If you’re like me, chances are you probably jumped into all the exciting stuff early on; the fancy mix techniques, the complex sound design, you know the deal.
Sure, it’s fun, but by doing this you ignore the fundamentals and ultimately end up wondering why your music isn’t up to par.
One of these commonly disregarded fundamentals is arrangement, or structure. Today, these two terms are essentially interchangeable (a distinction would have been made in the past).
After talking to hundreds of producers about their struggles with arrangement, I’ve found 3 key tips that if made the focus, will help improve your songs. If these tips aren’t new to you, I still recommend reading through them. A little refresher never hurts.
The 3 tips for good song structure are:
- Keep it brief,
- Give each section a focus,
- Start with the big picture, and end with small details.
Let’s dive deeper.
Arrangement Tip #1: Keep it brief
It’s not necessarily bad practice to write a 6-minute song. What makes it bad practice, however, is when that song doesn’t need to be 6 minutes long.
In other words, make sure your arrangement is meant to be “x minutes” long. If you and others can listen to the full arrangement and stay interested throughout, then it’s probably at the right length. On the other hand, if you and your listeners feel the song is dragging on, it’s a good sign that your arrangement is forcing the song to be longer than it should.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s often exceptionally difficult to pull off long arrangements. If you’re feeling out of your depth – make it shorter.
How do you make something shorter? You remove the fluff. The clutter.
Sometimes this means shortening transitions, and other times it means removing sections of a song you’ve spent hours refining because they simply aren’t necessary. Don’t get too attached to your work–remove the clutter where needed.
Arrangement Tip #2: Give each section a focus
One common mistake a lot of new producers make is that they add too much competing content in each section of the track.
This happens due to a flawed way of thinking that tells us: “the more we add, the better our music will sound.”
New and experienced producers alike also fall into the trap of thinking that the more ideas and elements that exist, the more impressed their listeners will be.
This is only true when those ideas are carefully and thoughtfully added. It’s one thing to add elements when you’re doing it out of necessity and creative exploration, but if you’re doing it for bragging rights or to make your music as complex as possible, you’re probably missing the mark.
One of the main issues with all of this is that unnecessary ideas can actually leave the listener confused.
Studies have shown that a listener can only really notice 3 elements at once, with full focus being limited to only 1 of those 3 elements.
Whether its a vocal, a melody, or a bassline, figure out what instrument needs the most attention in each section (intro, verse, chorus, etc.), and structure your arrangement, composition and mixing to put that element at the forefront.
For example, if you bring in a pluck sound at bar 48, you could place your bassline further back in the mix by lowering its high end, thus allowing the pluck sound to take center stage. Doing this forces the listener to focus on the new pluck sound over the bassline they’d heard during the 16 bars beforehand.
Arrangement Tip #3: Start big picture, end with small details
It’s easy to get stuck tweaking things, adding complex automation, and spending time on things that really don’t make that much of a difference in the end.
It’s particularly easy to do this during the early stages of a project. The stages where the resistance is the strongest.
Instead of running on the treadmill and wasting time on the small details (which, if they really are important, can wait till later), start with the big picture.
In regards to structure and arrangement, this means using wide brush strokes. Getting the basic arrangement in place before moving on. You can always come back and paint in those minute details later.
Consider thinking about:
- Where’s the breakdown going to be?
- How long is the breakdown going to be?
- Should I have a verse before the first breakdown, or transition into it directly from the intro?
Good arrangement doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take time to master.
If you really get stuck, use other tracks as reference material, and feel free to reference this article when needed.