arranging – how I do it

I like to keep some involvement with teaching as it makes me reflect on how I do what I do, and I enjoy supporting the kids that are the future of the music industry.  I do believe music professionals have some duty to provide a connection between work and learning in order to keep the art and craft of music making healthy, so that each generation can build on the last.

I have taught arranging and thought I’d analyse how I go about it here.
Of course, every arranger approaches the job in his/her own way and that diversity of methodology is what makes us all offer our own particular character in an arrangement.  I’m continually fascinated by how differently every musician I encounter works, and I believe I have to adapt to each way of working, to suit the individual writer and producer.

For me, I like to get inside a song in order to empathize with it before I can add anything that enhances it.  Arranging is not only about part writing and harmony, but about bringing out the rise and fall of the song, helping it to communicate its ideas most effectively, and support the flow and journey.

So I start by immersing myself in it and trying to get a picture of the ‘shape’ of the song; I make notes about the sections, number of bars, chord sequence, rise and fall, existing melodies and hooks.  There might be string ideas on the arrangement already so I transcribe those to give me a 1 or 2 page overview.  It’s a continual challenge to be able to ‘see’ the elements of a composition, to translate the aural to something visual.

It is only with this ‘picture’ (a combination of lists, rough notation and scribbles) that I can start to consider what strings can add.  If I need to add lines and counter melodies I’ll essentially improvise these along with the track, humming along (it’s not pretty) or playing a keyboard.  I’ll write these lines down or play them in as midi and gradually build up a ‘pot’ of ideas.  Then I’ll structure these ideas, based on the shape and direction of the song.  I generally expect to provide something different for each section of a song, giving the composer/producer plenty of options. So even though they may well go for one particular chorus line, I provide a different one for each chorus, and suggest something for the intro, verses, links, bridges etc even if it’s unlikely to get used – you never know, it might just press all the right buttons (and I like to think I give value for money!).

Reference tracks are really useful too, particularly as so much work is done remotely now, with people around the world, often purely by email and skype.

For most jobs where I’m contributing creative ideas, I’ll demo the arrangement with some basic live recording and samples.  Most writers like to hear an arrangement idea, though some still prefer a score.  This demo will provoke more response than any amount of talking about the concepts of an arrangement and lead to updates that help me provide the most valuable contribution to a production.

10 responses to “arranging – how I do it

  1. Christopher Cook

    Hello, i saw your video on youtube of string arranging using chords, and as im inexperienced in arranging, but experienced in composing, i would like to know how to add a melody with the violins, but having the violi, celli and basses acting as the chords if you like. I listen to a lot of movie music by composers like John Williams, Thomas Newman and James Horner and I try to incorporate there stylistic effects into my music but its hard to figure out what style is best for the effect i want to create. And i find that once i have a theme and i try to arrange it for strings, i find it boring to listen to. Is there any advice you can give me?

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for leaving a comment. One of the things I admire in those composers you mention is that there are things going on, on many levels. There may be a dominant tune and underlying chord sequence but the composition does not stop there; parts move within the chords to support and enhance the melody, giving us subtle additions. Is there a particular composition by one of those composers that you feel works perfectly? Perhaps we could try to analyse it together?

  3. Christopher Cook

    Yes! Anything by James Horner. Works such as Bicentennial Man OST, and Jumanji. But particually Bicentennial Man and the last cue entitled “The Gift Of Immortality” where at the beginning there is a string motif ih which i can hear the parts, but im lost in figuring out which instrument is playing which part. Its almost arpeggio like.

  4. Hi Chris

    That YouTube video of ‘The Gift of Mortality’ from Bicentennial Man has been taken down unfortunately, which means if I publish a transcription of the score and mp3 online I’d probably get a ‘cease and desist’ order from his publisher.
    Anyway, I bought the mp3 from Amazon and I’m listening now.

    His string writing is certainly effective – he is a great orchestrator – but in fact it is quite simple also (certainly in this piece). I think there are some similarities in style with John Barry, where the composition has a clear melodic top line and some movement in lower parts that keeps the music flowing without taking our focus away from the melody. A common mistake young composers make in using strings, is to write them as if they were a keyboard string part. Strings become more interesting and ‘string like’ when each individual line within the orchestration has its own interest and direction. Can I hear any of your compositions online anywhere?

    I don’t know about James Horner’s composition techniques, but in creating string arrangements I will often start with simple chords, separate these into individual lines (violins 1, violins 2, violas etc) then look at the interest and sense of direction in each individual part. That way, the simple chords evolve into more natural string parts. My ‘Introduction to String arranging video’ tries to explain this.


  5. I found your site from VI Control Forum, great site! Thanks for your sharing and teaching. I am an arranger myself so I could identify with your teachings and tastes.

  6. i am not much of a commenter on blogs but i had to leave a comment here…the things you are sharing here are so honest and of value i just want to give a thumbs up and a thank you….learnt a lot from your blog and will keep visiting…

  7. i just watched your string arranging on youtube and i have to say thank you! seriously, sometimes i think people dont teach others just to have something over them. that vid is genius, and very generous i might add. if i had the $$$ i’d hire you to do my strings!

  8. Thanks for this really helpful set of teaching aids. I’m just starting to orchestrate my songs for fun and have a lot to learn. I’m using Logic with EWQLSO Platinum and Pianos Gold – your four part string example looks familiar – can you tell me which instruments and articulations you have set (the Logic descriptions are truncated and I’m still trying to find the best go-to samples for short and long notes).

  9. Hi Ray, thanks for your comment. I’m using live strings predominantly, so I don’t really have expertise with samples! I use basic string presets in Logic to sequence arrangements, then convert the midi into notation and bring in string players to perform it.

    • Thanks for such a quick reply. Looking at your photos of the players answered my question in terms of trying to set something up (4 Violins, 2 Violas, 3 Cellos). I’ll try to do that and then substitute larger ensembles when I’m happy with it. I remember George Martin advising to arrange as though it were for a quartet; otherwise too many notes in the chords would make it muddy (my paraphrase). Thanks again.

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