Music Arrangement: A Beginner's Guide To Crafting Cohesive Tracks

According to searches on the almighty Internet, the definition of a music arranger can best be described as an individual that “ensures every aspect of a music piece is well harmonised, from the instruments down to the tempo.”.

An oversimplified definition of a music arranger can best be put forth as “an individual that makes a piece of music sound and flow in a cohesive manner”.

Becoming a music arranger can actually be more difficult than it seems - even for the musically trained or inclined. It is relatively easy to decipher what is wrong with a piece of music, but to know thereafter what to do in order to make that composition sound good takes a different skillset coupled with a sharp pair of ears and heaps of exposure to varying styles of music.

Here are some steps that I’ve personally taken to sharpen my arrangement craft. While this blogpost focuses mainly on the orchestral genre, the fundamentals listed here can be applied to any style of music:

1. Knowing What To Focus On

When I was tasked with composing orchestral music (and all it’s sub-genres), I found myself exposed to a whole bunch of instrument sounds. Needless to say, I went crazy and tried to include every element I laid eyes upon in my DAW bank into my compositions. Let’s just say that music publishers were not pleased.

Fast forward some time later, I realised that there were a few things that made orchestral music what it is. No matter how many instruments are playing at once, there’s always something or a particular section playing the main melody. Everything else serves to augment the emotion expressed from this melody form.

To illustrate, let me show you a personal composition of mine entitled, “Prayer Of A Warrior”.

From the start of the track till about 50 seconds, the melody of the song is very clearly and obviously driven by a piano, subtly harmonised with thirds played by a harp that comes in at about the 20 seconds mark.

The left hand of the piano is playing simple chords to add some kind of light pulse to the song, reinforced by relatively lush synth pads.

Even at the 50 second mark where strings come in to aid in the development of the track, the notes played are selected strategically to work in tandem with the existing chords created by the piano and pads.

This brings me to my second point: Instrumentation

2. Instrumentation

A painter needs to know what the colours in his paint palette are before utilising them. Similarly, a composer and arranger needs to know what the purpose/function of each instrument available is before involving them.

I deliberately chose strings to create a “build” in my track at 50 seconds. The reason for this is because I know the feeling/emotions a combination of piano and strings gives in contrast to the layering of other instruments. I had a sound I was going for even before the composition of the track took place and I was aware that the sonic qualities of such instruments would deliver what I wanted.

The string elements playing ostinato riffs were doing so on a lower octave. Strings tend to sound brighter on higher octaves and having them too early in the composition in this case would throw the building dynamic and sonic development of the piece off. I also wanted the harp to cut through a little bit more, and having high octave strings at this point would be more likely to cause frequency clashes. The strings do get their time to shine though. I just wanted to save this for later.

I could explore other instruments, but this blogpost would definitely be too long. I hope the idea I’m pitching forth is there.

3. Song Dynamics

If you pay attention to certain styles of music (especially music used in movie trailers), you’ll find plenty of pauses and sudden abrupt changes throughout. These dynamic contrasts are done deliberately and positioned at points in the song(s) with careful forethought.

In my composition, a break happens about the 1:15 mark of the piece. This was done so that listeners don’t become “expectant” towards the unravelling of the song. In this case, the pause is a bar long before the song reintroduces itself with a strong cymbal shimmer, horns, dramatic strings and so forth.

At this point, the song transforms fully into an “epic” instrumental and fits with the theme of the overall track. On Bandcamp (where the track is fully downloadable for a dollar), I explain the artistic concept behind the composition of this track, and made sure that the musical direction and arrangement of the piece followed this overarching theme.

Towards the 2:40 point of the song, the “epic” section comes to an end as a gentler cymbal shimmer introduces the piano and harp melody from before to symbolise the closure of the entire track.

The point I’m trying to make here is that a song should still flow seamlessly as a single piece of music despite having abrupt dynamic changes at times. Dynamics should not fragment a track, but should instead be added flavourfully to keep the listener engaged throughout the song’s entirety. There are exceptions to this of course, especially if you listen to progressive music from bands like Dream Theater or if you are watching a musical, but that’s a different conversation for another day.

There are many aspects of arranging music that this blogpost lacks the capacity to expand upon. These days, the scope of a music producer, composer, orchestrator and arranger often overlap, making it hard for a single article to contextualise. Let me conclude by saying that I believe one has to dabble in most aspects of the music-making process consistently and persistently if he or she desires to eventually become a successful music arranger someday.