Arranging is one of those mystery topics within the music world, where we hear about it all the time, but only a few people really know what it is or why is it so important. Especially today it is a super relevant skill, because we have a surplus of singer/songwriters and producers out there, but arranging is usually a skill that both lack. For this reason, I want to shed some light about what arranging is and why is it so important.
So what exactly is arranging then? In a nutshell, arranging is the next step after writing melody, chords and lyrics of your song. It is the whole process where you decide how fast you want your song to be, and which instruments do you want to be there. This is easier said than done, so in this blog post, I would like to give some handy tips for arranging your songs for the first time.
1) Pick out a tempo that you are comfortable with. When you’re picking the tempo of your song, don’t rush it, and also don’t make it too slow. Pick a tempo that yourself can play on an instrument comfortably. If it’s too fast to play for you, chances are it is too fast for your musicians to play or for your vocalist to sing. However, don’t make it too slow that’s gonna put people to sleep as well. Find the sweet spot in between.
2) Pick a style and groove that works. If you have a rock sounding song, then the groove should be based on a rock groove. Similarly, if you have an R&B sounding song, then picking an R&B groove would help get a solid bass and drum foundation to you song. You can check out this previous blog post to learn what are some grooves in detail.
3) Pick the right instruments. This one is probably the craftiest and the most complicated part of arranging. Picking the right instruments can really make or break a song.
A fantastic example of picking the right instruments is ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is a nicely written rock song, but two instrument choices really take it to the next level.
The first one is the guiro, which is a Latin American percussion typically found in Cuban music. The use of Guiro really adds a nice flavor to the guitar-bass-drums-vocals rock sound of the song. The second instrument being used are the female vocals, which bring a wonderful contrast to the masculine rock sound. The arrangement of ‘Gimme Shelter’ has been since copied, because it has a very specific color and without these instrument choices it certainly wouldn’t be the signature classic rock song that it is today.
4) Creating space with the arrangement. One of the best ways to keep a song interesting and catchy is to control the distribution of instruments throughout the song. For instance, rock ballads usually start with just guitar (or piano) and vocal. Then somewhere in the chorus, or after the chorus, bass and drums join them, creating a full on classic rock ballad sound. In dance music, we can hear kick and snare at intros, and then hi-hat comes later in choruses. Whichever the style of the song might be, the rule is same: The idea is to create dynamics in the song by adding and eliminating throughout the linear course of the song. Not every instrument have to be playing at all times.
5) Pick the right range for the right instrument. Range is a crucial topic if you especially are working with strings, woodwind or brass sections, as instruments in these areas tend to have specific ranges. This means they can only play certain notes, and you should at least have an idea if you especially plan to use an instrument within these groups. For instance, you can’t expect a violin to play a cello part, because violin has a higher register. Or a clarinet can not be expected to play a trombone part, for the same reason. Knowing your ranges will help you save time and money in the studio or concerts, as you will know that your players can play the parts you wrote for them.
So these are the five tips to get you started with arranging your songs for a band. Just like songwriting or producing, arranging is also a skill that you develop with more experience, but these rules of thumb should keep you on the track for the most part. So get started with arranging your songs and have fun while making the next big track!
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Alper Tuzcu is a Berklee College of Music and Denison University alumni, and a Boston based guitarist, songwriter and producer. His new album ‘Aurora’ was released on October 19, 2018 and his debut eclectic album ‘Between 12 Waters’ featuring 8 different vocalists is available on Spotify. In addition to being a musician, he regularly teaches workshops and masterclasses internationally. You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter, and for more information you can visit his website www.alpertuzcu.com