Think of Arranging as an Extension of Songwriting
So you’ve just finished writing a new song. You’re super excited. You’re feeling like it’s one of the best things you’ve ever penned, and you’re just about to text your band mates, “Hey, forget the bars tonight, you degenerates, meet me at the practice space!”
But WAIT! …
Before you drag your drummer away from his Jägermeister or you book studio time, ask yourself this question: Have I thought about an arrangement?
Sure, you could show up to the studio with chord chart and lyric sheet in hand, allowing your players to come up with their own parts. Or maybe you could leave the arrangement and instrumentation ideas in the hands of a producer and it all might turn out cool. But then again, you might also end up with a 32nd-note cowbell part dancing across your oh-so-quiet bridge.
Why leave the arrangement to chance? Outside input from band members and producers alike is extremely valuable and should be accepted and encouraged; but remember, this is your baby after all. Why not take the bull (sans bell) by the proverbial horns and view arranging as an extension of your songwriting process?
To ease you into the mindset of choosing instrumentation-arranging, and to help illustrate all the cool ideas you can dream up to enhance your song during that process, I thought I’d put a microscope on an arrangement I did for a recently released tune of mine called, “Not That Guy.”
For clarity’s sake, I’ve broken the song down (below) into sections, giving you a little background on the instrumentation and arrangement ideas I came up with for each segment. I’ve also included the YouTube stream of the tune so you can listen as you read along.
Since the main, rhythm instrument that plays throughout the song is a piano, I wanted to offer a little contrast in the instrumentation, right from the start, by holding off on the piano for the intro and having its part played by a super clean, electric guitar.
In the interest of creating excitement within the arc of a song, I like to utilize arrangement to help organically build the track. For this tune, I decided to keep the instrumentation slated for the intro section very sparse, allowing nothing to play except the aforementioned clean guitar and drums.
Lastly, in a slight aside, this intro section also illustrates how a good production idea can work, hand in hand, with an arrangement on the road to serving a song; To that end, you might notice that the sound of the entire mix during the intro section has been filtered (via EQ) down into a type of lo-fi haze for the sake of further imparting a sense of that sparse, stripped down vibe I mentioned above.
As the first verse begins and the lead vocal enters, the lo-fi filter is lost, switching the sonics of the mix over from small and narrow, to big and wide. Again, more production than arrangement proper, but it bears noting since the effect helps to add some immediate excitement to the song.
Arrangement-wise, in addition to the vocal making its entrance, note the vamping guitar of the intro has now been replaced by pulsing, piano chords. Again, in efforts to slowly and organically build the song, we’ve stepped things up a notch, but not by all that much; Aside from adding the piano and vocal to the drums, notice no other instruments have been added to our still sparse but growing arrangement.
Now, as the building of our song progresses, we really begin to get the ball rolling with the addition of several new instruments and parts to the arrangement. Bass, acoustic guitars, a clicky, electric guitar playing 8th notes, another electric sounding out long chords on the ones, along with a shimmering, arpeggiated, lead guitar figure. A figure, btw, conceived by humming its melody, then jotting down its notes and transferring to guitar. The part serving to introduce a counterpoint to the vocal melody, while still remaining out of said vocal line’s way.
A shaker is also added to the mix. The percussion’s effect can be overlooked, but it adds a certain understated tension that may not be consciously “heard” by the listener but is definitely “felt.”
Continuing now to build momentum, this section sees the drums opening up as well as the acoustic guitars, which switch to more of a full strum as we welcome the addition of some further elements to the party: An electric guitar offering some skanky stabs on the twos and fours, a tremolo guitar playing a passing-tone, melody line that offers a response to the call of the vocal lines and last but not least, a tight harmony vocal is added singing in lockstep with the lead vocal.
For this verse, with dynamics in mind, the idea was to ratchet down the energy from the exiting chorus a touch, while still retaining some of that forward momentum. A little bit of a tricky balance to strike, but I find the best way to achieve this is by utilizing a few subtle, semi-subliminal elements.
First, notice the drums tighten up some, with the understated shaker from Verse 1B making a return appearance along with all said verse’s previous parts and instrumentation. Next, a new element is added, an unpretentious electric piano. Here, as before, I choose to play a little “call and response” with the vocal, slotting a composed, Wurlitzer, melody figure in between vocal lines.
Lastly, we revisit the tight harmony vocal from Chorus 1, singing in tandem with the lead vocal, only this time harmonizing every other line of the lyric. Once more, subtle but effective in creating that subliminal momentum.
Now, mid-song, we really start ramping things up. In addition to including all parts and instrumentation from Chorus 1, we augment by adding a tambourine that plays throughout the section, a glockenspiel (yeah, I said it) that accents the tremolo guitar, a jangly pair of eclectic guitars playing in octaves, and lastly to round things out, a lush, fat bed of backing vocals (“oohs”).
Here, I’m looking to hold the energy level we arrived at via Chorus 2, while somehow managing to change the section up texture-wise. Refreshing the listener’s pallet by introducing something into the arrangement that hasn’t appeared in the song thus far, enter the Hammond organ. Playing a fairly simple chord pattern, the B3 pushes the song forward in a new way, while octave guitars play a descending line, tambourine is revisited in splashes and, once again, a harmony vocal sings closely with the lead vocal to punctuate alternate lyric lines.
Playing with dynamics here again, I attempt to take the energy level down just a hair from the bridge’s crescendo while still trying to keep the section fairly exciting.
All previous parts and instrumentation from Verse 1B return, while the piano moves front and center in the arrangement, playing a melody line I composed for the player to execute. [Of course, lots of folks like to improvise their solos and I’m not against that practice, but I also like to have a strong solo melody line ready to go in case inspiration fails or your player isn’t giving you what you want.]
Next, in an attempt to keep the part interesting, I add yet another element to the arrangement: This time a mellotron line, playing in unison with every other octave guitar figure to add a little texture as they both offer a melody (again, composed for this purpose) that weaves in between piano phrases.
Oh, and there’s also a mid-solo, harp flourish added because…I don’t know, I like a good harp flourish ever now and again.
As this last chorus enters, I really want to push the energy level now to bring it all home. As such, all instrumentation and parts included in Chorus 2 are present here again with the addition of two more items: The B3 organ playing some straight chords to fatten things up, and some lyric-based, backing vocals that repeat, in a counterpoint melody, the lyric lines sung by the lead vocal. The backing vocals really helping to make this section pop, while also adding some ear candy.
In this section I want to try and ease folks down off the mountain, leading them smoothly to the conclusion of the tune. To carry this out, the energy level needs to fall some, winding things down via the introduction of some smooth, backing vocal harmonies (singing the word “guy”) while the organ plays a simple pad and the octave guitars chime a thoughtful, repeating melody line.
Hope this little exercise got you thinking about the value of arrangement and how much the careful choice of instrumentation and well written parts can add to your song.
The next time you write a tune, remember your song is only half finished till you write an arrangement.
Mark Bacino is a singer/songwriter based in New York City. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark also is the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus, a website dedicated to exploring the art of songwriting. Visit Mark on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.