The ebb and flow of current musical trends changes at an astonishing rate. This can solely be attributed to the advancements in technology in all industries. Although there are countless benefits associated with this quick progression, it’s also created a void and shallowness to current music compositions.
If we travel back in time to the 1940s and listen to all the genres of that time (from Big Band, Folk, Country, to Classical) you will find very carefully crafted and conscientious compositions. Now I’m not saying that all of the music from that time period was amazing and I like it. In fact one could argue that at times the music could be overly sappy, and sweet. You could even argue that a good chunk of the composers overwrote and put everything but the kitchen sink into their pieces. However, one thing that you couldn’t argue against was the music had much more thought, structure, and design.
Unfortunately the pendulum has swung very far the other direction and current music, in most genres, lacks depth and are very weak harmonically. I’m not just talking about popular music. Countless popular film scores have very flimsy structures and are completely unremarkable. Except for the Captain America films, all the Marvel film scores are forgettable. It’s not just the Marvel films, but Marvel is worth mentioning because of how well known the films are, yet no one remembers the music.
This brings us back to my point about technology affecting the integrity of current music. Technology has decreased the production time and increased an expectation for a turnaround. To add insult to injury, editors, producers, directors, and the like, now use technology to edit temp music to their scenes that the composer is just supposed to copy to their score in way that isn’t plagiarizing.
This puts the composer in a tight spot because on the one hand they’re getting paid handsomely to compose, but on the other it’s total dreck!
My dad always says that the real golden rule is: “He who has the gold makes the rules!” This couldn’t be more true today, especially for the world of entertainment. Then the question becomes, how can this be changed?
The answer surprisingly comes from actor/comedian/musician Steve Martin, who said “Be so good they can’t ignore you!”
Basically, build your craft and get so good at it, that when the opportunity arises, you can overshadow the requests of the directors/writers/producers/editors. Your music will be so good that they can’t ignore it and will want to use it over theirs. It will speak for itself. I sincerely believe that will lead to even more success, and more memorable music then just copying what was asked of you.
One of the ways current composers (of all genres) could use the most help with, that will help them in becoming amazing, is arranging skills. If you learn how to orchestrate and arrange quickly, you’ll be able to still make your deadlines and be better than what’s given.
Arranging has a broad encompassing definition. My definition of arranging is the permutation of established or precomposed musical ideas that are orchestrated for genres and instruments of your choosing.
Essentially, if you’ve come up with or have been given a theme for a song (and it isn’t intended for a solo instrument) then the theme needs to be expressed in interesting ways throughout the piece. Otherwise, it’s forgettable and boring.
I will touch upon just a few arranging techniques that can greatly enhance and broaden your skill set. However, this isn’t a full complete list of all the arranging techniques, and I implore you to find more.
When you are arranging a piece of music it’s either taking your own melody and expanding it for your chosen genre and instrumentation, or you’re doing it for someone else. If you’re doing the latter, then hopefully you are given a completed sketch or piano reduction that has the necessary information to arrange for the piece. I’ve seen composers given sketches to arrange from other supposed “Composers” that have nothing but bass notes and no key signature written. When I looked at the sketch I thought to myself that, I hope they were getting paid very well for it! Keep that in mind when accepting arranging jobs or assigning them. A song sketch needs to have the key signature, time signature, melody, and harmony at the very least. Otherwise, you’ll be opening yourself up to major complications.
Anyway, the example I’ve decided to use is not one of my own compositions. I decided to use George M. Cohan’s composition, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” I chose this song because it’s pretty well known within pop culture, and it’s public domain. I felt that there was a pretty good chance that it would be known by people reading this blog, and therefore give a better understanding of how I arranged it. I only arranged 8 bars of the chorus to give a small demonstration of what techniques were used.
I will first describe what techniques I used starting with the reduction of Give My Regards to Broadway. Then at the end of the blog will be the full score of my arrangement with the techniques listed within it.
As an arranger, the first thing you’ll want to do is analyze the harmony of the song you’re arranging. I analyzed the 8 bars above as: C,C, dmin7(b5)/Ab, G7, G7, G7 F7b9 (#11), G7.
Now that I have my piece analyzed, I needed to choose what instruments to arrange this for. (When arranging a piece, you will either be told what instruments to arrange for, or you may get to choose. It all depends on the situation.)
The instruments I chose to arrange for are: Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, Strings, and Percussion.
The next decision I needed to make was what instrument should have the melody? It’s usually common practice for one section or instrument in most genres to perform the melody throughout the piece. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to trade the melody from one section to another throughout a piece as well. For the sake of this article, I chose to keep the melody in the 1st trumpet throughout the entire 8 bars. I wanted to be very simple in my explanation of the techniques I used.
Okay, we’ve got our melody in the trumpet, and since that’s part of the brass choir, we can easily harmonize the rest of the brass to the trumpet to support it. However, what do we do with the rest of the instrument choirs?
Here is where different arranging techniques come into play. Arranging is part composing, part orchestrating, and part creative critical thinking. The techniques described below can be used in any way shape or form, but how they’re used and how well they sound is solely determined by the arranger.
One technique I decided to use for my additional instrument choirs was Inverting The Melody. The way you invert a melody is to pick an interval of your choice from either above or below the melody line (It can even be unison) and then have your melody move in the opposite direction as the original. For example, if the melody goes up a 3rd and then up a 4th, then your inverted melody would go down a 3rd and then down a 4th. When you invert a melody you have the option of keeping the melody diatonic, or to follow the intervals exactly, which can lead to a non-diatonic melody. It really comes down to whether or not it works and you like the way it sounds. I chose to invert my melody starting a 6th above the original. I decided to use this inverted melody in the woodwinds as a fill.
Another method I used for arranging this piece was using a retrograde melody. That is basically taking the melody and reversing the order where the last note become first and first note becomes last. Again, I used this in the woodwinds.
The last few techniques I used are quite simple to understand so I will just list them with a quick definition.
- Double time – the rhythm from the piano reduction was subdivided making it twice as fast as the original rhythm
- Rhythmic Altering – keeping the pitches of the melody but changing the rhythm
- Augmented the melody -raised the melody above the original pitch
- Diminished the melody- lowered the melody below the original pitch
- Combined techniques from above
Here is my finished arrangement.
A couple of other techniques that I’ll mention but didn’t use are
- Call & Response – one instrument starts a motif and a different instrument finishes it, or the same musical line played on one instrument is then repeated in another.
- Transposition – taking a section of a song and transposing it into another key. ( Keep in mind that a lot of compositions will modulate into another key at the end of a song. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it before that, however it may confuse the listener as people have come to expect that.)
- Dovetailing – a phrase, melody, or line, is played in one instrument section, and then another instrument section overlaps the musical line and proceeds to complete it.
Obviously when using these techniques, you’ll still want to make sure that you’re supporting the harmony of the melody. It is not a good idea to just have all these musical techniques bouncing around a score without harmonic support. Without a good harmonic foundation, then your music will just sound like random solo’s popping in and out of the piece.
As with anything in life, it will take a lot of trial and error to find out what works and what doesn’t as well as what techniques you do and don’t care for. Also with time, practice, and study, you’ll develop your own techniques that will help to define your personal voice and sound!