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How to Arrange a Song in 5 Steps

Once you know how to write a song, learning how to arrange it is the next important part. Musical arrangement is the process of structuring and outlining a song that makes sense using a musical idea you already have.

Imagine that you’ve written a nice song with your acoustic guitar (or Keyboard), but you want to turn it into a modern Pop song. This is an example of taking a musical composition and reworking it to create a completed song. The same happens if you have a basic loop in your DAW and you want to extend it to create a full song.

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How to arrange a song in 5 easy steps 

Arranging is using structuring and voicing to make the most of any previously-composed musical idea. It is the process of coming up with a song that feels finished, discernible, and releasable that could be streamed or played on the radio.

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Step 1. Make sure the song works on it’s own 

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5 Steps to Arranging a Song - Make sure the song works on it's own

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Does the song work on its own if you were to play it on a piano or on a guitar alone whilst singing? If you are singing to a pre-made track, does it work? If the song isn’t already “great” on its own, no amount of production or arranging will fix this.

- Do you have a strong chorus?

- Is the main melody line in place?

- The hook is the holy grail of songwriting. Do you have a good melodic or harmonic hook?

Anything can be a hook: from a groovy bassline to a powerful vocal section, from a catchy guitar riff to a dreamy chord progression. But in a nutshell, the hook is the sound or combination of sounds that makes your song special. So, why not make arranging decisions based on the hook?

You should aim to work on your song until it sounds great “naked”, i.e, just using a piano/guitar and voice.

This is key. 

A bad song will stay a bad song, even with the best arrangement and production. A good song will stay a good song, even with less than adequate production.

If you've got a main hook or chorus that's repeated a lot, things can get boring. Try swapping instruments about, changing the dynamics or switching parts halfway through the section to add a bit of variety and musical interest. 

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Step 2. Consider the song’s genre 

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5 Steps to Arranging a Song - Consider the song's genre

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Before the arrangement/production session starts, you must ask yourself – what genre(s) does the song encompass? Is it Pop? Is it Rock? Is it Country? Is it a bit of 2 or 3 genres?

Once you’ve decided on this, it may be useful to find a couple of reference tracks for that particular genre. Reference tracks are incredibly important in both the arranging/production & mixing and mastering phases of any recording.

Some might say, “I don’t want to copy anyone because I want to be completely original.”

But the truth is, even the pros at the very top – who are very original – are constantly referencing other material.

Whether it’s just a light listen for inspiration or to check how someone else approached a certain situation, everyone does it and it is essential. It’s pretty difficult to replicate something exactly. So don’t worry too much about copying someone unless you’re literally copying them note for note, instrument for instrument, etc.

Think about using reference tracks as “being part of the conversation” of music production at large. 

A reference track is a song from another artist to use as a benchmark for varying elements in your own productions.

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Step 3. Think about the song’s duration

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5 Steps to Arranging a Song - Consider the song's length and duration

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Are all the different sections within the song the correct length and do they complement each other? 

This step falls a bit into step one, “Does the song work on its own?”. 

However, the arranger/producer may want to modify the form of the song for the recording. 

Sometimes the way a performer plays the song live can differ from the studio version. For the recorded version, it’s very important that the song is as succinct as possible.

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Step 4. Gauge ideas around the vocal line

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5 Steps to Arranging a Song - Gauge ideas around the vocals

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It is always good to have rough vocals to give you a strong sense of how the song feels. 

For example, without hearing the vocals you could easily make the arrangement too dense. 

This will not only result in a less than pleasing final recording, but will also make your mix engineer’s job a lot harder. The best-recorded songs have arrangements that have the perfect balance of production density.

Remember - all the different elements of an arrangement/production should have their own space and sonic range.

For example, you don’t want to have the bass playing one line and the keyboard playing a different one in the same range.

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Step 5. Don’t neglect the rhythm

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5 Steps to Arranging a Song - Don't neglect the rhythm

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Besides the lead vocal, the drums/rhythmic components of the song (such as the bass) are the most important part of the arrangement. They take up the most sonic space, give the listener the “groove,” and dictate a large part of how the song feels.

Firstly, should the drums be acoustic (real) or sampled?

Obviously this step is not applicable to stripped-down arrangements (like piano or guitar with vocals, voice and strings, etc.). Once you’ve figured this out, you may want to take a listen to one of your reference tracks.

Ask yourself questions like:

- Where should the drums come in?

- Where should they come out?

- What general patterns will the drums be responsible for?

If the track will feature a real drummer, your arrangement should just plot out the general direction of what the drummer should play.

Don’t obsess over programming fills or feel - a good drummer will make those decisions for you.

This brings us to another point. You need a really great drummer if you’re going to use acoustic drums. And, the drums must be recorded perfectly.

If the drums are not recorded to perfection, your entire song will sound like it’s not recorded with perfection. And remember, you can always subtract and make it sound gritty and lo-fi. Just choose how many mic channels end up in the final mix and what type of processing is used. 

Furthermore, you can’t use just a mono mic on the drums and expect the final mix to sound like a pop country song that just hit the radio from Nashville!

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Author Box

This article is brought to you by Scott Ashley, Artist Relations Director of USA Songwriting Competition. His book “How to Write Better Songs: Songwriting Secrets from Award-Winning Songwriters” hit #1 on the Amazon Best Seller Books charts recently. USA Songwriting Competition has been honouring songwriters from all over the world. Winners came from Australia, Japan, Canada, UK, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, USA, etc. Past winners have gotten recording contracts, getting their songs on film, TV as well as getting cuts with major artists. Check out USA Songwriting Competition here.

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