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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Secret To A Great Arrangement

How To Make Your Band Sound Great cover image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that I try to do an in depth analysis of a hit song every week or so. One of the things that I emphasize in the analysis is how important the arrangement is to a hit, and I always break those arrangement elements down to show just they work within the song. Here's a detailed explanation of the arrangement elements and how their interaction is the key to really making an arrangement work. 

This excerpt comes from my How To Make Your Band Sound Great book, but I've also written similar sections in The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and The Music Producer's Handbook as well because it's one of the most important musical concepts that a musician, songwriter, engineer or producer can learn.

"Ever have a song that really works when it’s a piano or guitar and vocal, but just doesn’t seem to cut it when the whole band gets hold of it? That’s because one of the biggest problems with songs that don’t end up sounding as good as they do in your head is because of some common arranging mistakes. Arranging is an art form just like everything else in the music business so it does take some talent and experience to get a song to really click, but you can easily avoid some of the common pitfalls by observing the pointers below.

Most well conceived arrangements are limited in the number of elements that occur at the same time. An element can be a single instrument like a lead guitar or a vocal, or it can be a group of instruments like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, etc. Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm is considered an element. Examples: a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies singing the same melody. If the bass plays very tightly with the kick and snare, that can be a single element too. Two lead guitars playing different parts are two elements, however. A lead and a rhythm guitar are two separate elements as well. So what’s an element then?

Arrangement Elements
There are 5 elements in every arrangement.
Foundation: The Rhythm Section. The foundation is usually the bass and drums, but can also include a rhythm guitar and/or keys if they’re playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the Foundation element will only consist of drums since the bass will usually have to play a different rhythm figure to fill out the sound, so it becomes it’s own element.

Pad: A Pad is a long sustaining note or chord. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond organ provided the most often used pad and was later joined by the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads but real strings or a guitar power chord can also suffice.

Rhythm: Rhythm is any instrument that plays counter to the Foundation element. This can be a double time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the backbeat, or congas playing a Latin feel. The Rhythm element is used to add motion and excitement to the track.

Lead: A lead vocal, lead instrument, or solo.

Fills: Fills generally occur in the spaces between Lead lines, or can be a signature line like the intro to Coldplay’sClocks” or The StonesSatisfaction”. You can think of a Fill element as an answer to the Lead.

Where Things Go Wrong
The biggest problem with most arrangements that don’t work is that they have too many elements happening at the same time. You can’t have 4 percussion elements, 5 guitar elements, 3 keyboard elements, a rhythm section and lead and background vocals and not get physically tired from listening because there’s just too much going on!

The mind unconsciously longs for simplicity and rewards a simple arrangement with attention, which is what we want to have happen, of course. But what does simplicity mean?

You should never have more than 4 elements occurring at the same time. You can get away with 5 every once in a while, but 4 is usually the max. “But there’s usually more than 4 instruments playing in most things I listen to these days,” you say? Yes, but they’re usually playing the same parts. For instance, if you have a doubled guitar part with a 3rd track playing the same part an octave above, that’s 3 instruments playing only 1 part, so that counts as only 1 element. If a guitar is doubling a bass line, that’s only 1 element. If you have a lead vocal that’s doubled with another vocal an octave above, that’s still only 1 element. A symphony orchestra may have 120 instruments, but when you break it down they’re all just playing a limited number of elements. Eventually, everything comes down to 4 of the 5 elements mentioned above."

Keep these tricks in mind and your songs will sound better and so will your recordings too! More on arrangement in an upcoming post. To read more excerpts from How To Make Your Band Sound Great and other books, go to my website at


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Tim Flanagan said...

This makes sense to me, but I'd be interested in your thoughts about why Hotel California still works. It seems, to my untrained ear, that all those guitar parts constitute four or five elements all by themselves, without even counting the vocals or rhythm section. Is this the exception that proves the rule, or would you consider some of those guitar parts individual components of just one or two multi-voiced elements? Thanks!

Unknown said...

Great blog, Bobby, but I think it's also important to point out that having too simplistic of an arrangement can be just as deadly to a song as one that is too busy. As a producer that works primarily with independent artists, one of the of the biggest problems I encounter on a regular basis is artists not having enough elements in their song, or, not adding and taking away parts frequently enough, to keep listeners engaged from beginning to end. Rock bands, for example, will often limit their arrangement to what they are used to playing in the rehearsal room...drums, a bass line, a guitar riff that they repeat over and over, and a single lead vocal...maybe some lead parts if they happen to have a second guitarist. But many of them don't ever consider adding secondary guitar parts or additional instrumentation to fill out the recorded sound...they get to the studio and lay the basic tracks down with no problem, but then really struggle with creating more layers to fill out the sound. Singer/songwriters often do the same, but to an even greater extent. They come up with an interesting chord progression and (hopefully) an interesting melody, but that's where they stop. Granted, some songs are naturally strong enough to stand up even with such a minimal arrangement, but in my experience, most songs need help to keep the listener engaged

Bobby Owsinski said...

Don't confuse arrangement elements with the number of parts. They're not the same.

If you read my song analysis, you'll see that hits change the intensity and dynamics of a song by adding and subtracting parts. We're saying the same thing.

Bobby Owsinski said...


With Hotel California, if you listen closely you'll hear that when the multiple background guitar parts enter before the second chorus, the 12 strings are lowered in the mix, so the same number of arrangement elements are still maintained.

Once again, don't confuse the number of elements with the number of instruments. They're not the same.

Rain San Martin said...

Helpful information Bobby, I’m a fan of your books. Regarding Aarons comment I have noticed the same thing. Ever since there has been a breakaway from the skillful production of the 1980’s music has suffered, as it has replaced the intricate detail of craftsmanship with raw “honesty”. Independent artists in particular need to study the fine art of arrangement, songwriting (intro, chorus, verse, bridge, ending ) and production. To go forward we must look back to the greats.

Musebabe said...

Well said, Rain. There's a noticeable lack of craft and/or originality in much current arranging.

Thanks Bobby, all, for the helpful tips. Just heard Hotel California yesterday on a PA Classic Rock station==still great stuff.


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