The Golden Rule of Arranging
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Even when you get the hang of songwriting, arranging can be overwhelming. It’s a whole different beast. Now you need to take your vocal and guitar piece and turn it into a full performance with a bunch of different parts.
The good news is that you can get 80% of the way there with what I consider the golden rule of arranging.
Everything has its place.
There are 3 main parts to this concept, and we’re going to dive into each.
Fill the Pitch Spectrum
Think about your calendar schedule. You don’t schedule multiple meetings or events for the same time, do you?
Probably not. You’re going to put one meeting at 9, one at 11, the next at 1, and then your last meeting at 3.
The same idea applies to an arrangement. You don’t want all of the instruments to be within an octave of middle C.. You don’t want too much in the bass.
Everything needs its space.
Your bass and kick drum are going to sit somewhere in the 1st and 2nd octaves. Then all your guitar power chords, acoustic guitar, piano, and snare will likely be sitting in or near the 3rd-5th octaves.
So why would you put your all your other parts in that midrange too?
There’s already a ton going on there! But the 6th-8th octaves are certainly available.
It may also be a good idea to adjust where your piano is. Maybe move the piano up or down an octave if it is sharing the same octave as your guitar parts.
Just be conscious that you shouldn’t have too much going on all in the same pitch space. As a rule of thumb, try to limit yourself to 4 instrument parts in the same space.
If you have guitar power chords, piano and acoustic guitar all in the same space, consider having your lead guitars be an octave or two above.
If your piano, lead guitars and acoustic are all in the same space, try moving one of them up or down an octave.
Give Parts Different Styles and Rhythms
Let’s say you’re at a party with 10 people you don’t really know. If they all have the same interests, personality, and appearance, are you going to find any of them memorable?
But you know what you’d remember? The gluten-free guy who keeps insisting that the gluten free bread he makes is delicious, the quiet girl who enjoys discussing music, the car enthusiast who insists on showing you his car, and the pretentious hipster who makes sure everyone knows he only likes stuff that’s too boring for anyone else to like.
Yeah, you’re gonna remember them. Especially after that one guy makes you try his gluten-free bread.
So, wouldn’t you agree that having parts that sound different and unique from each other helps to make a more interesting arrangement?
Can you imagine if every note of every instrument in your song was held for the exact same amount of time?
You probably just yawned thinking about it. Or maybe you yawned because you’re bored reading this.
Mixing up staccato and legato parts, syncopated and on-beat parts, and long notes with short notes are great ways to do this.
If you have power chords that hold for the whole measure, adding another guitar part that is a syncopated lead melody and another that is on-beat quarter notes can really start to fill in the mix and help each one have it’s own space.
If the piano is playing a certain rhythm, have the acoustic guitar do a different one.
Be Intentional About Giving Each Part a Job
Can you imagine if a movie had 6 main characters?
That would be a bigger mess than…. Pretty much every DC movie.
Side characters are important. They add interesting aspects to a movie without dominating the spotlight.
Your arrangement needs to be the same.
You shouldn’t have 5 lead guitars and a vocal melody at the same time. You probably shouldn’t be trying to get your piano, acoustic guitar, and electric guitars all to be the star.
It’s like a football team. A quarterback needs to be great at passing. How good he is as catching is almost completely irrelevant. A wide receiver needs speed, but your linemen need to be huge and don’t need as much speed.
This is the same with your mix. What your power chords and violin part need to be good at is totally different. What you need from your piano and from your drums are completely different.