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.

Polishing A Track For Release.

From my conversations, it appears that many composers subscribe to a belief that the music production and arrangement phase is an isolated process that stands independently from the mixing and mastering stages.

This, to me at least, is incredibly inaccurate.

If you've ever heard the saying "a good song mixes itself", and have been in situations where you've worn the hats of - songwriter, producer, and audio engineer, I'm sure you get the gist of this statement.

In this blogpost, I'll be sharing my thoughts regarding the "requirements" that go into polishing a track for release.

Arrangement, Songwriting & Composition.

This is probably the most overlooked component when it comes to "polishing a track for release", and the reason I write this is because no amount of mixing and mastering can salvage a poorly written track. At this point, I'm not talking about the production quality of a song, but instead, a song that has been poorly constructed and therefore, conceived.

Many orchestral music composers that did not have the privilege of playing in an ensemble before or going for lessons or to school for the craft tend to be mesmerised when given an entire orchestral instrument palette to play with. They tend to overcomplicate parts, layer excessively with instruments that do not blend sonically, or write things in an unrealistic way that makes it impossible for real instrument players to follow.

In other words, these composers are not aware of the timbre of instruments; their sonic qualities, their function and role in a traditional orchestra setting and so on. Now don't get me wrong - I'm all about breaking rules. I just believe that one has to learn the rules before breaking them.

A Brass section for instance, sounds significantly different when they hit high notes as opposed to when they play low mellow legato ones. Many virtual instruments out there replicate the low to mid notes of a brass section really well, but tend to sound excessively artificial when higher notes are introduced. An experienced MIDI Orchestrator would know which music libraries sound more realistic and would figure out ways to manipulate weaker replicas to sound better or closer to the actual instrument.

A good arranger also knows what to do to make a song flow in cohesion (unless the intention is to create an experimental progressive track which ebbs and flows in unorthodox forms). Contrary to popular belief, no amount of mixing or mastering can save a "broken song". Remember that mixing and mastering cannot bring out what is not already present. If the song does not already sound like a single entity, it's back to the songwriting phrase.

Production Quality.

If your song is poorly produced, audio editing and post-production can sort of hide mistakes and glitches, but at the sacrifice of your track's sonic capabilities. The average listener can't probably tell what's wrong, but they will frown when they notice something damaging in your production.

Unless you are replicating an old-school recording, most listeners these days expect a pristine and almost overly manicured kind of production quality from your work. Even if you are replicating an old-school sound, remember that there's a difference between a high quality recording of an old-school sound, and a song that's just poorly recorded from the source.

This is ESPECIALLY true if you're trying to get into the music placement game or if you produce electronic genres that often rely on already well-rounded loops and samples. If your song has a weak production quality, no music supervisor or label will consider placing your song in any kind of professional multimedia. This is because it reflects badly on them. Music licensing is one area in our industry that no one actually cares about the "potential" behind the songwriting or whatever excuse people try to give. The days of "the guy in the suit" holding a briefcase with a ton of cash standing in the corner waiting for you to finish your performance so that he can sign you to his label are long gone.

If you're a great composer or songwriter that struggles to get his or her production quality up to par, look for someone who can and work with that person. If you are an artist, your benchmarks are easily attainable from whatever you hear on air. If you are a composer for multimedia, yours are whatever you hear from films, TV, commercials and games.

Mixing & Mastering.

This is a little controversial, but if you are a music library composer who cannot mix or master his or her own music, you're in trouble. The reason for this is that the expected turnover time for production music is extremely fast, so no library has a few days to wait for a mixing engineer to do his intricate magic on a song before sending it off to a mastering engineer who in turn waits for client feedback. So unless you have a team around you with specialists in each area working out of a professional studio, you're very likely going to do everything yourself.

Naturally, the work you produce initially is not going to be the best, but the resources out there are valuable and varied. You CAN learn to mix and master your own songs from your bedroom. Will it sound the best? No. But would it help you develop a consistent workflow, a familiarity with your equipment, train your initiative to look around you or online for assistance if needed and constantly drive you to produce great music on your own terms? Yes.

Now, obviously if you have a team of engineers at your back and call who have proper facilities to churn out your mixed and mastered compositions, that's great. But you'd probably have to split profits or pay them somehow.

So how will you know when your track is "polished enough" for release. The short answer is: you don't. No songs are ever "finally ready". You need to know when it's time to let go.

If you're talking about knowing when to release a song or send it to your client, the "checklist" is relatively simple (though arguably tough to achieve consistently):

  1. When the song's composition, arrangement & production is on par with what's out there in the industry.

  2. When your work translates well on your playback devices (especially mono ones).

  3. If you're composing for multimedia; when your song amplifies the message or emotion or whatever your client intends to convey. (In such cases, your client will tell you whether he/she is happy. This should lead to more and better clients).

All in all, polishing a track for release is a process that begins right from the songwriting phase and ends only once your client or audience is satisfied. You need to be aware of what is going on at every step of the way.

On Landing Composing Jobs (Part 2).

So the response to Part 1. was better than I expected, at least on the platforms and forums that I was privileged to share my experience on. Note: I'm trying to post on the page every Friday on a consistent basis, so check back weekly for new updates.

I'm waiting to meet a sound designer who chatted me up on this exact topic as I write this, and in the last few months, I've had the opportunity to assist producers/studio owners/composers in this area. I've also completed composing for another mobile game, but enough about me.

Let's get to it.

The Approach:

In Part 1, I addressed how to obtain the contact information of TV producers & Music Supervisors that are involved in Network TV. Here's the issue: just cause you've got your hands on an individual's contact doesn't mean anything if you don't know what to do with it. You've got to pitch your talent/resume/services forth in a way that doesn't turn the listener/reader off.

Key: First Impressions count. More than you'd ever know. Give off the wrong vibes and you'll automatically be blacklisted from the get go. If you've ever had a telemarketer, insurance salesperson or real estate agent call you, you'd get what I mean.

If you are fortunate enough to live in the same country as the person you're trying to get in touch with, that's great. For those of you in this category - call. A phone conversation is ALWAYS better than an email or text message. Tone and wording often get misinterpreted over these mediums. Your phone call would provide a more personal touch to things and reveals how serious you are in wanting to get your foot in the door.

Now, there's A LOT of people out there who do not recommend cold calling, but trust me - this is one of the best ways to establish a relationship with the people that matter. IF (or when) the person on the line shuts you down rudely, I doubt you'd want to do business with that individual either.

Now for the folk (myself included) who would rather rely on email because you get cold feet or stutter when talking on the line, or simply because you do not live in the same location as the people you're trying to reach -

Here's how to craft your email:
*Note - there are different ways to go about doing this. Some supervisors have specified their requirements, and if you can find them online, please adhere to what they've asked for.

Subject: Music Cues For XX TV Show

This study reveals that approximately 269 billion emails are sent daily. Career Expert Amanda Augustine of TopResume further highlights that "a typical inbox reveals about 60 characters of an email’s subject line, while a mobile phone shows just 25 to 30 characters". Therefore, it's quite a no-brainer to suggest that if you want your email to be opened, it has to stand out from the pile and the best way of doing that is by being succinct and (politely) direct in your subject head.

Disclaimer: This example caters more towards composers cold emailing creative producers that aren't necessarily and openly seeking music for future projects. Producers or Music Libraries consistently open to submissions will have a certain format they'd wish for you to follow. In those cases, the subject header may be specified to look something like:

Subject: Composer-TV Show Cue Submission-Date


Dear/Hello xx,

(TIME TO FLATTER) I'm writing in to let you know that I've just begun watching xx show on channel whatever on a weekly basis and I've been hooked on to it ever since.
Talk about an episode you ACTUALLY watched and liked. Talk about the show's characters blah blah. Yes, you are in fanboy/girl mode right now.

(PRODUCTION BEHIND THE SCENES TALK BUT STILL FLATTERING - EASE YOUR WAY INTO WHAT YOU REALLY WANT) The epic storyline to the outstanding production quality to the music cues used in each episode is testament to the incredible amount of effort you and your team have put in to make XX show a success. (I am obviously exaggerating here and using excessively descriptive jargon that you should cut accordingly to avoid sounding fake or spammy, but this is an example and you get the idea, I hope).

The Pitch:

(GET TO THE POINT - It's not as though he/she doesn't know what you're after especially since your subject title states it all). As a professional music composer and sound designer, I was wondering if there was any way I could assist your audio department/music supervisor in providing TV cues for your show, or even on future projects? I'm fortunate to be able to work out of a professional studio and thus am able to meet tight deadlines. (If you are in the same city, ask for a meet up.)

Note that what I'm doing is OFFERING a service. I'm not saying "hire me because I can provide better stuff than the stock library crap you're relying on at the moment".

The Sign-off:

Thank you for reading this and I look forward to your reply! (Now - leave your phone number or a link to your showreel/soundcloud or whatever you'd like them to see in your signature, so that you do NOT have to ask for permission whether you can send in demos in the event you do receive a reply. If the people on the other end are curious or keen to know more about you, this information is already present and accessible to them.)

What will happen next?

In most cases, nothing.

Yes it sucks, but it's true. And the reason for that is because most of these companies already have partnerships with external vendors and production houses. Unless you're Hans Zimmer or something, it's unlikely that these companies would risk a contractual agreement to work with a relatively unknown individual. 

What CAN you do next?

Keep trying to contact as many people as you think would be beneficial to your career in a STRATEGIC manner. You can do followups (though not everyone likes to be followed-up on). Or you can keep a conversation going to establish a long-term relationship, which SHOULD actually be your ultimate goal.

Because if you haven't realised it by now, music licensing and placements very rarely happen overnight. Sometimes, these things take years and if you have a long-standing relationship with a reputable individual, you'll find yourself ahead in due time. However, if you're in this to make a quick buck in a short span of time, you're better off finding a day job.

The trick to this "game" is to ALWAYS offer value to the other party first before asking for anything. Make it apparent that you have a valuable skillset that you'd like to utilise for the purposes of helping and assisting others. Make no mistake though, the rejection rate in this field is VERY high, just as this email "template-guide-sample" does NOT guarantee a response at all, much less a positive one,  but ultimately, one good placement or better yet, one good relationship can elevate your standing in the industry significantly.

The Sounds In Our Heads (Part 1).

For the longest time, I've struggled to translate the melodies in my head into reality despite being armed with a good amount of the latest audio plugins and equipment. Being classically trained in the violin and guitar did help, but it also opened an endless amount of possibilities that proved problematic when the need to focus arose.

Disclaimer: I'll probably do a longer tutorial/review on this, but hey, do bear with me for now.

Through hours of meandering and plonking around with various synth presets, string textures and soundscapes, I've found that the most meaningful and helpful way(s) to get started is by 1) selecting a genre of music to write, studying the works of those who are proficient in the genre, 2) making a commitment AND a timeline to finishing a track (or tracks) and then rinsing and repeating.

Today, I want to focus on the first point.

Genre specifications are significantly important for anyone who creates music (thank you curators). If you desire to write say, Trailer or Cinematic Music, the compositions of Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Steve Jablonsky or Thomas Bergerson are probably great places to start. Take your time to listen to their music and note down what gives their work the special quality it has that makes it unique to the genre. As you analyse it, make sure you enjoy this process, because this is probably one of the most practical ways of self-education when it comes to music production.

Make no mistake - this process isn't sexy. It's not talking about the latest plugins or outboard gear. It's not necessarily fun. Often it can be frustration especially when you compare your own work with that of these masters.

But this is part of the big picture that will hopefully help you get to where they are.

In a nutshell, how do you translate the sounds in your head into reality? First off, by knowing how they should and would sound like in reality, and that comes from experience, a pair of good ears, decent audio software, instruments and education.

I used to grow increasingly annoyed when I could not translate the sounds in my mind into something that was of quality or comparable to that of the great composers I admired. Today, whenever I hear one of their works, I get inspired.

To end, this is the song that started it all for me: