How To Start Arranging

Sep 04, 2021

Arranging can be really overwhelming. How on earth do you get from that singer-songwriter style song with a basic guitar strum pattern all the way to a fully-arranged song?

How do you know what pieces you need?

Let’s simplify and break down this process.


Figure Out The Pieces You Have

Building an arrangement is like building a team. When you build a team, you need different members of the team to have different roles and strengths and you need the individual parts of the team to work together.

On a football team, the skills your quarterback needs is significantly different than the left tackle, which is significantly different than a pass rusher.

On a team at a sandwich shop, the skills your cashiers, dishwashers, and sandwich makers need are totally different.

In both these examples, the roles of each part are also totally different. The quarterback needs to throw the ball to his receivers. The left tackle needs to protect the quarterback so he has time to throw to his receivers. The pass rusher needs to do their best to prevent the quarterback from having enough time to throw to his receivers.

What happens when you have friendly, accurate, and efficient cashiers, but the sandwich makers are slow and often mess up the orders? What if the cashiers are friendly and efficient, but communicate the orders poorly to their sandwich makers? What if the sandwich makers make great sandwiches, but ignore what the cashiers say about the changes to the order?

A team is not the sum of its parts. And your arrangement isn’t either.

You need to figure out what pieces you already have for your song. Maybe you have your melody and a piano part you feel should be the featured instrument. 

Maybe you have two different guitar parts that work together to make the body of your song.

You might have an acoustic guitar part that you feel is best utilized filling out the background of the song.

The first step is figuring out the pieces you have.


Figure Out The Pieces Your Song Needs

What is your song? Is it going to be a song with many layers of instruments, creating a wall of sound? Will it have a low-key arrangement with your vocal carrying the show? Is it an intimate acoustic piece? 

You can’t create your arrangement without understanding what your arrangement “team” needs.

Think about it, if you’re creating a doubles tennis team, football team, swim team, or chess team, you probably are looking for significantly different pieces. 

A 320 pound, athletic strong man would probably make a great left tackle. But he might not even remember how a knight moves in chess and probably wouldn’t make a great tennis player. 

Similarly, a strong acoustic guitar part might be great for adding to the body of your song, but might not be memorable enough to be featured at the forefront of the mixA great lead guitar part might not be a great substitute for piano. A harmonica melody being the main hook in a hard rock song might not be great.

If you’re trying to make a very intimate song that feels like you just sat on the bed next to your friend, grabbed your guitar, and started singing, an electric bass may be a poor choice. Strings, on the other hand, may be a great choice for that feel. Maybe the song is best left as an acoustic guitar and vocals.

On the other side, if you’re creating a face-melting, massive rock song, going with acoustic guitar for the lead guitar may be a horrible mistake. 

Are you trying to create a song with many layers making up a wall of sound? Do you want the song to feel as if an army is creating it? Or are you trying to create a song that is as intimate as a tender kiss on the forehead of the listener? 

If you want a wall of sound, it may be appropriate to have 2 different guitars playing power chords, 2 more guitars doing leads, a few more guitars filling in the gaps with some arpeggios, and even more guitars drenched in reverb to create a background soundscape. You’ll almost definitely want drums and bass too. 

Then, depending on the sound you want to go for, it may be good to add a piano. Or maybe flute would be more fitting. Maybe even infusing your song with synths could be the right choice to give the song a more refined, modern, or robotic side.

If you want an intimate song, it may be best to restrict your instruments to as few as possible. Choosing acoustic bass or cello may be better than an electric bass. 

Your song may need more synths. It might need to avoid synths completely for a more raw sound. Or maybe it needs to use synths exclusively. 

I can’t answer what is right for all songs. You need to know and understand your song. You need to realize what kind of team you’re building. Only then can you build your arrangement.

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