How To

How to Write a Song – The Arrangement

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Music Gateway Team

16.4.2014

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There are two main arrangements I’m going to cover in this blog, the first being the Radio Edit, and the second being a club friendly Dance Edit. Both are a great foundation to learning why certain structures work, and how you can manipulate these to your favour. We’ll also look at tension and release, but before we get stuck in, let’s take a deeper look at what each ‘section’ means.

Structure

Intro

This introduces the vibe of your song, intro’s tend to be short, although if you’re David Bowie, or DeadMau5, you can get away with obnoxiously long intro’s. Fairly self explanatory, here’s a good one for you:

Verse

This is the story of the song, whether it includes lyrics or not, the general feeling is of a progression of emotions / plot that develops your understanding of what the song is about. A master at story, and a great example of this is Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’, listen to the verses and you’ll feel like you’re in a small American Town in the 70s.

Bridge

The bridge is a transition between the verse and the chorus, hence the term ‘bridge’. They usually build up in terms of energy, and tension, so that there is a bigger change when the chorus kicks in. Check out Will and the People’s ‘Addicted’, there’s a great Bridge that kicks in around 38secs in, and builds to the chorus beautifully

Chorus

This is the emotional Payload, the main message of the song. It should be obvious when the chorus kicks in. Simplicity and repetition are key here. My example would be The Beatles ‘All you Need is Love’, blaringly obvious chorus, great writing.

Middle 8

The middle 8 is (usually) eight bars in the middle of the song (and tends to be after the second chorus and before the final choruses), which breaks away from the vibe of the verse and chorus. A perfect example of this is in the same song from Will and the People at the 2.43 mark, followed up by another chorus with an upward modulation that (in my opinion) isn’t cheesy. Well played.

Outro

Another self-explanatory section, this can be anything from a fade out, to a full band stop, or an atmospheric drift out of the energy from the chorus, like in The Doors ‘Riders on the Storm’.

The Radio Edit

I touched on this in our ‘How to Write a Song: The Basics’ blog, where we saw that a mainstream ‘Pop’ structure consists traditionally of:

Intro

Verse

Chorus

Verse

Chorus

Middle 8

Chorus

Chorus

Outro

This is a very simplified version of course, and variations will include things like a bridge between the verse and the chorus and possibly a third chorus, depending on the length of each section. A great idea for writing out structures is to listen to your favourite songs, and see how they’ve structured it.

Take note of the time that the chorus kicks in, most radio friendly ‘pop’ tunes will have a chorus within the first 30 seconds or so, and will last a total of between 2.30 – 3.30 minutes. These limitations can actually be useful to writing though, as they force you to be creative and try things you may not have thought of before.

The Club Edit

A traditional DJ friendly structure will look very different to a radio edit, as they tend to come in from around 5-7 minutes depending on the genre and BPM. (This isn’t to say a dance track has to be this length, there are plenty of great tracks that are 3-4mins, but having a minute of drums at the beginning and end of each Club Edit makes it much easier for a DJ to mix into other tunes, and means they are more likely to include it in their mixes on a night.)

16 bars is a staple arrangement length, within those bars there will be various variations from 1 bar to 4 bars to 8 bars. But in terms of overall structure, there will be some kind of noticeable change happening every 16 bars, that will make the track feel like it’s progressing.

It’s polite to DJ’s to have a minute or so of drums at the beginning and end of each arrangement.

After the first minute of drums is generally a short break / build to the first drop, which progresses for 4 sets of 16 bars (64 bars for those that can count) with various changes between them. Before reaching the middle break / build section, then on to the second drop, then to the mix friendly Drum outro.

(Again this is subject to variations, and is a very rough foundation by which to base an club arrangement around)

Energy and Tension

A Really important element of any arrangement, popular or otherwise is the flow of energy in the song. How much is going on at any one time, is it all bass and drums, or have you got a lot of high energy sounds building to a drop? There are many ways of controlling the energy, and before I talk too much about how you can go about doing that I want to share a drop you might have heard on radio one lately.

Before the first drop, there is a lot of high frequency sounds building and rising in pitch, before the contrast in bass frequencies on the drop. This is more obvious in the minimal house genre, where there will be a huge build to drop to nothing but a kick drum and bass, however Minimal fans love it because of the contrast, the bass is what they expected, the artsits build up the desire for bass, but taking it out of the mix, then when the fans can’t wait any longer, the artist brings the bass in full volume and fulfils their desire, creating satisfaction.

The converse can also be true; a build could be very spaced out and atmospheric, leaving nothing but a vocal to fade to silence, before the drop brings back all frequencies all guns blazing.

Other tension building techniques include, slow build of white noise (play around with filters and LFO’s here, Fabfilter’s Volcano is great for that). Move up the scale, or automate the pitch to rise slowly. Try using samples that do the same thing, such as a racecar driving towards you or a kettle boiling, or someone breathing in heavily.

Arrangements are incredibly important and determine the flow of the whole song, you can have an amazing melody that sticks in your head, and moves you to cry, but if it doesn’t go anywhere, or interact with other elements in the track it’s going to be useless. So mess around with context, mess around with space in the tracks, minimal vs full ensemble, and try to feel out where the energy comes and goes. Obviously keep practising, the more you do it, the easier it will get, and you’ll start to understand more and more about arrangement.



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