Arranging music, like a lot of creative activities, can seem really overwhelming at first. But if you follow these five principles (after all, who doesn’t like a cheesy acronym?) you’ll be able to set achievable goals for yourself and notch some early wins as an arranger!
Keep It Simple
Even when you’re a seasoned professional, a good arrangement is never about cramming everything you know into every chart. So when you’re getting started don’t complicate things. Think about your goals for the chart (why you are writing it in the first place) and let that be the filter for your ideas. If you keep everything intentional, write what you know, and stay focused on your motivation for writing the chart, you’re already on the right track to a great arrangement.
Transcribe As Much As You Can
One of the reasons arranging is such a valuable educational tool is that it forces you to pick apart a song, figure out how it works, then put it back together again. There’s just no substitute for having to copy the original note for note–especially when transcribing by ear. So if you’re a beginning arranger don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Choose songs to arrange that are already close to what you want in their original form. For example, if you’re writing a choral arrangement you can choose a song that already has a great piano accompaniment so you can focus on arranging the vocals.
Write A Cappella
What they don’t tell you about choral arranging is that writing the accompaniment is often the hardest part! So, if you’re not yet comfortable writing the instrumental parts then start by doing a cappella arrangements. Get really comfortable writing for the voice and then gradually up the difficulty by introducing more accompaniment. (If you’re not a vocal person, the same principle applies–start with chamber arrangements of your primary instrument, then expand from there.)
Have a Roadmap
I rarely have all my ideas figured out before I start writing, but I always go into a project with at least a basic roadmap figured out. If nothing else but to prevent yourself from doing duplicate work. Listen to as many versions of the song as you can and make as many creative decisions as you can before you start writing. For example, knowing where you’re going to repeat, or if there’s a section that will be cut, will help speed up the initial transcribing and writing phases substantially.
I mean this both in the literal sense of templates in notation software as well as the more figurative sense of using patterns in your writing. Both the original song as well as similar songs in the same style can serve as great templates from which to draw inspiration and recognize patterns from. Choosing a few patterns to follow while in the planning stages will help you save a lot of time writing. This is especially helpful in composing piano parts–choose an accompaniment pattern for each section of the song form and follow it!
Sometimes half the battle is deciding to start in the first place! I’ve written well over 1,000 arrangements so far in my career and still I find myself stuck and needing to just write something, ANYTHING, to get the creative juices flowing. Most of the time my creative process involves writing something bad, walking away for a few days, coming back and fixing some stuff, taking a nap, changing something else, and so on until the final product is in presentable shape. In some ways we’ve been brainwashed (especially those of us who come from classical backgrounds) into thinking that composers are these lone geniuses that had all of their great ideas fully formed before putting them to paper. Although that may have been true for some, in my experience that is rarely the norm. So, don’t wait until you’re “ready,” just dive in and S.T.A.R.T. writing!