Production Concepts: The Arrangement
Posted by Esteban Miranda on
The definition of Music Producer has changed over the years. In the early days of recording studios the producer was the person who was responsible for, well....recording the music.
It might have been a completley separate musician or musicians who had written it. But there is now a growing need for music producers to understand music theory and composition. Because as a music producer in 2022, writing music is as much a part of being a music producer as recording and mixing is.
So, in this guide we are going to focus on some of the core concepts and tips and tricks around Arrangement.
To illustrate how ever-changing music production is in fact, I have a book here with me which was only written in 2011-2012, and it makes the following joke:
A chapter on arrangement? In a Music Production book? Surely some mistake!
Which, seems quite hilarious that even ten years ago, there seemed to be such a distinct designation between musicians and producers. But nowadays, the lines are much more blurry.
In fact, I would argue that the modern definition of a music producer is someone who writes and records music, and someone who is purely focused on recording and mixing would be labelled something like an engineer.
Since a lot of music nowadays can be made without having to record any external instruments at all. Things can all be made in the box, and producers can make hits that go global from the comfort of their bedroom.
In a lot of instances, the person who writes and composes the music, is the same person who produces it.
So, let's look into Arrangement.
What's in an Arrangement?
The importance of having a solid arrangement cannot be overstated. In fact, being able to understand the concepts of arrangement is not only key to making a good track, but it's also a pre-requisite for a great mix. Everything is connected, and all works in concert to give you a polished finished track.
Arrangement is all about knowing what elements to add into your songs, but also when to take things away.
How much instrumentation should accompany a chorus or a drop? When should you cut the drums? Do you need to add things or take things away to get the energy and atmosphere you want?
These are all the kinds of decisions that can turn a good track into a great one.
When we talk as music producers, one of the things we often discuss is space in your mix.
This is a problem to which EQ or Compression is often applied, and it can be easy to forget that there are musical solutions, not just technical ones, that we can apply to issues like this.
Musical Problems with Musical Solutions
Let's explore a few hypothetical problems, and see how we can use concepts of Arrangement to solve them.
Problem: An important part of your track, one that you want the listener's focus to be on, is getting lost in the mix. A key synth lead line that is accompanied by pads and busy drums just isn't punching the way you want it to.
Potential Solutions: Instead of going to EQ or Compression to adjust levels, ask yourself if you can remove one of the parts that is clogging up your mix with sound. Does this section need the full drum groove? Or could you drop out some background synths? Adding or taking away musical elements can often solve these types of problems.
Problem: The overall 'shape' or structure of your track is confusing, and doesn't seem to have a specific direction.
Potential Solution: When creating music, the listener expectations should play a key part in your considerations for what you're writing. For example, in many EDM genres, 8 bar progressions, building of energy, and drops are commonplace. In pop music, the expectation is more along the lines of an Intro/Verse/Chorus structure.
Sometimes, despite how original you want your music to be, certain conventions within your genre exist for a reason, and by conforming to those genre conventions you can actually make a successful hit, rather than a miss.
So adjusting your structure to fit more closely to these themes can help bring originality within the confines of your genre. Because being original is fine, but throwing all of the genre conventions and rules out the window isn't necessarily a guaranteed path to originality and success.
Problem: Your track lacks dynamic or emotional energy; it feels flat, without any highs or lows in the arrangement.
Potential Solution: Music is all about feeling. It's about taking the listener on an emotional journey. The builds and drops of emotion in your music are entirely dependent on how you arrange it. If you feel like your track lacks emotional dynamics, try muting and unmuting certain tracks at different times. This will give you a good idea of what each part contributes to the mix.
It can also be a good exercise to identify what you want the 'loudest' or the peak emotional part of your track to be, and then you can almost work backwards from there by cutting things out and re-introducing them to build the tension, emotion and guide your listeners on a journey which will match their expectations.
A great genre to listen to for this working in practice is house music; certain tracks are masterclasses in subtle arrangement changes which make what is essentially the same elements looping constantly feel fresh and exciting.
The below track Summer Love by Nima Gorji is a great example of this.
The Key Concepts
So, considering the above problems and solutions is a good exercise. They're a good indicator of some of the potential arrangement related issues you'd come across, but it's by no means an exhaustive list.
In fact, there are a wide range of potential issues you're likely to encounter when arranging your music, and think it's important to dig a little deeper into the fundamentals, and identify the key concepts in arrangement.
Once you have a solid grasp of these, you can apply the knowledge to any issues you may come across in yoru your own music.
There are entire books written on this concept, so you'll forgive me if I don't manage to cover every single concept.
Arranging music is an art.
Arranging music is a science.
There are a few core principles at work under the surface of music composition, and they can be labelled as follows:
- The Groove. This is, undoubtedly, one of most important aspects to music. How many tracks hit you instantly with their super infectious rhythm? Even slower music has a groove. Rhythm isn't just something you get from drums and percussion.
- The Shape. There's this really weird phenomenon in music production where we use physical descriptor words to describe sound. How can sound have a shape? A colour? But strangely, we all seem to know what these words mean. A track should have a shape; there should be ebbs and flows, highs and lows. There should be the building of tension, and the release. All of these contribute to the overall 'shape' of the music.
- The Colour. Didn't we just mention this? Music can sound warm. It can sound cold. The emotions put into music can inject it with specific colour or tone.
These are three fundamental concepts that you'll need to understand if you're going to get a solid grasp on arranging. So let's dig into them a bit deeper.
Behind the Groove.
Whether you're a lover of rock, dance, pop or RnB, all music has rhythm. A clear and definable beat that drives the groove of the music. Pop music in particular is often driven by a clear and easy to distinguish kick drum pattern, anchored in place with the snare or clap sound.
Whether it's Trap, Reggaeton or Dancehall, all of these use a similar emphasis on Kick and Snare/Clap sounds, yet they achieve very different overall grooves and rhythms.
Working with these elements is usually bass, and then hi-hats and other percussive parts sitting in the mid-high frequencies to give some variation, and add complementary polyrhtythms over the top of the main beat.
But rhythm and groove isn't always as in-your-face as it can be with a heavy emphasis on drums.
Some genres and recordings achieve their distinct rhythm and groove without having to beat it into the listener.
A lot of old Motown records are irresitably groovy music, yet where this comes from is a lot more complex than just a driving kick and snare, or even drums alone.
In fact, in many of these old recordings, the drums are mixed quite low, the bass is mixed down with the other instruments, and sometimes vocalists had tambourines, which you can hear quite clearly.
Instead, all of the instruments working together create an implied groove; the overall rhythmic qualities of the song which come from the interactions between the different parts.
There's a core concept within Groove that you'll probably be familiar with. And that is Swing.
Now, we aren't talking about the music genre, instead, we are talking about the rhythmic phenomenon.
In a DAW setting, a swung rhythm is one that does not conform perfectly to the quantised grid.
What do we mean by quanitsed?
Well, since the beginnings of Digital Music creation, the rhythmic qualities of the music being created became much more rigid. Whether it was early drum machines, or modern DAWs, the rhyhtm is computerised. Rigid. Absolutely perfect and in time.
When you record into a DAW, you'll have the option to Quantise your MIDI recording. This simply means that any parts that are slightly off the beat will be moved perfectly onto it.
So, when a beat or instrumental part is swung, it means it doens't align perfectly with the rigid, computerised grid.
The origins of this can be traced to older recordings of real drummers, who, instead of playing perfectly rigid and in time, played what they felt.
Of course, they were playing in time, and to a time signature. I'm not trying to imply that before computers, music was a rhtyhmic free-for-all, but try as they might, no human being can play a pattern perfectly in time every single time. This is why the concept of varying rhythm and velocity in MIDI is called humanisation.
So, if a snare drum is played slightly before the beat, it creates a sense of urgency.
If it's played instead slightly after the beat, there's a more laid back feel to the music.
This can be really obviously heard in a lot of garage or hip hop.
Humanising your Groove.
Most main DAWs are able to create groove templates from existing audio. Ableton Live, for example, has the Groove Pool, where many preset groove templates are, so you can inject these into your rhythmic parts to give them a different feel.
These can be really useful.
One great trick you can do with groove templates is to lock your music to a grid that follows a more humanised and 'realistic' sounding rhythm, rather than computer-perfect straight 16ths.
Now, you can take groove and humanisation one step further by doing it freehand.
Even a grid from a groove template is still a grid to which your music is going to adhere.
However, a good exercise is to try out some of your own grooves.
Program your kick on beats 1 and 3 of the bar, and then program your snare or clap hits on beats 2 and 4.
Then, slightly adjust the position of your snare beats, either before or after the beat, and hear the difference it makes.
This doesn't just apply to the snare parts though, you can use this technique of manually moving the parts to any of the bits of your kit.
Give it a go and see what kind of swung rhtyhms you can create!
For a more detailed look at this principle in practice, check out this video from Underbelly's You Suck at Producing YouTube Channel.
The Shape of Music
Shape is more a difficult term to define when we are talking about music. As we mentioned earlier, it's a word that describes the physical qualities of an object. And music isn't a physical object.
But shape absolutely describes the structure of a piece of music. So let's explore it.
In theory, music can be structured in any number of ways. We all know that one track, or even album, that seems to defy the rules of music and take things in a weird direction.
But in general, most music uses derivatives of well worn and reliable structures that have barely evolved through the course of modern music.
Regardless of genre, these structural principles remain largely the same, because as we mentioned earlier; catering to an audience's expectation is a key part of writing music.
Most tracks will conform to some form of structure, and in modern pop music, it often looks something like this:
Intro > Verse (or Section A) > Chorus (or Section B) > Verse (A) > Chorus
These are obvioulsy loosley labelled here, because music with vocals has different structural rules than music without vocals. But in general, the structural principle is sound.
But can you imagine a song which started with full energy and arrangment, and gradually got fewer and fewer elements? This would place the emotional climax of the song right at the beginning, and then reduce things to taper out.
This may work in some circumstances, but in general you want to build anticipation and tension, not the other way around.
There are sometimes breakdown or bridge sections in songs, which offer a variation and a new section, whereby the energy and emotions can be redone to alter the dynamics of the music.
Shaping your Music
Shaping the emotional soundscape of your music isn't always easy, but there are some good exercises you can try to get things going.
Before we cover that, let's briefly summarise the purpose of different sections in music:
- Intro: This section is (in case the name didn't give it away) the beginning of your track. Intro sections can be as short as a single bar or less, but in certain genres they can be as long as several minutes or more. The purpose here is, of course, to introduce your track. You might want to start strong, or subtle. But the idea is introduce some elements, to place your listener on the beginning of the emotional journey you're taking them on.
- Verse/Section A: This section typically follows the intro as the first major song section, though this isn't always the case. It's also worth noting that Verse usually refers to music with vocals and lyrics, so I've also included Section A as another label, because the concept is still applicable even if you're not writing vocal-driven music. This is usually where the song’s sonic identity is established; the hints you have in the intro become more fully realised and a complete musical idea is expressed. There’s often more than one verse found in a song, or the A section is repeated. The level of the variations between these repetitions can vary quite a bit, but you'll often find sections that are more or less the same, with one element different, or there could be slightly more variations. Though, never too many to confuse the listener as to what section they're in.
- Chorus/Section B: Often thought of as perhaps a culminating or “featured” section of the track, choruses or B Sections are often repeated, offering the focal point of the music. They often sound big and energetic, though this is entirely depending on the style. It isn't unheard of for choruses to drop energy levels to be intimate and reserved. The rest of the track often serves to set up the chorus or B Section, and it's here you'll most likely want to deliver the peak musical moment.
- Bridge/Section C: This section is usually not repeated, the bridge, or breakdown, is often a third distinct section that serves to add some variation in your track. If you're using the A B structure, the C Section may be placed like this: A B A B C B. This gives you an illustration of how the structure of a track would work with this model. This section often serves as another variation in emotion, to set up the final and biggest chorus in the song. Bridges usually have a sonic character that contrasts with both verses and choruses.
- Outro: An outro takes the song to its conclusion. An outro could be as simple as fading out the final chorus, or it could be a fully composed sequence of unique musical events. In a lot of dance music, the outro is often a mirrored version of the intro, dropping out elements in reverse order to mirror how they came in. However, some songs simply just end very abruptly, so there are few set rules for what an outro needs to be.
So, now that we've got those terms defined, and you have a better understanding of the structural elements, let's go over an exercise.
Find a track you're working on. If you've been stuck on the arrangement, great. But if not, maybe save a new version to do this exercise.
In a lot of electronic compositions, I often work In the Loop. We covered this concept recently in our Tips on Finishing Music article.
Essentially what this means is, I will loop an 8 bar section of my DAW, and build a full arrangement there.
Using this technique, build a "full arrangement". This will end up being your chorus or Section B.
Once you have a fully built up arrangement in your loop, then you can begin to mute different elements and see how things sound with variations in the instrumentation.
You can then work backwards; starting from your tracks highest point of energy or emotion, and carefully crafting how you'll take the listener there.
The key to doing this is to make sure your transitions feel natural, and keep the engagement of the listener. This is where more precise shaping of the dynamics of your arrangement come in. It isn't enough to just copy and paste identical elements around, adjust their play order and then call it finished.
Once you have a loose structure that builds energy, then you can go in and edit automation, add variation in notes or rhythms so the track is constantly feeling new and exciting, and not just an obvious copy-and-paste of section A and then section B.
Colour? In Music?
We mentioned this earlier, but Music undoubtedly has colour.
Colour primarily refers to the way we compose our music to maintain the interest of our listeners.
Our hearing evolved as a survival mechanism, which means we are highly attuned to changes in our acoustic environments, and this also means that things that remain constant tend to get tuned out by our brains.
So consider this when you're making music.
It's so easy, especially in a DAW, to create one A section, one B section, and then copy and paste a few times and be convinced you've got a track. But this just isn't the way to create music that maintains interest for the listener.
Using the same takes of different parts - whether this is recorded audio, recorded MIDI, or even programmed MIDI - will soon bore your listener. Using slightly different takes will make sure there are subtle changes that your listener's brain will be attuned to, meaning the audio won't seem flat or boring.
In recorded music, this is often as simple as recording multiple takes of the various instrument or vocal parts, and then comping together different runthroughs to cover the different sections. You're not just recording one chorus vocal and copy-and-pasting it into all your choruses.
In eletronic music, where we are using lots of loops, samples, and programmed MIDI, the key to getting this level of variation is what gives a professional producer their edge over the amateurs.
There are many tricks to achieve this; layering synths, dynamic filtering and automation on your harmonic and melodic parts.
Varying your drums slightly is another great trick to achieve this type of subtle change.
So, all of the above things need to be considered when we are working on our arrangement, so let's discuss how we can tackle these head on.
Injecting Colour into your tracks.
When you are working on your arrangement, you need to be aware of all of the things we just discussed. The wandering attention span of your listener is always threatening to get bored and to move on from your music, so you need to know a few tricks to help keep them focused on your music.
Getting the right balance between sticking to the pre-defined structural genre conventions and being interesting and novel enough so listeners don't get bored isn't always easy. The avergae listener may get bored if the same thing is repeated two or three times.
Most modern music conforms the the 4/4 time signature. Meaning there are four beats in a bar, and the bars are organised in groups of multiples of four.
So a verse may be 8 bars, a chorus may be 4, a bridge may be 16, and so on.
This is especially adhered to in dance music. The build up in tracks is often 16 bars, with variations happening every 8 bars or so to keep the engagement high.
Now, there is no set law that says every section has to be a multiple of four bars. In fact, injecting an extra bar of music, or even of silence before a drop, can work wonders to add to the tension and the release of a track.
If you're not feeling like a drop or a build in your track is working, try adding a single bar before the drop comes in to see how that affects the overall energy levels!
Now, there are more tricks you can do to make sure your track is constantly keeping the listener engaged.
- Be ruthless with your intros. An intro should be exactly that; an introduction. Things should usually get going pretty quickly. However, if you're dragging your into out, there has to be a reason for it. You can't just repeat things for a minute or more and say it's an intro. A good trick can be to add in some unusual sounds; foley sound, one off hits or background noise recordings. These can help make the listener feel as though they're travelling from the "real world" and into your music. If you start with background chatter in your intro and slowly fade it out, the effect can be really cool.
- Dynamics and filter processing. This is a standard dance music trick. Place a filter sweep on some of your background synth parts to create an instantly tangible rise in energy. But using a filter to create a riser isn't the only time you can do it. Subtle filtering of different elements of your tracks can help move them around in your mix, so other elements can have some focus. In the Underbelly video about drums I included earlier, he does a trick of using an LFO on a pitch for a jingle bell sound, to subtly change the pitch of it each time it plays. This concept can be used with filters and all sorts of subtle dynamic processing; slightly adjusting specific chatacteristics on synths or filters can give an otherwise repetitive element of your track some much needed variation.
- Drum fills. These are a time-honoured technique for a reason. A drum fill varies the beat, as well as allowing the drummer to show off. But these aren't only used by real drummers playing real kits. You can use drum fills in eletronic music; add a little percussive variation at the end of sections, or even a sampled drum fill before a new section kicks in.
- Automation is your best friend. In the days of recording in studios and mixing desks, producers would "ride the faders", which meant adjusting levels in real time while the track was recording to introduce variation on some backing parts. But nowadays, we have automation in our DAWs to do this for us. Use it on ANYTHING! You can get really creative, introducing almost subconscious changes in the music that the listener won't even know they're hearing. You can apply it to volume levels, reverb levels, any parameter on a synth or plugin. In most DAWs, there is little limit on what you can automate.
These are just a few ways you can introduce colour and variation into your music. The key is to experiment with variation as much as you can, and try your best to avoid the copy-and-paste formula that is so easy to fall into when using a DAW.
An Overview of Arrangement
So, those were some of the fundamental concepts behind what makes a good arrangement, and how you can inject some of those concepts into your own music making.
Like we said earlier in this guide, Arrangement is simultaneouslt an art and a science. There are some core rules, some widely adhered to ideas, but there are always ways in which you can stretch these boundaries.
The main concepts we covered were groove, shape and colour. How you can make your rhythmic ideas interesting, your shape consistent and your colour constantly shifting.
The main purpose of arranging your music is to maintain the listener's interest in the emotional journey you're taking them on.
This is achieved in many ways, and we listed only a few of them here.
Hopefully you got some good information from this guide, and found a trick or two you can use in your own productions.
While you're here, be sure to check out our deals on project templates for your DAW. They're a great way to see masterful arrangement in action. Our team of international producers are always working hard to recreate professional, industry standard remakes of top electronic tracks.
By downloading one of these templates, you can dig into a fully finished, studio quality tune. You can see all of the tricks that the top producers use to bring their music to life, and in particular, you can see how they arrange their music to drive the emotional journey of each track.
Thanks for checking in with us, and be sure to come back soon for more resources on learning music production!