Arrangement is a crucial aspect of music production that brings the songwriting and musical ideas together into a cohesive piece of produced music. Whether you're just starting out or looking to refine your skills, understanding the art of arrangement is key to creating compelling music that resonates with your audience.
What is arranging? Arrangement refers to how different elements and sections of a song are organized and presented. It's about deciding which instruments play when, how they interact, and how the song's structure unfolds over time. Proper arrangement is a big part of the overall impact a song will have on a listener.
In this introductory article, we're going to go over the most important aspects of arranging for music producers, particularly through the lens of the overall music production process.
Song Structure: The Building Blocks Of Arrangement
Music is infinitely creative, yet much of it is familiar and repetitive. There's a reason why so many songs utilize the same chords and the same overall structure — they work to convey the meaning behind the music.
So, while we can get as progressive and longwinded as we'd like, there are a few typical sections we can investigate to understand song structure and arrangement better. Each of these sections can vary dramatically from song to song, artist to artist and genre to genre.
Nevertheless, we should investigate them in this article. I'll offer a few of my favourites along the way.
- Middle Eight
- Solo Section
- Outro Chorus
The intro sets the stage for your song. It's the first impression, so it's crucial in capturing the listener's attention.
Intros can be simple, featuring a key melody or rhythm. They can be more complex to grab the listener's attention. They may also gradually build by introducing various elements of the song over time. They can start with the entire band, a single performer or anything in between.
Intros don't even necessarily have to be “music”. They're sometimes sound design or even samples from non-music media.
A few of my favourite intros ever include:
- Flying Lotus: Turkey Dog Coma (wicked chords, percussion and bass line)
- Incubus: Glass (awesome sampling and ring modulated guitar)
- Jacob Collier (feat. Daniel Caesar): Time Alone With You (introduction to the extended chords and then the quintuplets groove)
The verse develops the song's story or theme. It's where the narrative unfolds and often features the main vocal or instrumental melody.
Characteristically, verses tend to possess a lower energy level compared to the choruses, creating a contrast that enhances the overall dynamics of the track. They frequently introduce new lyrics with each repetition, ensuring the story progresses and retains the listener's interest.
Additionally, in certain genres, verses might feature instrumental solos or secondary themes, enriching the main melody and adding depth to the musical arrangement.
A few of my favourite verses include:
- The Dillinger Escape Plan: Black Bubblegum (love the falsetto)
The chorus stands as the heart of the song, often emerging as the most memorable and emotionally impactful segment.
It is characterized by a surge in energy and a fuller sound compared to the verses, marking a distinct shift in the song's dynamics. This section typically features repetitive lyrics and melodies, which play a crucial role in reinforcing the song's main message and making it more memorable for the listener.
Interestingly, in some tracks, the chorus might be purely instrumental. In these cases, it relies on a catchy melody or a unique sound to captivate the listener, serving as the hook that defines the track.
A few of my favourite choruses include:
The bridge in a song serves as a pivotal element, offering a contrast to the rest of the composition by introducing new elements or perspectives.
This part of the song is marked by its versatility, ranging from quiet, introspective sections to high-energy climaxes, thus providing a refreshing break from the established patterns of verses and choruses. Bridges often stand out both musically and lyrically, offering a distinct shift that keeps the listener engaged.
In terms of variations, some songs utilize the bridge to modulate to a different key, adding a sense of progression and evolution to the track. Others might introduce an entirely new rhythm or a different set of instruments, further enriching the song's texture and depth.
A few of my favourite bridges include:
- The Dillinger Escape Plan: Black Bubblegum (love the falsetto)
The outro plays a crucial role in a song as it serves as the conclusion, effectively wrapping up the song's narrative or thematic journey.
This section can vary significantly in its approach to ending a track. Some outros gradually decrease in energy, guiding the listener to a calm and reflective end. In contrast, others may choose to maintain the song's energy, culminating in a high note that leaves a lasting impression.
Regarding variations, many songs opt to conclude with a reprise of the chorus or a key melody, providing a sense of closure and completeness. Alternatively, some outros employ a fade-out technique, subtly diminishing the sound and leaving the listener in a state of anticipation, wanting more.
A few of my favourite outros include:
- The Beatles: She's So Heavy (the droning build-up of noise and sudden halting of the music gets me every time)
- The Chariot: And Shot Each Other (the slow breakdown of the drums, heavy distortion and choir make a fantastic contrast to a great track — even crazier when performed live, and they pack up the drum set as the song continues)
There are plenty more options for song sections. Other common song sections include:
The pre-chorus plays an often vital role in music composition, acting as a build-up to the chorus. This transitional section is key in increasing the listener's anticipation for the chorus.
Generally, the pre-chorus is shorter than both the verses and choruses, and it often exhibits a change in both music and lyrics to create a sense of escalation. This shift is crucial in creating a build-up that heightens the impact of the chorus.
Widely used in pop and rock music, the pre-chorus serves to create a distinct contrast with the verse, setting the stage for a smooth and effective transition into the chorus.
A few of my favourite pre-choruses include:
- Sum 41: Fat Lip (different lyrics but the same melody and increase in energy to bring up into the chorus)
This particular section of a song, which follows the chorus, serves as both a musical and emotional decompression.
It's a space where the intensity of the chorus is allowed to simmer down, often featuring elements like instrumental solos, vocal ad-libs, or a repetition of a catchy hook from the chorus. This not only provides a moment of respite but also maintains the energy and momentum generated by the chorus.
The use of this section is particularly effective in creating a seamless transition, guiding the listener back to the verse or bridge, and ensuring a fluid continuity in the song's structure.
A few of my favourite post-choruses include:
- Kendrick Lamar: Swimming Pools (a great hook after the chorus, starting on “Pour up (drank), head shot (drank)”)
The breakdown in a song serves a unique purpose, as it significantly reduces the song's intensity and complexity, often stripping back to minimal instrumentation.
This section is characterized by its ability to provide a stark contrast to the rest of the song, shifting the focus primarily to rhythm or highlighting a specific instrument or vocal part. This not only creates a moment of respite but also adds a layer of dynamic contrast to the track.
Particularly common in electronic and dance music genres, the breakdown is strategically used to prepare the listener for a powerful return of the full arrangement. This technique effectively keeps the audience engaged, building anticipation before the song's energy is ramped up once again.
Breakdowns are also common in hardcore music, where the reduction in complexity is often accompanied by a half-time or quarter-time feel. Here, the simplicity is often done for the sake of adding power to the song rather than stripping it back.
A few of my favourite breakdowns include:
A few of my favourite breakdowns (in the metal/hardcore sense) include:
The middle eight, akin to a bridge, plays a crucial role in song arrangement by providing a much-needed break from the repetitive structure of verses and choruses.
Typically positioned in the middle of the song, which is reflected in its name, the middle eight introduces a distinct change in the song's landscape. This change can manifest through different chords, melodies, or rhythms, setting it apart from the rest of the track.
Commonly utilized in pop and rock music, the middle eight adds a layer of variety to the song, effectively preventing it from becoming monotonous and keeping the listener engaged with a fresh and unexpected musical twist.
A few of my favourite middle eights include:
The solo section in a song serves as a showcase for instrumental virtuosity, highlighting the skills and expressiveness of a particular instrument.
This section can either be a creative reinterpretation of the song's melody or an entirely improvised piece, allowing the musician to display their technical prowess and emotional depth.
Predominantly featured in genres such as rock, jazz, and blues, the solo adds an extra layer of complexity and emotional resonance to the piece, captivating the audience with a display of musical mastery and individual expression.
A few of my favourite solo sections (and solos) include:
- Pink Floyd: Money (the 7/4 for the sax followed by the higher-energy 4/4 for the guitar solo is superb)
A coda serves as the concluding section of a song, designed to bring it to a definitive and satisfying end.
This section can take various forms, such as a repeated chorus (in a new key or with different production elements), an introduction of a new melody (sometimes in counterpoint to a pre-established melody), or even a fade-out accompanied by improvisations.
The primary purpose of a coda is to provide a clear and conclusive finish to the song, ensuring that the listener is left with a sense of completion and fulfillment.
A few of my favourite codas include:
A Popular Formula
Many popular songs follow simple variations of the aforementioned sections, and some even omit multiple for even greater simplicity. A common sequence for a pop song could be:
Intro > Verse 1 > Chorus 1 > Verse 2 > Chorus 2 > Bridge > Chorus 3 (climax) > Outro
Arrangement In Different Genres
Each genre has its unique arrangement conventions. For instance, pop songs often follow a verse-chorus structure, while electronic dance music might focus more on build-ups and drops. Understanding genre-specific nuances can help you create more authentic and impactful music.
More eclectic or progressive songs and genres may scrap the idea of these general sections, and some may not even have a defined “chorus”.
For example, in an old funk/hardcore band of mine called Blunt Cousin, we'd sometimes write out verses, choruses, bridges and breakdowns, but all other sections would simply be labelled alphabetically (A, B, C, etc.). So, the song “Coffee Break“, for example, follows this sequence:
A > B > Verse 1 > C > Chorus 1 > A > B > Bridge > Verse 2 > C > Chorus 2 > Breakdown > Outro
In another Blunt Cousin song titled “The Book”, the song structure is as follows:
Intro > Verse 1 > Chorus > Pre-Verse > Verse 2 > Chorus > Breakdown > Break > Solo Section > Chorus > Outro
And since this article is for music producers, I've included a screenshot from the mix session of The Book, complete with exaggerated markers showing the different sections (named slightly differently than above for project cohesion):
Music, to you and me, may be about pushing boundaries are defying expectations. It may also be about following tried and true formulas to get the point across as effectively as possible.
The Role Of Dynamics And Texture In Music
Arrangement isn't just about the order of sections; it's also about dynamics and texture.
Dynamics refer to the loudness or softness of a section or song. The dynamic range of a song refers to the difference between its loudest and quietest parts.
Dynamics are incredibly important in music, yielding contrast and motion throughout sections, songs and entire albums.
As an aside on the production side of things, dynamics are often reduced significantly in recorded music via compression in attempts to make records louder. The “loudness war” (the competition to make louder records than other artists) really came about with the popularization of CDs and has created an expectation for louder, less dynamic records.
Beyond the avoidance of excessive distortion and over-compression, great music deserves its dynamics, so there has always been pushback from this practice.
Texture involves the tonal characteristics of the tracks that make up the song and how they interact together. Balancing these elements ensures that each part of the song feels fresh and engaging.
While familiarity is important in music (in terms of arrangement, dynamics and texture), it's also worth exploring new ideas for such parts of the overall arrangement to give something new to the listener.
Common Music Arrangement Techniques
Here are some common arrangement techniques used in music production, each with an expanded definition to help you understand and apply them effectively:
- Definition: Counterpoint is the art of combining melodies in a way that they maintain their independence but also harmonize with each other.
- Application: It's often used in genres like classical, jazz, and progressive rock. You can apply counterpoint by writing a secondary melody that complements the main melody, ensuring both can stand alone yet sound harmonious together.
Call And Response
- Definition: This technique involves two distinct phrases, usually played by different instruments or voices, where the second phrase is a direct commentary on or response to the first.
- Application: Common in blues, jazz, and African music, you can use this technique to create a dialogue between instruments or between the lead vocalist and backing vocals.
- Definition: Layering involves stacking different sounds or instruments to create a fuller, more complex sound.
- Application: This technique is widely used in all music genres. You can layer similar instruments for a richer sound or combine different timbres for a unique texture.
- Definition: Motivic development is the process of taking a short musical idea (a motif) and altering it in various ways to maintain interest.
- Application: This technique is essential in classical and jazz compositions. You can apply it by changing a motif's rhythm, pitch, or harmony throughout the song to create a sense of unity and evolution.
- Definition: Dynamics control involves varying the volume and intensity of the music to create emotional impact.
- Application: It's crucial in all music genres for conveying emotion. Use crescendos (gradual increase in volume) or diminuendos (gradual decrease in volume) to build tension or release it.
- Definition: This technique involves altering the number and type of instruments playing at any given time to change the ‘texture' of the sound.
- Application: You can create contrast in your song by switching from a full, dense texture to a sparse, minimal one or vice versa.
- Definition: Harmonic variation involves changing the chord progression or harmonic structure of a section when it repeats.
- Application: Use this technique to add variety and maintain listener interest, especially in repeated sections like choruses.
- Definition: Rhythmic displacement involves shifting a musical pattern by a certain number of beats or a fraction of a beat.
- Application: This technique, common in jazz and progressive rock, can be used to create syncopation or unexpected rhythmic interest.
- Definition: Changing the instruments used in different sections of a song can significantly affect its mood and impact.
- Application: For example, switching from an acoustic guitar in the verse to an electric guitar in the chorus can heighten the energy level.
Automation And Effects
- Definition: Automation refers to dynamically changing parameters like volume, panning, or effects over time within a track.
- Application: Use automation to gradually bring elements in and out of the mix or to add evolving effects like reverb or delay for interest and depth.
Each of these techniques offers a way to add interest, depth, and emotional impact to your music. The key is to experiment and see how these techniques can best serve the song you're working on.
Remember, the most effective arrangements are those that enhance the song's narrative and emotional journey.
Tips For Effective Arrangement
- Contrast is key: Varying dynamics and textures between sections keep listeners engaged.
- Create movement: Use build-ups and breakdowns and utilize transitional effects and samples to create a sense of movement.
- Space is your friend: Not every instrument needs to play all the time. Give your track some breathing room.
- Repetition with variation: Repeating elements provide familiarity, but slight variations maintain interest. Furthermore, repeating melody lines with different instruments can be sufficient to provide such familiarity and variation (think of a guitar solo referencing the vocal melody, for example).
- Listen to your favourites: Analyze the arrangement of songs you love to understand what works.
What is songwriting? Songwriting is the art of composing music and lyrics to form a song. It involves combining melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics, typically to express emotions or tell stories through a structured musical form.
For more information, read my article, Introduction To Songwriting For Music Producers.
What is the goal of music production? Music production is about creating a bridge from an artist's vision and performance to a polished sound that resonates through our speakers. It's about ensuring the songwriting and composition have the maximum impact on the end listener upon consumption of the music “product” being played back.
For more information: The Goal Of Music Production And Why It’s Important