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How to Arrange Music: A Beginner’s Guide for Capturing Your Listener’s Interest

How to Arrange Music

Music is more than just a catchy bass beat or well-played chords. There’s an art in making all the elements come together to create a song that can compel others to stop and just LISTEN.

Whether you’re an aspiring bass player dabbling in music production or you’ve got a good song that could use a more professional sound, just follow these steps and turn your songs into a masterpiece!

Table of Contents

5-Step Guide to Arrange Music Yourself

Not everyone can invest in a music arranger, so there will come a time where you need to learn certain skills like arranging your music yourself.

It takes a deep understanding of the potential in different instruments to find the right place it’s meant to be, but it is NOT an impossible task even for complete beginners.

Everyone has to start somewhere and you can too, one step at a time.

Step 1: Brush Up on Your Know-How

Step 1- Brush Up on Your Know-How

First off, it’s all about researching what you need to know. Starting off with no idea about harmony or music theory just slows you down.

This is where the internet comes in handy. Watch loads of tutorials or avail of a how-to course online to give you a more concrete example of what to expect in arranging music.

It’s completely fine to start off by initiating your favorite producers. After all, it’s part of the process of finding our own style.

Even the best producers recommend finding a song with a good arrangement or someone who knows about arranging. Then, start learning the basics from them.

This will help you get better at picking out details and learning which ones work and which ones don’t.

Step 2: Decide on These Two Things

Step 2- Decide on These Two Things

Now that you’re all caught up, you have a better idea of what you want to work toward. Think about the final arrangement and what your song should achieve after better arrangements.

Look for the Centerpiece

Let’s start with the FACTS: An awesome final arrangement won’t arise from a low-quality song.

Improving the song arrangement serves to make music sound MORE polished. Creating a better arrangement for a bronze-level track won’t magically turn it into gold.

This is why the song you’re trying to arrange for should already be able to work on its own.

If you’re not sure, you can analyze how well the song works by asking these questions:

  • Does the song work when you play it “naked” as an electric or acoustic guitar or piano solo?
  • Do you have a chorus or melodic hook that delivers impact?
  • Does the main melody play with the right timing?

On the off chance your track doesn’t pass the test with flying colors, just work on your song until you can unravel the best parts as it’s played with a piano, guitar, bass, or voice.

Pro tip #1: Try using a successful song you like as a base. Most songs that make the top charts have good arrangements that draw any listener’s interest.

With a song that meets the requirements as a base, you can then determine what your centerpiece will be.

The centerpiece is basically the soul of the song representing its best assets. It will act as the core in which you will build and frame the arrangement around.

Determine the Style and Genre

Next, FIGURE OUT the style or genre your song embodies. The best way to do this is to find reference tracks of similar songs and incorporate the elements you like.

You may think, “I don’t want to be a COPY CAT!” But the fact is, the supreme tracks always use references as well!

This has become common practice because you NEED reference tracks to help you figure out how to approach certain situations.

More importantly, it’s actually quite difficult to produce an exact copy of a particular song unless you copy everything note for note, instrument by instrument.

Pro tip #2: It’s imperative that you’ve completed the previous steps before proceeding. There is a system in arranging music, and certain decisions can’t be modified once you’re knee-deep in a different step.

Step 3: Build the Flow

Step 3- Build the Flow

By this point, you’re HALFWAY THERE!

You may also have a good idea of what you want to build into it such as a chord progression, melody, or a catchy phrase that makes for a great drop.

What we’ll do is take your ideas and centerpiece and transform them into a track with specific sections–chorus, hook, bridge, a second verse, and all. How are we going to do this? Well, we’d like to reiterate:

USE THOSE REFERENCE TRACKS.

We can’t stress enough how much you’ll be using references throughout this process.

It’s a lot easier to come up with something fresh and completely original within some constraints. Starting from scratch can be difficult with NO BASIS.

What you want to take away from this part of the production process is to obtain a loose guideline for your song structure.

Our best advice: Don’t overthink it and just go for it. During the early steps of arranging, you’re likely to modify this initial plan anyway as you go on.

You can take a pen and draw lines and arrows over a copy of the music score. This can help you visualize better and also keep track of your ideas.

Step 4: Find the Voice

Step 4- Find the Voice

Various instruments help breathe life into your music. Vocals also create a strong connection while playing with rhythm will add dynamic.

Instrument

The guitar, bass, piano–the possibilities across all the instruments are limitless but it’s best to pin down which one plays the melody, the chords, and so on in order for you to have something to work with.

Most music producers use the piano but it’s better to play with the instrument you feel the most familiar with.

But if you’re really looking to change up the music, adding a new instrument can draw attention and create a stronger impression.

Here’s something you should take note of too:

You may also create mood with what’s called pad sounds. It’s those soft and sustained background music pieces you can’t really distinguish. Yet when played at the same time, they create a deeper ambiance.

Here’s a video that may be able to give you a better glimpse of what we mean.

Vocal

After arranging your instrument, focus on the lead vocal. Recording a lead vocal will guide you in your decision and get that perfect balance of production density.

Without it, you may end up packing too many instrumentals.

What happens then?

The sound quality becomes too DENSE to enjoy. And we all know your fans wouldn’t enjoy that, right? 

The goal here is to give your listener a bit of rest so they can appreciate the richer aspects of the melody.

This also applies when you’re using a large group of voices such as a choir. Dealing with several voices can be difficult to manage and it’s less time-consuming to start with a single vocal first.

Small steps, child. Small, small steps.

Vocals are a powerful element so if all else fails, you can always stick with a vocals-only song arrangement and improve it later on.

Rhythm

If you plan to use several time signatures, changing the rhythm section eases the transition by increasing or decreasing its frequency spectrum.

This is a great way to highlight the sections of the song or add more personality to the music.

All sound deserves to be felt on a deeper level. Wouldn’t you agree? It’s almost like writing lyrics to a song.

As you start arranging, DON’T NEGLECT the rhythm or humming your listener would love to hear and even repeat after they’ve listened to your masterpiece.

Again, don’t neglect this aspect of music, especially when you’re planning to create a jazz-inspired piece.

Step 5: Mix It Up

Step 5- Mix It Up

After you establish the parts for each section of the song, it’s now time to dive into MIXING!

Don’t just rely on repetition of the final chorus. Switch up an instrument or whole sections to amplify the dynamic and add variety.

So, What’s the Goal Here?

The bottom line in mixing is the different elements should have their own space and range.

For example, don’t have the upright bass playing one line and the piano part playing another within the same range. Have your piano at a high register, for example, at a different part of the song.

On the other hand, having different instruments playing the same part can add layers to your music. There are so many possibilities so don’t be surprised if you end up with several recorded versions.

In addition, there’s a reason it’s left as the last step. It is where you can do MOST of the final editing.

Some Final Tips

  • You may need to add or subtract elements, which is why it’s alright to stray from your plans in the earlier steps. Try not to get too attached at first and be ruthless in critiquing your work.
  • Keep in mind the final product and how each decision will affect the overall finished piece. Give your reference track another listen and compare what you’ve newly produced.
  • Don’t worry if this step takes you a while. Even the best producers needed to build up a lot of experience before getting better at mixing.

Congratulations!! But First…A Word of Advice

Once you’re happy with your song, congratulations! You now have the best arrangement for your song, albeit mostly a prototype.

While it may not be the best, especially if this is your first time, remember you just need to keep practicing.

Explore and analyze great music and you’ll slowly build up your music arrangement expertise!

Frequently Asked Questions

Should You Learn How to Arrange Music?

Should You Learn How to Arrange Music-

Most aspiring musicians initially think that knowing about chords, harmony, rhythm, or melody is enough. Then they proceed to the writing and composing, letting their instinct lead the way.

However, with this approach, your music tends to end up sounding very amateurish.

If you’ve been listening and hearing a lot of great examples of recorded music, you can usually tell whether a song sounds “complete” and “awe-inspiring,” rather than “plain” and “forgettable.”

The difference between them is, yes, you guessed it, the arrangement. Placing each element of the song in a place where it can shine will bring out the personality and EMOTION of your song.

Music isn’t only aurally enjoyed.

The story and the interpretation the arise from patterns and principles capture the listener’s attention. Not only will they find it pleasant, but they’ll also internalize it and remember how it made them feel and what it made them think.

In addition, knowing the concepts behind what makes music great can help you whenever you get stuck. It’s difficult to find a solution when you have no idea what it looks like!

How to Get Permission to Arrange Copyrighted Music?

How to Get Permission to Arrange Copyrighted Music

This is a tricky matter. The last thing you want is to be accused of plagiarism, something that has been quite rampant in the industry.

In the earlier sections, we’ve recommended using well-known pieces as your inspiration. This may become a source of worry but fret not, we have the details all laid out here:

Basically, you don’t necessarily own the arrangement of a piece of copyrighted music. And so in other words, you’ll need to ask permission in order to formally arrange it.

Here are some steps to get you started:

1. Check who the copyright owner is.

2. Contact the copyright owner and ask for permission. According to the NAfME member Jay Althouse, he recommends providing as much information as possible:

  • The kind of arrangement— bass, chorus, orchestra, etc.
  • The number of copies or parts
  • Who is making the arrangement
  • Who will perform the arrangement
  • Is the arrangement for sale and the price
  • How often the arrangement will be used—is it one time performance or will it be performed each year

3. Ensure you receive a written agreement that you’ve obtained permission.

4. Provide a copyright notice on the arrangement—mark it on each copy you’ll be making.

5. Be prepared to face rejection or to pay a fee.

6. Don’t risk infringement even if you see that everybody is doing it! Fines for statutory damages are high and willful infringement, even higher.

Here’s a quick comparison of what constitutes infringement and noninfringement:

  • Noninfringing: You buy enough copies of a choral work where you change a few notes in the tenor line.
  • Infringing: You buy one copy of a 2-part work and adapt it for a choir. You write men’s parts and ask your male singers to sing them.

 How to Arrange Your Music by Ear?

How to Arrange Your Music by Ear

The best arrangers can work solely by their ears. But unless you have years of experience, you can make use of an instrument you know well, such as the ever-popular piano.

However, an expert suggestion is to expand your repertoire beyond the piano because “EVERYTHING sounds good on the piano.”

Since most arrangements sound great as a piano piece, when you play it with a different arrangement for, say the trumpets, the quality may not come close at all.

Take Note of This Risk

The big risk here is if you proceed to learn music arrangement through the piano, you may be limiting the development of your musical ability to distinguish what you’re hearing in your head versus on another instrument.

And so, though the piano is a great starting point for arranging, you must hone how your ears hear as you arrange more complex pieces.

This is why stepping away from whichever instrument you play and using your ears instead can help make you more creative. You’re not anymore limited by the constraints of a specific one.

So What Should You Do?

If you’re looking to try training your ears in preparation of arranging songs, all you need to do is sit at your computer, or at your desk with some paper and pencil.

The only downside is you can’t hear your arrangement ideas right away, unlike with an instrument. What you can do is invest in a notation software with a playback feature of the parts you’ve recorded.

How to Arrange House Music?

House music is one of the trendier genres out there, and no one can resist dancing to a catchy and fun beat. Learning to arrange house mixes can put a unique and exciting spin on your song.

Most have an idea of what house sounds like but it’s actually a very broad term. We have deep house, tropical house, and bass house to name a few.

This is where your reference track can help you narrow down what style you’re aiming for. 

Typically, most house mix styles have a beat per minute of 120-124 and a 4/4 beat. You can also add deep bass parts to emulate an upbeat vibe.

How to Arrange Orchestral Music?

Orchestral mixes are known to be grand, harmonious, and very dramatic. Many great songs have been adapted into an orchestral version, playing up the emotions and impact of the originally written song.

Even in rock, hip-hop, and pop songs, orchestral parts have made their way into these mainstream genres, showing how versatile an orchestral arrangement can be.

Remember these along the way:

  • Your orchestral arrangement should be convincing and realistic, and sound like a REAL orchestra is playing.
  • You may try to include as many harmonic instruments as possible on full blast for maximum grandeur
  • Sometimes a smaller ensemble can portray a clearer message that is easier to comprehend.
  • Don’t hold back on your individual style. Experiment with various instruments and go beyond the typically good arrangement!

Conclusion

Conclusion

Music arrangement may not be the easiest thing to learn but learning it is an effective way of elevating the quality of your song.

Oftentimes, creative endeavors such as music production are prized for originality but don’t forget that its inspiration comes from the synthesis of being exposed to its greatest works.

This is also why building on a song with great potential is vital for success. If you don’t start with something great, no amount of skill in arrangement can salvage it.

And here is one very important point to remember in music arrangement:

The process of editing and arranging may never really end. Rather, what matters is the final product. Don’t get lost in the details or you’ll miss the big picture.

Now go on and bring out the absolute best in your music!

About the author

Daniel Douglas

After becoming obsessed with the beats that were the soundtrack to his youth, Daniel became a student of hip hop, digging for vinyl records, looking for the perfect break. Before he got his hands on an MPC sampler, he would mash these records, beats, and breaks into mixtapes and live DJ sets.