How To Improve Your Music Arrangement Skills.

What to expect?

A great arrangement is essential when it comes to composing songs or producing beats. It can make your tracks more exciting and maybe encourages your musical audience to listen to your songs longer. In this article, I want to give you an overview of what music theory in general tells you about arranging songs and I will give you some useful tips on how you could improve your existing arrangement skills. Hope that you will like it!

Table of Contents

  1. What does music theory say about arranging songs?
  2. Musical Tools for your Song Arrangement
  3. General Tips for a great Song Arrangement
  4. Conclusion

What does music theory say about Arranging Songs?

Before we will dive into some practical ways for improving your existing arrangement skills, I want to give you a general overview over some relevant topics, that will help you to get a deeper understanding of what defines a great arrangement.

First of all, I want to define the term „arrangement“. Vince Corozine, who has written an entire book about this topic, describes it as a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It is the art of creating some variety for your existing song structure with the help of different compositional techniques.

On the musical side, you have several ways to add some variations to your tracks. But before we can dive into that, we need to understand what the key elements of a song are:

  • Theme: Whether you are listening to classical-, jazz-, pop- or hip hop music, you will always recognize some kind of musical theme that represents the foundation of the song. Usually, this is a recognizable melody that will stick in your head.
  • Introduction: The Introduction takes part at the beginning of a song. It is defined as a small part that introduces upcoming parts such as the lyrics or the theme and is built around different melodic, harmonic or rhythmic material related to the main body of the musical creation.
  • Transition: Transitions are small sections of a song with the only purpose to link one section of music to another. 
  • Modulation: A modulation represents a musical change from one tonality to another. When using them in your productions, it doesn’t matter if you are changing the key signature of your song or if you don’t. If you want to know more about different keys or scales, feel free to check out my article about creating some interesting chord progressions as well.
  • Ending: The ending is also known as the outro of a song. In music it’s the only purpose is to finish the piece in a dramaturgical way. 

These elements represent the foundation of a song from any genre and can be found in any piece of music. If you transfer that to a simple hip hop beat structure, you would normally have a 4-8 Bars long Intro, followed up by a hook that represents the theme (it’s usually 8 Bars long), a 16 Bars Verse, the hook and the vers again and finally an 4 Bars long outro. To add some excitement, you would normally place a transition before and after each hook and in some parts of the verses. Another great way could be to treat use different mudolations in the different parts, so that the sng continously sounds interesting. This is just a simple example and you should always remember, that you can vary this to your own taste. To help you understanding this better, I added a simple graphic that represents a simple song arrangement chart of what you just read:

Simple Hip Hop Song Arrangement Chart

Musical Tools for your Song Arrangement

Another thing that is essential to know about any song arrangement is that you have several design tools to create some variations within your song. These are: instrumentation, melody, harmonics, rhythm, metrics, tempo, phrasing or articulation. In the following sections, I will try to explain each element and give you some creative ideas that you could possibly apply to your next production.

Instrumentation

Definition: If you are wondering about how to write a song, the first question that you should probably ask yourself is which instruments you will use to express the emotions that you want to transfer into music. Whether it’s a Piano, Synth, Brass Instrument… I would recommend you to treat every Project as a set that could be played by a live band or an orchestra.

Creative Techniques:

  • Try to emulate the instrumentation of a popular jazz bands or even a whole orchestra. 
  • Add some excitement by simply adding and temporarily leaving out some instruments.
  • Decide which instrument plays the theme and which instruments are just there for adding some atmosphere to your track
  • Layer your sounds in different parts.

Melody

Definition: A melody is usually a simple musical sequence, that catches the attention of the listener and is usually the most recognizable part of a song. Creating a smooth melody can really make song stick in the ear of you audience and plays a huge role in the whole song structure of your productions.

Creative Techniques:

  • If you are creating a song and you want to create a smooth melody, try to hum it first and try to replay it with your midi keyboard. The ideas that are stuck in your head are usually the best ones.
  • Try to learn different melodies and take that as a part of inspiration for your next projects
  • Try to improvise using the tones of different scales that fit within the key of your song
  • Have a look at the contour of your melody. This represents the shape of the line that your melody would draw as is moves up and down. By creating some interesting contour-variations, you can come up with some pretty interesting melody lines that could make your song more exciting.

Harmonics

Definition: Harmonics represent overtones, that are built on the fundamentl tones of your existing chord progressions. When you are playing a simple C-Major Chord,  the Key of C would represent your fundament and the keys E and G the added harmonics, for this specific chord. 

Creative Techniques:

  • Try to add some excitement by chaning the harmonics with the use of different chord inversions
  • Try to add some harmonics by playing the same notes of a chord inversion with different instruments
  • Try to add some harmonics to your melody by playing the notes in two different octaves at the same time

Rhythm

Definition: The Rhythm of a song is usually defined by the drums of your production. While classical music mostly creates some excitement with the change of some musical elements like the instrumentation or melodics, modern genres like Hip Hop or Pop music are defined by its rhythm. While this is (for almost every modern genre) one of the most important elements of a song, you are having lots of different options to experiment with.

Creative Techniques:

  • Add some percussive elements in different parts of your song
  • Add some rhythmic breaks to create some exciting transitions 
  • Change the rhythm of your drum pattern in different parts of your song 
  • Mute your drums in different parts of your song and drop it back in
  • Mute your drums and use the silence as a transition to another part
  • Use lots of variations within your existing patterns to make your production feel like it’s played by a live drummer
  • leave out several sounds in different parts
  • Add some rhytmical changes to melodic intruments like a piano or a guitar

Metrics

Definition: In music, the metrics represent some patterns, that occur regularly throughout your composition. They are an important part of the rhythm and represent the emphasis on the individual beats. There exist lots of different systems in the world, that could help you to organize and play metrical music. Some examples are African, Indian, Arabian or Western music.

Creative Techniques:

  • Try to learn different metric systems to expand your knowledge and have a variety of different options to choose from
  • Try to add different metrics throughout your song and experiment with different changes

Phrasing

Definition: Phrasing describes the way of how a musician shapes a specific sequence of notes. You can think of it like speaking: the written word is always the same, but the meaning of a sentence can vary depending on the pronunciation. A musician usually accomplishes this by interpreting a specific piece from memory or sheet music, by altering the tone, tempo, dynamics articulation, inflection and other characteristics.

Creative Techniques:

  • Try to play a melody in alternative keys to create some different moods
  • If you use different instruments with different playing styles, you can create some interesting variations without even changing the main theme of a track
  • You can vary the tempo of your track by simply automating the Bpm Parameter of your DAW
  • You could easily create some interesting emotions, by altering the velocity levels of your instruments throughout your track

Articulation

Definition: Articulation is another fundamental musical parameter. It basically describes how a single note or some other discrete event is sounded. Usually, this is defined by the length of a sound and also by the shape of its attack and decay, but could also be modified by its timber, dynamics and pitch. When you are doing sound design with a synthesizer, you will usually have the option to tweak all different kinds of articulations from the ground up.

Creative Techniques:

  • Try to automate different parameters of a VST to create some excitement
  • Articulation could also be perceived as how “heavy” an instrument sounds to the listener. While a flute is an instrument with a long decay, and often sounds very light, a bass drum is pretty much the opposite, because it usually has a short decay and is perceived as a heavy sound. Try to think about what you want to achieve in a section of a song. If you want to support the chords of a vers for example, you would probably go best by adding a light instrument like a guitar.
  • Try to alternate the parameters of a VST in different parts of a song.

General Tips For Creating A Great Song Arrangement

After I have covered several theoretical parts about what music theory is telling us about arranging songs and listed some creative techniques for the musical tools listed above, I also want to give you some general tips that I have found pretty useful throughout the years.

  • Try to line up your beats to an acapella that sounds cool to your song idea and take that as a blueprint for your arrangement.
  • Pretty obvious, but very important: listen to music – A LOT! Try to analyze songs that you like and identify how the artists created some musical excitement in their songs. 
  • When you are stuck with the arrangement of a song, taking a reference track that sounds similar to your work can help a lot. 
  • Digital Streaming Services like Spotify etc. have changed the way of how we listen to music. We have access to billions of songs by simply turning on our smartphones. This also means, that our attention spans are way shorter, than they used to be several years ago. Try to make things interesting and add some variations to at least every 4-8 Bars. 
  • Try to play live regularly and work together with other musicians. This can help you to get a better feeling for music in general and will give you some valuable input for your own projects
  • Creating excitement in an arrangement doesn’t always mean that you have to make some musical changes in your tracks. You could also achieve this by applying some production techniques and adding some FX and automations in different parts of your song. 
  • Keep your project organized. Nearly every DAW has the option to add some time markers. This will help you to get a visual representation of your song idea and really helps you to focus on your tasks.
  • If you don’t like what you have created, close the project and work on another one or listen to it the next day. Listening to your song with some “fresh ears” can give you another perspective and really can help you to find some great ideas for your song arrangement.

Conclusion

A great idea is nothing without a good arrangement! Because our attention spans have grown so short, it is even more important to create some exciting changes in your songs to keep your listeners engaged. Besides taking an acapella as a simple song writing template or playing with the use of different FX, you’ll also have the option to experiment with the different musical designing tools listed above. Because this topic is huge, I am sure that there are some other helpful tips, that could help you improving your existing arrangement skills. If you have anything to add, I would be pretty happy if you could write it down in the comments section below. Hope that this article was helpful for you – One <3!

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