Essential Musical Skills: Arranging

Ability to arrange

Back when I was at Berklee there was a girl there who seemed to get all of the top gigs around. I’ll call her Jane for privacy reasons. I kept on hearing about Jane and seeing her everywhere. When I finally got a chance to see her play I didn’t understand the fuss about her. Jane seemed ok but nothing about her blew me away. Finally, one day I approached one of the artists she played with and asked them point blank why they chose Jane to play keyboards as opposed to the hundreds of other talents who could play circles around her (like me!!). Her answer blew me away and now I’ll share it with you.

She said, “Well, I wrote my song with the melody and lyrics but Jane was the one who really turned it into a force and a real piece of music. She wrote all the instrumental hooks and brought the song together as whole. Every note counts with Jane and now my songs have identity throughout.” So, I said in response, “You didn’t hire Jane for her playing?” The response was quick, “Well, maybe a bit but really I hired Jane because she is sort of like my arranger and my hit maker.” Wow…I walked away stunned. What a great lesson!

That particular conversation completely reformed the way I approached gigs there after. Here’s the overall concept I learned. Most of the time artists who hire you are asking you to not only play an instrument but more so to help their song’s identity. So, I take these concepts into consideration when I’m playing a part.

What’s going to make the particular song you’re working with different or identifiable? How does the particular parts you’re playing relate to the song as a whole. Is it cohesive with the other instruments? Does it match the style of the song? Is it a verse idea, a chorus idea, a bridge etc. etc.? In the vast majority of popular contemporary styles every note is accounted for and carefully placed. We need to think like an arranger when we play. How jazzy, or complex, or how fast our licks are doesn't matter. What does matter is what we play adds to the songs, creates identity, and improves the song as a whole. Once I understood that concept I started appealing to lots more artists and frankly I had more gigs and made a lot more money.

On a related note as your skills improve in this area you can actually get hired to just arrange for an artist. I’ve had several gigs where I was hired to create arrangements and tracks for artists. I didn’t even play keyboards on them. When you arrange you take a bare boned initial idea and build a whole song. Often times I’ll write guitar parts, bass parts, drum parts, horn parts, string parts, keyboard parts, etc. etc.

There is a lot of money in this particular aspect of the business. Especially, if you get some producer credits on the track as well. So, how do you get arranging gigs? Well, having a good demo of songs you’ve done really helps. You can present this to an artist so they can get an idea what you can do with a song. Another thing you can do to build a resume is offer to do a track for free in exchange for free use of the track on your demo. From there it’s all about meeting people and letting them know what you do.

Tip: Learn the basic functions and registers for all kinds of common instruments. For example, understand how to notate drums. Learn the transposition for horns, learn highest and lowest notes on an instrument etc. Learn what are the basic rhythm patterns that create a style.  Everything you learn about music will help you.  Build from there.

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