Arranging for dummies (Part 1)

Here is a dirty secret about arranging: it usually happens fast. One of the biggest surprises I found as I got into the world of professional music is just how fast arranging happens. In the world of jazz, believe it or not, it often happens on the fly as if by magic. In the studio, I often see it happen with 5 minutes of prep and a few chords scribbled on a piece of scrap paper.

In the world of Christian music, it is not quite that fast but it is a lot faster than you probably think it is. I would estimate that the typical book of piano arrangements that you buy has less than 20 hours of arranging invested in it (the real number might be closer to 10). I am not counting getting the arrangement into notation software, engraving, and editing; I am just referring to the construction of the arrangement. Don’t feel cheated. The finances just don’t work in such a way that writers can spend much time on arranging. I won’t go into that today but it is what it is.

As for me? Rarely do I spend more than a few minutes arranging a typical piece of music you see here on the site. This piece is an exception of course but this arrangement from a few weeks ago probably has 10 minutes of arranging in it at the most.

In this post, I am going to tell you how I do it. It is not rocket science nor is it overly hard. It requires just three things:

  • A small mountain of experience. I have been playing for almost 40 years and arranging for 20 years.
  • One idea (I call this the hook).
  • A formula to use that idea.

That first item is not easy to overcome and I want you to know that I know that. I work with people from time to time who want to learn to arrange music. I tell them the things that I am telling you right now, and I am conscious of the fact that the second and third items are hugely dependent on the first item. The first thing is what makes the second two things anything from very easy to quite hard. However, you have to start somewhere (just as I did) and even if your mountain of experience actually is more like a large ant hill, you can still arrange with this strategy.

The idea I refer to in the second item is simply something that you lift from the song or perhaps it is something you come up with that complements the song. I sometimes grab the idea from my favorite part of the song. It could be a little melody idea or a nice chord progression. Other times, it is a textural idea that I am going to use while playing the first verse. There are lots of ways to do this but the idea needs to be defined and quantifiable.

The reason the idea needs to be defined is that it is going to serve a big purpose. This idea is going to become 1) the foundation of your arrangement, 2) a major thing people notice about your arrangement, and 3) the glue that holds the arrangement together. As I often say, an arrangement should feel cohesive rather than like a theme and variations. Sticking with one idea throughout your arrangement makes that happen.

Once you have the idea, you want to weave it through your arrangement as much as possible. You can use it as the intro, for interludes, and to close out the piece. You can interweave it between phrases sometimes. Very often, that idea actually becomes part of the main body of the arrangement. For example, if your idea is textural, it might be the texture you use on the first verse.

There is only one other thing you have to remember about the idea: you should see it as non-static. The idea should be developing as you move through your piece. If you come up with a melodic idea, don’t repeat the exact same melody line when you come back to it perhaps between verses. Put a twist on it. If your idea is textural and you use it in the first verse, very often, you can simply put a twist on the idea for the second verse of the song.

With time, this strategy becomes second nature and arrangements can just flow out of you. I am not talking about Beethoven symphonies; I am just talking about the 2-3 minute arrangements you need in church every week. It really can be quite simple.

Next week, I am going to break down an arrangement and discuss this in more detail. See you then.