Arranging and Composition Techniques: Song Construction and Arrangement

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2005
12 Pages
Associate Professor, Dr. Young-Hwan Yeo (Author)


In the early days of the pop industry, roles were more clearly defined. Songs were composed by songwriters, vocal and orchestral performances were extracted by producers, and the results recorded and mastered by audio engineers. The arranger’s task was to translate the chords and melodies into an orchestral score, which could then be performed in one take by a team of musicians.

Today, of course, the modern palette of sounds is no longer limited to classical instruments, and arranging is often an integral part of the songwriting and production process. An incredible array of synthesisers, samplers and other tools is now available to aid the creative process, and digital technology allows us to shuffle the entire sections of music around until a perfect format is achieved.

In pop music, above all, the role of an arranger has merged with those of a musician, programmer, producer and writer, to become a vital part of the creative process. For me, arranging is primarily about creating moods. A good arrangement should hook the listener from the introduction, and hold their attention through the song as the parts and melodies develop. Sounds and chord structures should work together to surround the vocal and evoke the appropriate emotions. Everyone has their own way of achieving this, and there can never be an ‘ultimate’ arrangement for any track — experimentation is the key.

Songs can evolve from a wide range of starting points. You may be working from a demo, with many of the parts already defined, or you may have just a title. Either way, it’s good to start by taking an objective step back. Imagine how the song might sound on your car radio or your old radio at home. What sounds would grab your attention, and make you turn the radio up? As the music continues, which melodies fill your mind and keep you enthralled? Try to translate your ideas into reality as quickly as possible. The more you work on a song, the less objective you become, and your first impressions are often correct. You might listen to a track thousands of times as you work on it, but the general public will be lucky to hear it a couple of times on the radio before it drops from the playlist.

Start by developing a fundamental groove, which will underpin the entire song. I find it helps to work with a basic ‘old-faithful’ set of sounds — drums and percussion in the sampler, ‘real’ instruments from a selection of sample players, and an assortment of other synthesisers. Using these familiar sounds, I can quickly build up the bare bones of an arrangement and test my ideas. As the groove begins to emerge, I begin to replace the original sounds with new and stronger versions. If you are stuck for inspiration, think of other great songs with a similar feel, and try incorporating some of the rhythms. You can use software tools like Steinberg’s ReCycle1 to slice up beats and move sections around, or reverse them to add interest. The old adage “it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play that counts” still applies — if you get stuck with a certain part that is not working successfully, leave it out and move on to another. Never confuse complexity with creativity; it’s usually the simplest melodies and sounds that are the most memorable and have the greatest effect.

From a listener’s point of view, the two most important sections of any pop song are the introduction and the chorus. The introduction sets the mood of the song, while the chorus is the section that filters through into the listener’s subconscious and delivers the ultimate hooks. Often the introduction is a cut-down version of the chorus, with some of the instrumentation muted. Use it to grab attention, preview the main riffs, and then drop down into the first verse. Work on these sections first, and then move on to tackle the second verse, middle eight and outro. It’s always good to try and record a guide vocal as soon as possible, so that you can build the arrangement around the voice rather than leaving it to the end of the session. Remember that the voice is the most important instrument in any song and should be treated as such.


1 First introduced in 1994, Steinberg’s ReCycle software has been on the sampling-and-looping scene for some time. Its innovative strategies for changing tempos and manipulating beats have made it a favorite among sample-heads in all genres.

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Arranging and Composition Techniques: Song Construction and Arrangement
The University of Malaya  (Music Department)
Scholarly Research Paper
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The Research paper by two associate professors at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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Associate Professor, Dr. Young-Hwan Yeo (Author)Associate Professor, Dr. Mohd Nasir Hashim (Author), 2005, Arranging and Composition Techniques: Song Construction and Arrangement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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