5 Important Questions When Arranging

Sep 04, 2021

Arranging can be overwhelming. You wrote a song with your guitar and your voice, and now you need to make a full arrangement out of it? Where do you start? What is important to think about?

In this post, we’re going over the 5 important questions to ask yourself when arranging.


Why is this Instrument the Right Choice?

A harmonica and flute playing the same part will have a very different feel.

A piano ballad and guitar ballad sound fundamentally different.

It’s important to be intentional about your instrumentation. Don’t just throw instruments in without thinking of WHY it is you are choosing the instrument for that part.

The feel of your song isn’t just determined by the lyrics, chords, and melody. The instruments you use to fill the song are imperative to the tone and feel.

When you write a new part, should it be acoustic guitar or electric? Or should it be a synth or violin? Do you want a full drum kit, or will a cajon part do?


What is the Job of this Part?

Every part has a job. Not every part can or should be the star.

Some parts may be very important, but aren’t flashy and most people won’t even notice them.

Like the offensive line of the song. Everyone’s watching the quarterback, the ground and pound running back, and diva wide receivers. Who’s watching the offensive tackle? Answer: only other former or current offensive tackles. Maybe not even them.

For another example, it’s like when a movie has a ton of big-name stars in it. Often it doesn’t make it better, it just results in less screen time for each star. It results in them all shining less. And, often, this is the sign of a terrible movie trying to get people in the door with star-power.

The star of your song is probably primarily the vocal. Some random filler synth to thicken up the chorus, that acoustic guitar that sits in the background of the 3rd verse, and (let’s be honest) the bass guitar are just not meant to be the stars.

This doesn’t make them unimportant. They just have a job to do, and it isn’t to be the star. That doesn’t make their job any less important.


Where does this Part Fit into the Arrangement?

Every part has its place.

And it needs to be in its own place, not another part’s place.

Think of it like a puzzle.

Well, 4 puzzles. The first puzzle is the distance puzzle. This is about whether it is a lead part (close up, in the foreground) or a filler in the background, as well as everything in between. As I said in the previous section, not every part can or should be trying to be the star.

The next puzzle is the pitch puzzle. You don’t want all the parts of your arrangement to be in the same couple octaves. The parts will clash, making it harder to sound good in a recording.

I generally like to map out what octaves different parts tend to reside in. I use this to be sure there is good representation from several different pitch ranges.

This helps to fill in the arrangement without getting overly muddy or clashing.

Next, we have the rhythm puzzle. Like the pitch puzzle concept, you don’t want every part occupying the same rhythmic space. If one part is a chord held over the entire measure, you don’t want every other part to do that too.

You probably want one that plays a syncopated rhythm and another that may be a pad synth that has no rhythm at all. A part that plays quarter notes on the down beat will be a change up from something playing a syncopated part and something else playing only every measure.

You generally want your parts to fill in gaps, not spaces that already are very busy.

Lastly, we have the energy puzzle. This puzzle is related to, but not quite the same as the rhythm puzzle. While the rhythm puzzle is primarily concerned with where the transients (beginning and most loud part of notes) are, the energy puzzle is concerned with the level of “energy” of a part.

The “energy” of an electric guitar playing rapid 16th notes, growing louder and louder vs a piano playing a laid back melody is strikingly different. We generally don’t want all our parts being at 100% energy all the time, and we also don’t want all our parts being equally laid back all the time.

Layering different energy levels can help keep a song interesting. This can be done by changing how a part is played for certain sections, taking away and adding in parts at certain points in the song, and just being cognizant of filling in the different “energy gaps”.

If all the electric guitar parts are driving the song forward with high-energy staccato parts, maybe the job of the violin is to give a legato melody to hold the song together.

This concept leads directly into the next important arrangement question.


When Should Each Part Come In?

The easy answer is usually you want something new to happen in the song every 4 measures or so. Obviously this is far from a hard and fast rule, but if the song just doesn’t quite hold the listener’s attention, thinking through how often you change something up to interest the listener can be helpful.

This doesn’t mean an entirely new part should come in every 4 measures. Nor does it mean one needs to either come in or go. It just means that SOMETHING should change. Maybe this is changing the part the instrument is playing. Maybe it is by adding a bit more drive to it, or relaxing the part to something more laid back.

But something has to change to keep the interest of the listener. The song shouldn’t stay stagnant like a small pond. It should be a river, with new and exciting things coming with each passing second. Never quite the same, even if it is overall familiar.


When Do I Know When To Stop?

This is an important, if often-ignored question. “Too much” is a real thing. “Too little” is also a real thing.

A lot of this will depend on the feel of your song. Some songs may be fine with a vocalist and guitar all by themselves. Others demand 10 layers of electric guitar alone, much less the drums, synth, piano, strings, and bass.

But, when the song feels right, can hold someone’s attention from beginning to end, and both delivers and dials back when it should, that is when it is time to stop.

That’s when you’ve successfully arranged your song.

Which question has been most helpful to your arranging though process? Let us know in the comments below!

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