The Golden Rule of ArrangingSep 04, 2021
Even when you get the hang of songwriting, arranging can be overwhelming. It’s a whole different beast. Now you need to take your vocal and guitar piece and turn it into a full performance with a bunch of different parts.
The good news is that you can get 80% of the way there with what I consider the golden rule of arranging.
Everything has its place.
There are 3 main parts to this concept, and we’re going to dive into each.
Fill the Pitch Spectrum
Think about your calendar schedule. You don’t schedule multiple meetings or events for the same time, do you?
Probably not. You’re going to put one meeting at 9, one at 11, the next at 1, and then your last meeting at 3. If you don’t have work meetings, you still won’t schedule visiting your mom and hanging out with your friends at the same time, right?
The same idea applies to an arrangement. You don’t want all of the instruments to be within an octave of middle C (highlighted). You don’t want too much in the bass.
Everything needs its space.
Your bass and kick drum are going to sit somewhere in the 1st and 2nd octaves. Then all your guitar power chords, acoustic guitar, piano, and snare will likely be sitting in or near the 3rd-5th octaves.
So why would you put your all your other parts in that midrange too?
There’s already a ton going on there! But the 6th-8th octaves are certainly available.
It may also be a good idea to adjust where your piano is. Maybe move the piano up or down an octave if it is sharing the same octave as your guitar parts.
You also could move the power chords up an octave or a different style of chord to make the electric guitars higher than you currently have them.
Just be conscious that you shouldn’t have too much going on all in the same pitch space. As a rule of thumb, try to limit yourself to 4 instrument parts in the same space.
If you have guitar power chords, piano and acoustic guitar all in the same space, consider having your lead guitars be an octave or two above.
If your piano, lead guitars and acoustic are all in the same space, try moving one of them up or down an octave.
Give Parts Different Styles and Rhythms
Let’s say you’re at a party with 10 people you don’t really know. If they all have the same interests, personality, and appearance, are you going to find any of them memorable?
But you know what you’d remember? The gluten-free guy who keeps insisting that the gluten free bread he makes is delicious, the quiet girl who enjoys discussing music, the car enthusiast who insists on showing you his car, and the pretentious hipster who makes sure everyone knows he only likes stuff that’s too boring for anyone else to like.
Yeah, you’re gonna remember them. Especially after that one guy makes you try his gluten-free bread.
So, wouldn’t you agree that having parts that sound different and unique from each other helps to make a more interesting arrangement?
Can you imagine if every note of every instrument in your song was held for the exact same amount of time?
You probably just yawned thinking about it. Or maybe you yawned because you’re bored reading this. In which case, send that hate mail to [email protected]. And then let me know who that is, I’m quite curious.
Mixing up staccato and legato parts, syncopated and on-beat parts, and long notes with short notes are great ways to do this.
If you have power chords that hold for the whole measure, adding another guitar part that is a syncopated lead melody and another that is on-beat quarter notes can really start to fill in the mix and help each one have it’s own space.
If the piano is playing a certain rhythm, have the acoustic guitar do a different one.
Be Intentional About Giving Each Part a Job
Can you imagine if a movie had 6 main characters?
That would be a bigger mess than…. Pretty much every DC movie.
Side characters are important. They add interesting aspects to a movie without dominating the spotlight. This allows the stars of your show to shine and the movie to be great. The side characters give the main characters space.
Your arrangement needs to be the same.
You shouldn’t have 5 lead guitars and a vocal melody at the same time. You probably shouldn’t be trying to get your piano, acoustic guitar, and electric guitars all to be the star.
They’ll squabble, complain about how they aren’t paid enough, and start getting petty. We can’t have that. Acoustic guitar already has an inferiority complex.
It’s like a football team. A quarterback needs to be great at passing. How good he is as catching is almost completely irrelevant. A wide receiver needs speed, but your linemen need to be huge and don’t need as much speed.
This is the same with your mix. What your power chords and violin part need to be good at is totally different. What you need from your piano and from your drums are completely different.
To think through arranging, I have 3 main categories for pieces of the arrangement.
The body is the main stuff. This is what you definitely would play live with a 4-6 piece band.
Think of the body as all the parts that come together to really make the song what it is.
The first part of the body is what I call the main instrument. This is often the instrument you wrote the song with. If you wrote it with your acoustic guitar, that’s probably the main instrument. If you wrote it at the piano, that’s probably the main instrument.
When in doubt, the main instrument is usually the instrument you would play as you sang if you were to do the song solo. Would you play the piano and sing? Piano is your main.
Sometimes you have a couple instruments together making up your main. This is most common with rock songs where you have separate guitar parts that are crucial to the song.
Besides your main instrument, the body will also likely contain the bass and drums. The rest of the body will likely depend on your genre.
If you’re writing music that would loosely fit into the rock category, your electric guitar power chords are likely a part of the body.
If you’re doing electronic music, the main synth chords are likely a part of the body.
Leads are basically any melodic instrumental part. Any time you have a prevalent melody played by an instrument, it’s a lead.
A good way to figure out whether a part is a lead or not would be asking if this seems like a part someone might hum along with.
If it’s an instrumental part that you think people would hum along with, it’s a lead.
Don’t let the name fool you, filler is very important.
Can you imagine your favorite action flick with no bad guys for your hero to beat up on? Pretty boring, no?
To me, the main tip off that an artist or band is still small is the lack of filler instruments. They often have rock songs with just their main drums, bass, guitars and vocals and that’s it. Sure, they’ll have lead guitars, but it still feels empty.
That’s because they don’t have any filler parts.
And filler is super simple! It’s just meant to fill in the mix, so simple repeated quarter notes, basic arpeggios, and other simplistic parts are perfect.
These parts won’t stick out, and that’s fine. It isn’t their job. Their job is to fill in the space and create a full sounding mix.
Lastly, an important subcategory of filler parts is what I call atmospheres. These are often similar to filler parts, but have a ton of reverb (echo). This sort of makes a bed for the rest of the song to lay on. It gives a background atmosphere for the song.
I hope you make great use of these 3 parts of the golden rule of arranging! If any of these things helped you, tell us in a comment below!
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