Pro Audio Files

Arrangement 101

Before getting into the meaning of arrangement, I want to take a moment to stress the importance of arrangement. Arrangement ultimately bridges the gap between the composition and the mix. Give that a moment to resonate, and I will clarify.

Arrangement refers to the organization of any aspect of a song. A song can be organized in many different ways and still be essentially the same song. The arrangement is simply the way in which the song is delivered.

While there are many different ways of thinking about arrangement, for this article I’m going to talk about three in specific: harmonic arrangement, structural arrangement, and the progression.

Harmonic Arrangement

The harmonic arrangement is the organization of instruments and their melodic or harmonic roles. The idea is to construct a sonic image using the natural timbre of sounds in the song. For example, do you have a flute playing a part, or a guitar? Which voicings do different instruments take, and what effect will that have on the listener? This is entirely the producer’s or arranger’s choice – and there aren’t really “rights” or “wrongs”, but here are some ideas:

Harmonically dense sounds such as accordions, organs, string ensembles, etc, take up a lot of sonic space. Two easy ways of making these harmonically rich sounds work well is to:

  1. Have them doing simple parts that coincide with the main melodic movement. This is a good way to add fullness to the sound, and to vary the progression. For example, you can have your main theme and bass playing during the first part of the verse, and have a string ensemble doing something simple and basic come in during the second part of the verse. This keeps the energy building throughout the verse without actually causing dramatic changes.
  2. Have them take over as the main focus with few other harmonic parts at the same time. Having an accordian front and center is going to eat up a lot of sonic space. To retain clarity, you can make this element focal, and keep everything else sparse. Between a string ensemble, a bass, rhythmic elements and vocals, your mix won’t feel sparse at all.

Contrary to these ideas, you could go for the “Wall of Sound” idea, where you move tons of dense harmonic parts and mush them all together, then stuff them way behind your lead elements. This creates an extremely dense sonic pallet, but it comes with the cost of instrument clarity.

When the harmonic arrangement is not well thought out, the mixer is often tied down to using a lot EQ in order to allow the instruments to be heard correctly.

Harmonically open sounds such as flutes, clarinets, sine wave synths, or even the middle timbre instruments like trumpets and pianos function differently. You can create more elaborate counterpoints – but keep in mind these two ideas.

  1. Separation. Put things in their unique pitch ranges – if you have a counterpoint working in the same range of notes, you lose the clarity not just of the instruments, but of the harmonic lines as well. Separate the notes in range more and suddenly you have multiple dynamic harmonic lines that can be introduced or taken away through the course of the song to add dimension and development to the progression. The mix benefit here is that you won’t need much in the way of EQ to make these elements work together, if any.
  2. Layering. You can always assign multiple instruments to the exact same role, creating a hybrid-timbral instrument. One of my favorite tricks is to double a rhythm guitar line with a cello. The harmonics are potent – stronger than simply layering up guitars (in my opinion). The trick in the mix is to make the separate layers blend, as opposed to trying to create separation.

Structural Arrangement

The structural arrangement is the order in which different sections occur, and how they feel comparatively. Structural arrangements rely on the idea of sections. Sections are thematically independent parts of a song that still relate to the other sections. Common sections are:

Intros – Brings the song up from non-existence.
Reprise/Chorus  –  This is the repeating part of the song. It is usually also the most defining part of the song.
Hook – A hook is the part of the song that is used to stick in the listener’s head. The reprise is almost always the hook, but there can be multiple hooks in one song.
Pre-Chorus – the pre chorus comes right before the reprise/chorus. It’s used as a transitional segment that builds the tension before the chorus begins. A well designed pre-chorus is often the difference between a pro song writer and a novice song writer.
Verse – The verse is the counter section to the reprise. It’s a place to explore and develop the song ideas that ultimately culminate in the reprise, with more allowance for variation and development.
Bridge – A bridge is a transitional segment that brings one section into another. While technically a pre-chorus is a bridge, often a bridge is thought of as a piece that bonds two similar sections together. In other words, a pre-chorus brings the verse to the chorus. A bridge may bring that chorus to another chorus, or a verse to another verse. It’s a way to rejuvenate life into a repeating section.
Outros – Brings the song into non-existence.

Structural arrangements are part feel and part science. Often times, songs aren’t written linearly – we get an idea for a part and then decide it works great as a verse or a chorus. Then we come up with another part that in some way compliments the first, and that becomes our other main section. Then we have to decide how the energy feels between the two. Do they connect perfectly or does there need to be some kind of bridge? Can the song just jump in with one of the parts, or does there need to be an intro?

Progression

If structure is the macro arrangement of the song, the progression is the moment to moment arrangement. This refers to the variation within a section – the bringing in and out of different instruments, large cadences, or moments where the instruments all drop out entirely adding excitement and providing “forward movement.”

In a song, there has to be some kind of energy dynamic or everything just sounds like one endless section. Often times the verses are more open and less energized musically than the reprise/chorus – so in order to keep the energy alive, we need a different type of energy. Instead of harmonic energy, we look at dynamic energy – the change of events from moment to moment – the temporal factor. If you listen closely to any good song you’ll notice every moment has some uniqueness to it. Often times it’s subtle, and in the performance. But equally as often, it’s small changes to the melody, the harmonies, the instruments, the rhythm. The idea is to have things sounding the same, but without sounding repetitive.

Conclusion

A well-thought arrangement will yield a song that never gets stale, and practically mixes itself. This allows for the whole of the production process to yield less compromising and more creative thinking. So don’t forget to think of your timbres, progression, and structure when putting together your next song.

 

Share your own arrangement tips in the comments!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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  • Hakim Callier

    Matthew,

    This statement really speaks volumes,

    “A well-thought arrangement will yield a song that never gets stale, and practically mixes itself.”

    I recently mentioned this in a thread on The Womb. Where there were two factors that great improved the speed and ease of my mixes.

    The first, as you stated a good arrangement. It makes a mixers job so much easier.

    And secondly, that analog summing greatly effects the amount of processing that makes a mix sound done.

    As for what I might do with a bad arrangement as a mixer, the first thing I reach for is the MUTE button (seriously). Then I’ll look to EQ and panning for a little contrast to help open up the mix.

    -Hakim

    • The mute button is certainly an option – but I highly caution it’s use. Someone put that element in there for a reason (on occasion people would add things to an arrangement but aren’t sure if they want to keep it, but generally not). Figuring out what an element is doing – why it’s there in the first place I think is the key to sussing out a problematic arrangement. Textural stuff like white noise swells for example can eat a mix alive – but aren’t usually meant to be up in volume. They fit fine even in a busy arrangement if they are tucked in the back.

  • Gordon Li

    I believe in minimal arrangements – creating ‘good’ music with the least amount of lines. The perspective I have on arranging is being able to achieve the goals of creating harmony, instrumental hooks (riffs), head-nodding groove, and creating the intended track colour (tone colour) all with the least amount of lines.

    For me, one line should contribute to more than one of these goals mentioned eg. I would not generally use a pad (unless it would contribute to my track colour or I needed one to increase the energy level) because that would only lay out harmony. I would PREFER to be able to use a bass because I can use that to create a hook, harmony and groove.

    Other benefits of using less lines of music would be to clear up space for the vocals (the most key instrument), allow everything to be heard more CLEARLY, not needing to thin out everything as much in the mix (debatable) and I guess less mixing.

    Please note that I only started considering producing top 40-style music today, and started self-learning mixing a week ago. These are only my opinions etc.
    That being said, this is the only way I would go about arranging …if I had time 🙁 🙁

  • Ashu Bharmaik

    very informative

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