Arranging a song is a key step in the production process. It is often either the songwriter or the producer or both who work out the arrangement (pre-recording). Sometimes there´s an actual arranger hired to do the job! This might be a member of the band, who takes care of it. With most indie pop music projects the ones who wrote the song will often also arrange it.
As a consequence, whoever wears the hat of the arranger has to make sure the musical storytelling is spot on! They will determine which instruments to bring in, where to increase energy levels and where to bring the excitement down.
There are essentially 5 things to keep in mind if you set out to arrange a song yourself. These are just some beginner´s tips, so we are merely covering the basics here and we will focus on popular (vocal) songs:
1) Understanding prosody
Prosody is a crucial concept every songwriter should respect! The idea is to have all elements of a song work towards the same goal. If the lyrics are set out to create suspense in a certain song section, so should the melody and the arrangement.
Paying attention to the song´s messages throughout all sections is extra important to make the right choices as an arranger. Listening to the main vocals will help a lot in understanding the emotions assigned to each song section. Based on those key emotions, you will determine the energy levels (e.g. half-time or double time feels, many instruments vs few instruments etc.), the volume levels and ultimately also the tonality, determining which instrumentation to apply.
2) Understanding storytelling principles
Aside from listening to the lyrics, it is wise to follow certain storytelling rules throughout the song. We have addressed this topic in depth before here and here.
Storytelling follows some universal structures. A lot of writers refer to the Hollywood Formula, which starts with a random setting and introduces a character, then in the next chapter, you learn more about the character, sometimes by learning about their past or their dreams. You see the character develop in a certain way. Then the first meaningful thing happens, that creates some excitement. Something to stir you up and feel for the hero/ine. This is followed by another chapter, which calms you down a bit, but keeps you invested. In a movie things then usually turn ugly or at least things go into an unexpected direction! Trouble in paradise! The hero/ine has to find a solution. Then usually another happy moment takes over and finally “the End”. You see, just like a movie, a song follows these tricks throughout its “verses, chorus, verses, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro” lifespan as well. Even if the lyrics aren´t necessarily built around a concrete storyline (but might be based in poetry), the music should work with these storytelling blocks. It keeps listeners engaged.
3) Always support the vocalist
This one is a golden rule my friends! The vocalist is the main star of the show! Yes, this can be disappointing to the other musicians on the project, but the human voice is the most “personal” and therefore connective element in the song! It´s the vocals that catch the listener´s attention and either resonate with them or not. Sadly 90 % of listeners don´t have very trained musical ears to pay attention to all other deatils going on in a song! They just listen to the overall theme. So, let´s honor the vocalist (like a salesperson) and make sure the vocals are always the centerpiece! All instruments should work towards holding the vocals up like a trophy throughout the song! Supporting them, not disturbing them!
4) Make room for each instrument
In order to make a song stand out, you will want each instrument to shine through! This not only refers to the mix, where you can determine where to pan certain instruments, or how to EQ them, but is also an essential part in the arrangement process. You will want to pay attention not to have various instruments play something specific in the same ranges. Instead, make sure all instruments sit in certain ranges, complementing each other. Think of the instruments like a choir. You will want sopranos, altos, tenors and bass. In other words: Do not let the piano overshadow the flute and vice versa. You get the idea. Changing chord voicing can often solve these issues.
5) Rule of thumb: Keep it simple
Beginners, feeling overhelmed and like a child in a sandpit, tend to overdo things in their first arrangement attempts. The rule of thumb really is to keep things simple! Check with every instrument or element you bring in, whether it is necessary to make the song transport its essence. If it doesn´t add value, you dont want it! Less is more! As so often in life! That said, also make sure to be consistent throughout your song and not go too wild! Yes, you want to add something or drop something along almost every section of the song (verses, chorus, verses, chorus, bridge etc) to vary the excitement levels, but you still want to stay true to the main ideas. E.g. you may want to add a bass once the second verse comes in, or drop out some guitars after the first chorus, to lower the energy for a while, so you can build it back up…but don´t confuse the listener too much! It´s all about balance. With that said, pay attention to keep your choruses rather homogenous. Those are the sing along sections, that listeners love to come for. Do not change them up too much! Maybe just change some chord voices in the last chorus or bring in extra backing vocals in the last chorus to make it extra big. Other than that, leave it to the singer to add variety throughout all choruses!
Bottom line: Like in songwriting, arrangers need to be careful not to overdo it!
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