Technique : Composing / Arranging
PART 1: Great songs are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.This is the first article in a four-part series. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 which will be posted immediately after this post.
Over the next couple of minuite we’ll be looking into the most scant-regarded and often-ignored element of music: arrangement. It’s a massive subject which has umpteen rules, all of which can be bent, broken and rewritten. For the purpose of this series of articles we will not be looking into how a guitar/bass/drum group get their live set together (for a detailed look at those aspects of arrangement and general musical preparation, I suggest you inquire the )materials here.
So just how do you go about arranging a tune? The answer to that question has as many connotations as the age-old conundrum: how long is a piece of string? On the assumption that the string is two metres in length and seven strands thick, I intend to look at the long and short of arrangement for any sound that calls itself modern popular music.
WHAT IT’S NOT
Let’s start by looking at what arrangement isn’t:
• It’s not finding a chord sequence for a song (although it often is changing the pattern of a chord sequence to make a more sympathetic harmonic bed).
• It’s not writing the lyrics to a song (although it can be working out exactly what the backing singers will be doing with themselves).
• It’s not deciding what the rhythm to a track is (although, in truth, it sometimes is).
Actually, the line between composing or producing a tune and arranging it is a very thin one. If you’re either the producer or the composer, arrangement goes with the territory, whereas if you’re being brought in by a composer or producer specifically as an arranger, it’s usually to arrange the strings or the horns or the backing vocals (we’ll examine those particular aspects and what the job pays later in the series). For now, we’ll look at the basics of how to get the best out of a song you’ve written.
The first thing you must do is make sure that there’s a reason for every part to be there — that goes for any piece of music you write. The amount of times people include four bars of nothing between sections (because it’s always been there) is equal to the amount of songs that never have a hope of getting anywhere. If you’re writing a piece of art that you hope will turn on millions of people, make sure that every part has a reason and nothing is missing. That’s the art of writing, arranging and producing hits. Everyone knows what ingredients can be used — it’s all down to the stirring, I guess. Aprons on: let’s cook!
THE VERSE: We all know that a verse is the part of the song which tells the story. Most songs have no more than four verses, which would include repeating the first verse at the end. Bob Dylan has written songs with dozens of verses, but none of those ever became hits. Of course, you can get away with only one verse repeated over and over again, if you want. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, with ‘Roller Coaster of Love’, and Nirvana, with ‘Something in the Way’, are two that did.
THE CHORUS: The chorus is the part of the song which you want people to be singing along with by the end of the song — the first time they hear it. One easy, effective and sure-fire killer way of making a chorus lift to maximum hit-ability is to find the highest root note string sound you can and have it simply playing all the way through. It sounds corny, but just try it. It could be one of the elements that makes your track a worldwide smash hit. Ask the Pet Shop Boys what they think of this idea.
THE BRIDGE OR TAG: This is a section that links the verse and the chorus together. That music shop favourite ‘Wonderwall’, by the mighty Oasis, has a perfect example of a bridge, if a little long and unadventurously used (“And all the roads we have to walk are winding…”). The song also has the ‘two verses at the beginning’ trick (see next section).
THE MIDDLE EIGHT (or, as James Brown would shout, “Take it to the bridge”) is a third melodic part, usually placed after the second chorus to break up the song pattern. It’s called a middle eight because it’s usually eight bars long, but there’s no law saying it has to be that length or even there in the first place — whatever feels good and fits the bill. No-one has ever done a study on this but I would hazard a guess that 50% of records have a middle eight, and of those, 50% are eight bars long. Michael Jackson used this device for effect in ‘Billie Jean’ (“People always told me, be careful what you do…” — which, by the way, is eight bars long).
A KEY CHANGE: Why? Because it can lift a song at that difficult ‘two-thirds of the way through’ stage, where the listener’s interest is beginning to waver. The usual key change is to move up a tone (from A to B, for example). It’s advised, for maximum effect, to build into this with a huge drum break or a dramatic pause. Key changes down are seldom, if ever, used, because they give the opposite effect of uplift. And note that more than one key change per song can be more annoying than exciting. There’s a classic example of a key change in the Whitney Houston hit ‘I Will Always Love You’.
THE CODA is a cool way of ending a track. It’s either the chorus hook repeated continuously, or a new section used to tail off a track. One of the most exciting codas used in popular music is the end of Elvis Costello’s ‘Accidents Will Happen’ — the bit that repeats the words “I Know”, ad infinitum.
Of course, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ doesn’t fit the patterns explained here, but all but a handful of the tens of thousands of top ten hit records before and since have.
PIECING IT TOGETHER
Let’s assume that your song has the following conventional structure:
How do you make it more interesting?
• The first thing to add is an intro. It could simply be a vamp of the opening couple of bars of the verse or the final four or eight bars of the chorus. Then again, four bars of drums at the beginning of a song never goes down badly either.
• Try getting rid of the first chorus by sticking verse 1 and verse 2 together.
• Then, after verse three, double up the chorus, drop the last verse down a gear and make it a middle eight. Halving the rhythm track or changing the fourth chord to a minor second chord is a good way of going about this.
• A middle eight section is a great way to set up the final chorus onslaught (see ‘The Nashville Number System’ box).
Beats per minute (BPM) first became a science in the mid ’70s, when various producers using early sequencers to make dance music worked out that 137bpm was the optimum speed to excite the human heart rate whilst dancing (137 — the disco heaven). Since then sequencers have become an awful lot more sophisticated, as has the BPM awareness of the music makers. These days there are more pigeonholes in which to place music than ever before: house and garage tracks tend to fall betwen 130-145bpm, jungle in the 165-170bpm bracket, and happy hardcore between 170 and 175bpm, but all bpms are subject to change on the whim of a single track, which could be yours. There are some styles of modern dance music which have very eclectic tempo constraints: techno can go from an industrially moody 80bpm to a brain-smashingly bizarre 500bpm. If you’re thinking about trying something in a new style for you, do some homework first. Dance music is an exact business, and close scrutiny of the current market leaders is essential to understanding the form and arrangement. A visit to your friendly local specialist record shop with £20 in your pocket will give you the best overview of what is the current norm. And in dance music, being current is everything.
Even if you’re not a dance music expert and have no intention of dipping your toe in that particular beat pool, tempo is still an issue. A couple of tricks that are seldom used these days, but were common practice up until the Linn drum came onto the scene, involved speeding up the track, both gradually and as a whole.
Tracks would speed up naturally during the recording of the backing track, which is something that doesn’t happen these days. If you use a sequencer but don’t use loops, try notching up the BPM of your track every verse and chorus. Starting at 120bpm and ending the track at 125bpm can give a sense of urgency without the listener having the faintest clue what’s going on.
The other way of speeding up a track which used to be used on a very regular basis was to slow down the mastering tape machine by a factor of 8.5% at the final mix stage. When played back at normal speed, the finished master would be slightly over a semitone higher in pitch. The reason for this was that it made the playing sound a bit tighter, particularly the drums, and gave the overall sound a bit of a toppy edge. On the downside, it made working out songs from the record difficult, because they were often slightly out of tune.
It may seem that some of the aspects we’ve covered have strayed into production or composing, but as I mentioned at the beginning, the line is a fine one. Next month we’ll look at instrumental arranging, including adding horn and string parts, both sampled and real, basslines, rhythm structures, and fancy arrangement tips.CONTINUE IN THE NEXT POST (click here)
TAJ MUSIC TEAM