Thanks to streaming platforms and social media, independent musicians have more pathways to success than ever before. However, solitary singer-songwriters often struggle when it comes to song arrangement. Without the support of fellow artists and an experienced development team, even the basics like song structure and melody can prove a challenge.
However, understanding how to arrange a song is essential if you want your music to stand apart from the legions of other independent musicians out there. Ready to take your tracks to the next level? Our guide breaks down what you need to know about song arrangement.
Understanding Song Arrangement
If you’re an aspiring artist looking to start a music career, you probably already have at least a superficial knowledge of song arrangements. As the name suggests, it’s the process of putting together many different elements of a song until you find the perfect formula. Song arrangement comes in many forms. It can include adapting an existing piece of music or fine-tuning something that’s currently in development. Song arrangement can redefine a piece of music, such as putting a fresh twist on existing lyrics by experimenting with bold instrumental choices.
Music arrangement can also involve creating new material from scratch. While songwriting is a fundamental part of the process, many aspiring artists struggle to move beyond this and master arrangement. When executed successfully, the arrangement can bring structure to a loose musical idea. Perhaps you’ve recorded a catchy acoustic track but want to bring some mass appeal to it. With song arrangement, you can turn that initial recording into a genre-defining piece that will truly resonate with audiences.
Basic Song Structure for Beginners
If you’re starting from the ground up, you’ll need to first ensure your song has a solid structure. Song arranging hinges on this structure, so it pays to invest time and energy into this first step.
Searching for tips on song structure for beginners? Your best bet is to stick with a tried and tested formula. Many popular signs kick things off with an intro, which serves to establish the signatures of a song. During the intro, things like tempo, key, and rhythm can all be introduced. With some exceptions, most songs avoid layering vocals over the intro. To bring some synergy to your song, it’s also a good idea to tie the instrumental to later sections like the verse.
It’s often the verse that really defines a song. Once your intro is done and dusted, you’ll move into verse territory if you’re following a standard song structure. Most tracks will have a few verses scattered throughout the song, although it’s not uncommon for some tracks to feature more. Every verse needs to be unique for storytelling purposes, although the melody can remain largely unchanged. If you’re relying on a memorable chorus to hook listeners and keep them streaming, try and keep verse length relatively brief.
Now we move on to the chorus. You can pepper these throughout your track, although most artists choose to limit themselves to two or three choruses. In all likelihood, it will be the chorus element that listeners remember above every other. If you’re not keen on the idea of repeating the same few lines after every verse, don’t be afraid to mix things up with a few minor changes. If you want to add more complexity to your track, you can even lead with a pre-chorus.
If you think your song is becoming a little repetitive, lean on the bridge section for support. The bridge stands apart from the verse and chorus, usually with a different chord and singular lyrics not found elsewhere. Now you’re ready to perfect the outro. Some artists choose to use the outro as a callback to the intro, bookending their track with a neat coda. Others opt for a simple fade out, with the melody taking center stage. Ultimately, you need to decide what works best for you.
Melody and Harmony Arrangement
The arrangement of a song needs to begin with a solid foundation, but you’re not going to be able to create captivating music without a memorable melody. Understanding how to arrange music melodies should be your first port of call if it’s currently an alien concept. Melodies can take the form of vocals or notes played on an instrument, with some fairly simple and others incredibly complex.
To create a standout melody, you’ll first need to pick your instrument. Once you’ve done that, you need to decide on your key so you can determine which chords you’ll be using for chord progression. This is particularly important as it's the chord progression that gives your song its tone. It’s the foundation that your arrangement sits on. With these decided, you can start actually writing melodies. Start with the chorus first. After all, it tends to be the defining element of most songs. Once you’re happy with your chorus melody, you can move on to verses. As with lyrics, you can get a little more experimental here.
Don’t let lyrics define the melody-creation process. If you need to, sing along with nonsensical phrases so you don’t feel boxed in by existing lyrics you have down on paper. You’ll also need to consider playing around with high notes, even if you’re not completely comfortable with them. Finally, play around with contrast. Your chorus and verses shouldn’t feel a world apart, but they can be pretty distinct. If anything, bringing in a little contrast can help give an arrangement character.
To give your track more depth, you’ll also want to spend time on harmony arrangement. This can include layering new vocals onto the lead ones to create new chords and texture. When arranging vocals, you can be as liberal as pared-back as you like. You can choose to arrange harmonies on key phrases or keep things sparse to spotlight those lead vocals. Melody and harmony arrangement may prove time-consuming, but this is one element you don’t want to neglect.
Instrumentation in Song Arrangement
Deciding on instrumentation in song arrangement is another cornerstone of creating a compelling track. It can happen at any stage of the song-creation process. You may decide to select instruments for your musical arrangement from the off, making it easier to assign particular instruments to individual elements. Alternatively, you may choose to do this later.
Many musicians keep things simple by using a guitar or piano when building chords. Ultimately, you should reach for the instrument you’re most comfortable with. Your genre will also play a key role in instrument selection. Experimenting with the rock genre? You’ll want to stick to guitars, bass, and drums. Putting out hip-hop material? Along with drums and bass, you’ll likely want to lean on synthesizers. Guitars can also be used, but these should be a barely-there presence in your final arrangement.
Tips for Arranging Your First Song
Never arranged a song before? It might seem a little daunting, but you need to grab the bull by the horns. Start by deciding whether or not the basic idea is actually strong enough to warrant arranging. Are all the core elements like the chorus and melody in place? Is there a captivating hook that will compel audiences to continue listening? Spend a little time tinkering with the lyrics and your acoustic instrument of choice to iron out any kinks. If you need some pointers, check out a few songwriting tips to steer you in the right direction.
One of the most useful tips for arranging your first song is to consider genre. You might be confident that you’re a rock-only sort of musician, but does your song actually sit comfortably within this definition? Unless you’re experimenting with a bold fusion of styles, it’s worth checking in your influences as a reference point.
If you’ve spent an age perfecting the individual elements of song structure, it can be annoying to go back and refine them. However, you might need to rework your intro, chorus, and verses if your track is running long.
Just remember not to be too heavy-handed when it comes to song arrangement. The arrangement will become more complex and textured as the song takes form, so unless there’s a huge creative need for it, don’t be too overbearing when working on that intro or initial verse.
Still struggling to make sense of song arrangement? There are millions of tracks to look to for inspiration. “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd was a big hit when it was released in 2019, and all that success can be attributed to a killer arrangement. There are some pretty nifty music arrangement techniques deployed here. For starters, the intro stands apart from the rest of the song, with dark synth instrumentation that’s never repeated in a famously optimistic song. While the intro itself is fairly unusual, the first verse makes an instant impression, while the chorus maintains the core melody as the track builds. It’s a masterclass in how minor touches can make all the difference to song arrangement.
Keen on putting out EDM music? Dutch DJ San Holo’s “One Thing” deploys several innovative techniques that make it a real floor filler. Holo uses a fairly simple chord progression that at first puts the track more in line with the pop genre than the EDM material he’s famous for. Rather than stick with four bars, Solo uses eight. Thanks to this extended chord progression, Solo manages to create a track that’s familiar with wide appeal but still holds to its EDM and future bass roots.
Don’t Be Afraid of Song Arrangement
If you’re struggling to arrange music, you might need to spend a little time on the fundamentals. Start by taking a second look at song structure. If you don’t have a firm grasp on intros, verses, choruses, and outros, you’ll stand no chance of mastering a memorable arrangement. Next, play around with melody and harmony arrangement. Just remember not to let yourself be too restricted here. If you need to temporarily ditch lyrics to find a melody that resonates, do so. Selecting instruments can be more of a challenge, but look to other examples from within the genre for inspiration. However, this is a guideline, rather than gospel. Ultimately, you need to have faith in your artistic vision, especially if you’re still developing your sound or want to experiment with different styles and musical genres.