for others. Again, you’ll want to think of the genre you play in and what others do.
Once, you’ve got all that in mind, you can start figuring out what your song exactly needs.
Give your song a general once-through and listen to it as a whole. Jot down how the song made you feel, what stood out to you, etc.
Then listen to the song again, listening to the main instruments one at a time.
Say there is bass in your song, but you’re not the bass player, take the time and listen solely to that. Listen to how it transitions through sections, denote where it falls flat or sits back, etc. Understand the part as if you wrote it.
When to layer and when to give space
This is important, especially when you go into the studio.
When adding overdubs, you want to make sure they are playing up the best parts of the song.
Your guitar overdub might be really cool sounding, but if it’s taking away from the bass that’s driving and grooving your verse, you’re going to be in trouble.
Don’t be afraid to go all out, however. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
Try reinforcing your main melody with a harmony, try adding dynamics in new places, move around sections, etc.
But at the same time, you cannot be afraid to take parts away even if you love them – maybe it works better for another song, so think of it as saving a part for another day.
Knowing how to arrange a song live is equally as important, and often bands will change little things up.
A lot of this knowledge will come from paying attention to your audience and learning what they get more excited for.
But when playing live, you’re generally allowed to play with a little more . . . shall we say, embellishment, and less restraint.
Adding a solo can really get the crowd pumped just because it’s a solo and displays your technical abilities, which the audience can both hear and see, and that’s extremely important.
Your audience is more engaged when they are seeing your music as well as listening to it, so make sure your arrangements reflect that added dimension.
Extending a big outro live is also an advantage because you can keep the energy visually and aurally going.
However, those may translate poorly when in the studio and can leave your song sounding like it’s trying too hard and/or boring because it goes on too long.
5 Essential Tips
Listen to your song as if it’s not your own.
It sucks, we know, and we are hitting it over the head, but you need to listen to your song with a critical ear!
Often, when you’re arranging a song, it’s still fresh and sounds like the greatest thing in the world, so you’re afraid to touch it.
But remember, that honeymoon period will wear off, and you may find your now old song needs a lot of work.
Listen, listen, listen to the experts and professional musicians.
Sit down with a song you love and apply the same arrangement listening techniques you learned above. Find out why exactly you love the song.
Know how to communicate your ideas to your bandmates.
Knowing basic music theory like keys, scales, and time signatures will make the songwriting and arrangement process so much easier and will result in a better song.
The intro makes the first impression.
You’ve probably heard that people have worse attention spans than goldfish, and whether that’s indeed true doesn’t matter, because you know and we know that we suck at paying attention.
Time yourself whenever you listen to a new song and see how fast you make a decision about it.
You probably barely make it past the intro before you decide whether you like it or not.
Pay attention to your intro, if you plan to release the song as a single, you need to capture the audience’s attention fast. Longer and slower intros work better for non-single songs on your albums.
Lastly, let’s talk about clichés.
Personally, we think they’re called that for a reason because people are attracted to and like certain sounds.
Yeah, they may be overplayed but there is a reason we like 4/4 time signatures, perfect 5th harmonies, and a verse-chorus formula.
Our brains are wired to create and like certain patterns - this is what music theory is all about; because it describes why we create what we create.
Instead of writing them off, try to work with them and put your own spin on them.
I hope you have enjoyed this article!
If you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment below and we will get back to you.