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Tips for Arranging Instrumental Music

Dan has been a musician since 1993 and has been producing music as a hobby since 2016.

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Arranging music is just as much of an art form as writing melodies. When the various parts of a song are written and combined into a composition, it is said to be arranged. Arrangements for digitally distributed music are typically done in DAW or digital audio workstation software, before being published.

Those who arrange music  —  typically the composers who write the individual parts, desire an audience  —  at least to some degree. Most of the music people listen to is arranged using certain conventions, whether the music has lyrics or not. Therefore, if the composer desires a relatively large following, music should be arranged with some key concepts in mind.

Arrangement Preparations

It should be understood that arranging music with the potential for a large following requires an understanding of how to construct interesting melodies and harmonic accompaniment — that is unless the arranger is using content written by other composers.

EDM music arrangers, for example, often incorporate melodies they themselves did not write. Unless coherent melodies and harmonic structures are used (with certain exceptions), it will be difficult for an arrangement to keep a listener's attention.

Envisioning Melody

Imagine an arrangement and sound you would like to achieve. It helps by listening to instrumental music already written and published  —  to get some ideas. If the goal sought is high-quality sound, start by carefully recording or choosing samples for the arrangement.

If a song is composed of a rhythm and lead guitar only, for example, it will help with clarity by separating them by one octave — by doing so, muddiness and clashing of frequencies will be reduced. Not all parts of a song mesh well together in an arrangement. Choosing and recording samples carefully is key to a clear and high-quality sound — a topic for another article, actually.

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Arrangement Definition

The busier any section of music is, the more difficult it is to represent individual instruments with clarity. The different parts of a song can be recorded with an arrangement already in mind, or they can be recorded with an experimental mindset. Some composers arrange music after the parts have already been recorded. In either case, mindful arrangement helps with clarity.

After melodies and harmonic content are written and recorded, it’s time to start placing them in the arrangement. One approach for arranging instrumentals is to think in a small-to-big mindset. Start with relative simplicity, build up to a climax, and bring it back down to an outro.

Not all melodies are created equal with regard to drama. Inserting a less dramatic melody into the introduction  —  and building on it  —  is a good way to move a song toward its climax. If too much melodic information is given too soon, there won’t be much excitement left at one or two minutes into the song.

Building up to a climax or chorus and repeating, however, is not the only way to arrange music. Another type of arrangement, referred to as through-music, is an acceptable concept. With this type of arrangement, there is no verse, chorus, or repetition in general  —  Bohemian Rhapsody written by the artist Queen, for example, is arranged this way.

Ideas in Music Arrangement

Bringing accompanying percussion in gradually can help to achieve a climax-building effect. At any point in the arrangement, adding effects that have not been played previously — especially in subsequent instances of the chorus (which can be the climax), can generate interest. For the outro of a song, using a modified version of the introduction melody is sometimes done — effects can be added as well, such as a delay or flange, to give it a different vibe or feel.

The Big Picture

When it comes to arranging music, it’s all about art. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. However, there is an inescapable element in that experimental  —  less familiar  music — is generally harder to sell.

Songs at the top of the charts tend to be arranged with traditional rock-n-roll style characteristics. As time has progressed, however, the envelope of this has been pushed. At the outset of writing a song, the composer should consider what type of audience is desired. With these concepts in mind, the music composer will retain satisfaction in their efforts.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dan Martino

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