When you first start arranging, very often you are just trying to come up with enough ideas to fill up three minutes. I call that a theme and variations approach and that is the way I arranged through college. I shudder to think about what I wrote back then.
Most experienced arrangers eventually come to the conclusion that you don’t need lots of ideas to arrange; you just need one. That is not to say you hammer the same idea through the entire song. That would be repetitious and boring. Rather, you develop the idea. Essentially, good music is a balance between repetition and development. Repetition is what ties a piece of music together to make it feel unified and development is what makes it interesting.
I am currently in the middle of writing a Christmas book of arrangements for Lorenz and yesterday, I wrote something that illustrates what I just said. The song is a gentle Christmas carol called “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and I am writing this book at the late intermediate level.
In this particular arrangement, I am using an idea that I stole from the song itself to unify the arrangement. It is a little 4-bar phrase. Here is the first time I use it.
I like to use a little four bar phrase like this repeatedly throughout an arrangement and I am going to use this one several times. However, I am not going to careful not to just repeat it exactly. I want to use a combination of repetition and development to both unify but also create interest.
After stating this idea in the first four bars, I immediately repeat it in the next four but with a twist. The chords are slightly different (not as different as you might think but slightly different) and the melody is changed (developed) as well. However, the melody starts the same (an octave lower) and the general rhythm and feel is the same.
The next time I come back to this idea is after the first verse. This time, I am going to repeat those first four bars exactly. There are a few reasons why. First of all, this is an arrangement that will be sold and I want it to be playable as possible. Repetition helps musicians learn music faster so I am not opposed to repeating things exactly just to make a piece easier to learn. Second, there is a lot of time between this four bars and the first four bars and a repeat is not going to feel redundant at this point.
Now, I am going to repeat the idea again right away but this time, I am both going to develop it and use it to transition into a louder, more active section of the song. Here is what I came up with.
The last time I use the idea is in the last four bars. I had to modify it at the beginning because the first half beat needs to be reserved for the last melody note of the song. However, if you play it, you will still get a hint of the original idea.
I am going to come back to this arrangement next week to discuss other ways development takes place. I will see you then.