If you really want to make music, the arranging process is just as important as the composition process.
Do it right and you might have a hit song on your hands – do it wrong and you’ll end up with a jumble of ideas.
Here are 14 things you can do to create better arrangements…
1. Learn from the experts
Listen to your favorite tracks and try to figure out what in the arrangements makes them work. The more you listen, the better you will be able to pick out the minor details that are so important.
2. Be critical of your own work
From time to time, try to step back and analyze your own arrangements. It’s easy to get emotionally attached to a part, but if a part isn’t working, be ruthless and let it go. This may set you back a bit in the short term, but it will only make your arrangement better in the long run.
3. Learn music theory
Even a little knowledge can go a long way. It’s neither boring nor scientific, and learning music theory will make it easier for you to analyze what works and what doesn’t in your arrangement – often without even having to listen to it first.
4. Try using vocals alone
In a song, singing is king (or queen). They are the focal point of the whole piece, so why not capitalize on that and start or end a song with just the vocals? The effect can be very powerful indeed.
5. Use space wisely
Try to leave space in an arrangement, especially in a verse. You don’t always have to have chord instruments playing – dropping all instruments except drums, vocals/melody and possibly bass can be very punchy, and you also get real impact when the chords come back for the chorus.
6. Vary your refrains
If you have a main hook or chorus that repeats a lot, things can get boring. Try swapping instruments, changing dynamics, or switching parts mid-section to add some variety.
7. Avoid the clash
Be aware of melodies that clash and parts that take up too much space. If you have a voice or a melody, you will need to give it some space. Having a lead guitar or synth with a similar tone to the melody playing something different can clutter things up.
8. Try unusual instruments
If you’re tired of the same old sounds in your songs, try something a little weird. You can even sample things that aren’t instruments at all; in fact anything that makes noise is fine. These aren’t necessarily novelty noises either – see if you can turn them into something musical.
The easiest way to make your mix bigger is to have multiple instruments playing the same part, and sometimes even multiple instances of the same instrument playing the same part.
10. Use pad sounds
Pad sounds are soft, sustained background sounds that don’t usually grab your attention but are instead used to add ambience or a bit of depth to an arrangement. If your song sounds a little thin and you’re not sure why, a pad might be the answer.
11. Be aware of the rhythm
You may want all instruments to “lock” together and play the same rhythm; you may want them to play different rhythms. Whatever you choose to do, however, make sure it’s a conscious decision, as not paying attention to the beat will make your arrangement sloppy and disjointed.
12. Be aware of expectations
When arranging, sometimes it’s best to do the obvious and get the big chorus out at the end – that’s what people will expect and probably what they’ll want to hear. Likewise, defying expectations and going somewhere that isn’t immediately obvious can be a very effective decision.
13. Make your intro count
The hard truth is that most listeners aren’t patient and will often judge your track in the first few seconds. The intro isn’t just the bit before the melody or vocals kick in – it’s a very important section on its own, so spend some time making it perfect.
14. Remember to register
The register of a part is the pitch at which it is played – for example, a piano part played in a high register would be played high (to the right) on the keyboard. If all the parts are in the same register in your track, the sound will probably be dull or too dense. Try spreading out the parts a bit and changing registers as the song progresses.