I started arranging when I was in high school. My arrangements were horrific stuff, far below the bar that many of my young readers set today. (By the way, those that bemoan the sad state of today’s music education are clearly not seeing what I see. Today’s young generation is far ahead of where my generation was at their age.)
There were two priorities I had back then. The first was finding a way to show off. 🙂 I needed to come up with a flashy run and I needed to play it loudly. The second was finding enough ideas to fill up three minutes.
The first priority was easy. The second was hard. At that point, my mind struggled with coming up with textural ideas to fill three minutes. And so, I ended up writing what I call theme and variation arrangements, which are arrangements that contain a few verses of a song with each verse containing an unrelated musical idea. They did not make sense but at least they were three minutes long. As a side note, I got adept at justifying why the second verse should be in a minor key. Haha, many of you know what I am talking about and have been there, too.
It took years until I settled on the approach which I use today. Actually, I was 30 before I figured it out. What it comes down to is something I have written here numerous times. Good arranging is not about cramming ideas together. It is about one idea that is developed.
What is a developed idea? Check out these three bars:
If you liked those childhood exercises where you had to look at two pictures and circle the differences between them, you will like this exercise, too. Find the development in these three bars and circle it. In other words, look for ways the second two bars use the ideas from the first bar with slight modifications. Here you see rhythmic, harmonic, and note development. Keep in mind that when you play it, you can bring in more development related to dynamics, articulation, accents, and more.
This is a micro example of development but when you zoom out and look at the big picture, the same principle is used to build an entire arrangement. For example, the texture of the second verse should usually be a development of the first verse. Here are the first two bars of each verse side by side. Again, identify the development.
Make sense? While this may feel hard to do up front, in my opinion, you will quickly get to the point where developing an idea in four or five different ways is a lot easier than coming up with four or five ideas. Your arranging will be way better, too.