Music has been and will always be an essential part of life. It is a universally understood language across many cultures and eras. What goes into music and sound production is more complicated than most know.

Musical arrangements are reinterpretations or adaptations of existing musical works. Understanding musical arrangements is not as intuitive as one may think. That’s why we are here to break down what they are and why they are so significant in music production. 

What is a Musical Arrangement?

A musical arrangement reinterprets and reorganizes a piece of music to achieve a unique version of the original piece. It’s very much about the decision-making process of how to incorporate different musical elements to produce a unique outcome. 

These musical elements include the rhythm, harmony, melody, and instrumentation of the song. A new musical arrangement can make a familiar song can suddenly feel fresh, new, and exciting. This can elicit different emotions like nostalgia and a fond familiarity. 

The History and Importance of Arrangement in Music

Arranging music is no new concept. In fact, musical arrangements have a rich history with several notable eras to consider. 

  • The Renaissance era saw composers creating music often open to interpretation by its listeners. Musicians frequently arranged different vocal compositions for both small gatherings and grandiose shows. 
  • The Baroque period focused on the concerto grosso. This was a form of musical arrangement where a small group of soloists interacted with a larger ensemble. Notable composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach were two masters that come to mind. 
  • The Classical era had composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, noted for their precision in creating arrangements from their own previous work. 
  • In the 20th century, jazz and big band music jumped on the scene. These arrangements highlighted the improvisational skills of the musicians. Let’s not forget genius Duke Ellington's collaborations with arranger Billy Strayhorn.
  • Where it concerned pop and rock, arranging music saw no less success. Iconic bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys experimented with complex vocal harmonies and instrumentation arrangements that pushed the boundaries of what was possible in popular music.

The importance of these major composers using musical arrangements allows for a different level of emotional reach. The level of creativity is clearly shown in the way that musical arrangement can be adapted throughout time. 

Types of Arrangements in Music Production

Music production arrangements have many types and forms that can significantly impact the final product. Understanding them is key to appreciating a musical arrangement and creating your own. 

  1. Orchestration focuses on creating music for a bigger ensemble. The process involves the orchestrator determining which musician plays which instrument when and together. 
  2. Vocal arrangement involves organizing different vocal parts within a song. This can include different harmonies, vocal textures, and backing vocals.
  3. Instrumentation arrangement involves deciding which different instruments will be used in a particular performance or recording. It defines the ensemble's makeup and may involve selecting specific synths or electronic instruments in addition to acoustic ones.
  4. Reharmonization is the process of changing the harmonic structure of a song while keeping the original melody. This can be done by changing chords, chord progressions, or possibly modulating to a different key.
  5. Remixes involve creating alternative versions of a song, typically with electronic or dance-oriented styles. We see this a lot with producers using already iconic melodies to trigger a nostalgic feeling. 
  6. Mashups combine elements from two or more songs to create a new composition. Often, this includes layering the vocals over the beat of another song. 

Examples of Great Arrangements

"Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles:

Arranger: George Martin

This arrangement blends rock and classical music. Martin's use of a string octet that accompanies the Beatles' vocals brings out a new dimension to the song. The strings showcase contrast to the band's usual sound which puts an emphasis on the lyrics. 

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen:

Arranger: Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roy Thomas Baker

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is one of the all-time well-known songs. This piece is dramatic, combining elements of rock and opera. The middle piece, which focuses on an opera approach, is finished with a heavy rock finale showing this beautiful arrangement. 

"Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys:

Arranger: Brian Wilson

Wilson's arrangement for "Good Vibrations" is another well-known hit. The song focuses on different layers of vocal harmonies, unique instruments, and fun sound effects. This is a brilliant showcase of pop arrangement. 

"Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin:

Arranger: Jimmy Page and John Bonham

Zeppelin's "Kashmir" features a distinctive string and brass arrangement that distinguishes this rock song. An Eastern influence is combined with orchestration to produce quite the drama. 

"What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye:

Arranger: David Van De Pitte

We couldn’t leave out soul without talking about Marvin Gaye. In this song, Gaye works with David Van De Pitte's arrangement, which focuses on a horn section combined with beautiful strings. The depth of the song adds an irreplaceable emotional value. 

What is the Difference Between an Arrangement and a Composition?

Simply put, an arrangement is the reinterpretation of existing pieces of music. A composition, on the other hand, is created from scratch. Composers will write original work, whereas arrangers are inspired by melodies that already exist.

Is it Illegal to Arrange Another Artist's Music?

Arranging music can be a sticky issue. In fact, it can be a complex legal issue at times. There are different processes for getting specific permission to use a piece of an artist's original work.

This is specifically true if you plan to release the arrangement or play the arrangement in the public space. It’s considered to be a part of intellectual property rights and is covered under copyright laws.

Because of the necessary permissions needed in order to make an arrangement, it’s not uncommon for people to wonder about their copyright entitlement. The short answer is yes. An arrangement can be copyrighted with the idea that the “new” version is distinctly original from the piece it was arranged from. 

Having said that it is important to note that copyright issues will vary depending on which country you are in and producing the music. It’s best again to have a good legal team that can help protect you in the case that you plan to release or play the music publicly. 

What is a Stem in Music Production and How Are They Used?

When you hear someone reference stems in music production, they are talking about the submixes or the groups of other related audio tracks that are used in combination for a single audio file. Each stem will represent a category or a group of sounds within the mix. 

Stems are often are organized by instrument or different sound type. For instance, they may include vocals, drums, guitars, bass, or piano. This is done in the mixing phase of song production. 

The Basics of Arranging a Song

Let’s talk about the process of arranging a song. 

Step 1: Analyzing the Song

First, you must carefully listen to the original composition in order to produce something different. It’s important to identify key elements, such as the existing melodies and harmonies. You also can’t forget the rhythm and current instrumentation. Through this analysis, you can understand the current emotional state of the song and capitalize on it. 

Step 2: Developing Melodic, Rhythmic, and Harmonic Elements

This step includes experimenting with the different instrumentations that already exists, like changing the chord progression and rhythmic patterns. When you take away or add to them, you can change the narrative of the original work dramatically.

Step 3: Reviewing and Releasing the Arrangement

The last step is the most tedious one. This is where you refine the arrangement and focus on the tiny details that can make a major impact. This is small balancing and adjusting the dynamics of the song. At this point, many arrangers will collaborate with other musicians to seek feedback on their arrangement to see if it registers with the listener.

Musical Arrangement Is An Art Form

Creating musical arrangement requires a unique set of skills. Some of the most notable pieces, as mentioned above, are the biggest hits. Remixing is popular today as technology has developed and allowed not just producers to play with existing songs but also your everyday music lover. 

However, understanding that arranging art does require certain permissions to be publicly released is important to avoid any legal issues. For creators who want to find an affordable way to remix music for their content, a subscription to a music licensing service like Track Club (which even has a built-in song editing tool called MixLab) can make finding music and stems to work with easy while also avoiding legal problems.