5 Simple Arrangement Tips to Enhance Your Songs
When I started playing electric guitar on a small practice amp I quickly gravitated to the little button that switched from a clean sound to the “Drive” channel, which instantly turned my sloppy power chords into an epic cacophony of rock. In my first attempts at songwriting I found out that if I played the intro on the clean setting, I could hit the distortion during the next section for a boost of energy and volume. At the same time my drummer friends were learning the ultimate beginner tip, “play the beat on the hit-hat in the verse and the ride in the chorus”. While these ideas are so simple that they have become cliches in certain genres, the underlying concept is solid. Changing up the energy over the course of a songs creates more interest and can help to drive home the music’s message.
There are countless ways to create variation and contrast in a song but I would like to share a few concepts and ideas that I like to use. All of these won’t be right for every piece of music, or every genre but hopefully can spark ideas that will help you take your music to the next level.
Stealing from Skrillex
I remember when Dubstep music blew up in the 2010s and it was all up about the buildup to the “Drop”. This is such a simple structure for tension and release that it is no wonder that the formula was repeated so many times that it became a meme. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoUV7Q1C1SU
There’s no need to take things that far but using a build up within a section of a song, or as a section itself, can help the flow of a song add add growth and interest to long, repetitive parts. Here are some ideas for crafting buildups, for the best effect I like to modify a section at a regular interval (ie. every 4 or 8 bars) as it progresses.
- Bring in individual instruments one by one
- Layer additional percussion or sound effects
- Add more fills and complexity to a drum groove
- Bring in more harmonic content throughout a section (ie single notes, to power chords, to triads, to 7th chords)
- Increase to use of effects and modulation through a section
To maximize to payoff of a buildup it needs to be building up to something. Usually a chorus, a hook, or a signature riff.
The “Lofi” Section
Everything is relative when it come to music which means that one of the best ways to make a chorus or other import section of a song sound epic and loud is the make the preceding section extra quiet and small. I’m sure you’ve heard this done before via the extremely on-the-nose method of filtering an intro to sound like it is coming through a telephone. It is simple and cliche but it works. This same concept can be done in much more subtle ways which still create dynamic motion and contrast. Here are some less cheesy (although there is absolutely nothing wrong with a little cheese sometimes) ways to make a section sound smaller:
- Drop out one or two core instruments
- Switch out an electric guitar for an acoustic or cleaner sound
- Lower the octave of a melody line
- Have the drums play toms instead of cymbals.
- Use less reverb, delay, or ambient effects
- Simply play and sing quieter
Going full Disney
Sometimes the last chorus of a song needs an energy lift that cannot be attained through conventional means and drastic measures must be taken. That’s right I’m talking about throwing in a key change. When all else fails, try taking the last chorus up a few semitones to give it that extra boost. Say what you will about Disney, but the songs in their films and shows are incredibly and insidiously catchy. They constantly modulate the key of a song to give renewed interest to repeated musical ideas (according to this analysis the 70 most popular Disney tunes contain 73 key changes! https://flypaper.soundfly.com/features/the-statistical-analysis-of-the-70-most-popular-disney-songs-youve-always-wanted/). Classic sing-alongs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and tons of other purposely misspelled hits also make great use of this trope. There is danger in throwing in a key change, because it can so easily sound corny, so use dramatic key changes sparingly. The epic finale is not the only way to do a key change either, it can be used much more subtly such as changing from a minor key to it’s relative major in a chorus or bridge.
Unless your band always writes and practices to a click track it is almost inevitable that subtle shifts in tempo will occur throughout a song. Sometimes things just speed up as the song goes on, or sometimes you end up playing certain sections just a little bit faster or slower than others without even realizing it. Most of this usually gets ironed out when a band settles on the tempo a and goes into the studio to record to a click. The song ends up just being one static tempo throughout but I’m here to tell you it does not have to be like that. There is no rule that states a song must be a one, unwavering tempo the entire time. If an upbeat section always wants to go a little faster, just play it a little faster, vise versa for a section that feels like it wants to go a bit slow. This can further emphasize the energy flow of a song and when used subtly will be almost in-perceivable to the listener. A popular contemporary examples of this technique is the chorus of “We Are Young” by Fun. It just wouldn’t be the same song if it were all at the same tempo. One important note about tempo changes though: There is a big difference between manipulating the feel of a song through tempo changes and shifting tempos due to poor time keeping. Make sure you are doing things for a reason and if a song is better with a steady pulse throughout than do what you can to avoid inadvertent tempo drifting.
It Is All About The Song
Above any songwriting or arrangement tip or technique is the song itself. When you make any decision about what a particular instrument will play or how a certain section will feel, the number one thing to consider is whether it serves the message of the song as a whole. Sometimes it is great to use a bag of tricks in order to push and pull your audience through a piece of music but sometimes simpler is also better. If the best way to convey the lyrics and emotions of a song is with a solo acoustic guitar and vocal than don’t overthink things. Just like a director might use lighting and set design to serve a film, use the instrumentation and arrangement of the music to serve your songs.