Should You Learn How to Arrange Music?

November 25, 2020

Knowing more music theory does not make you a good songwriter or composer. There are great writers that hardly know any music theory and music theorists (whatever that is) who are terrible writers.

But there are also people who know a good amount of music theory and are great writers. In fact they are prolific writers who hardly ever struggle with writers block. So what’s going on, what is it that allows someone to consistently write great music?

In my opinion there are three primary things that help people overcome writers block:

1) They know enough music theory

2) They have great levels of inspiration and if they don’t, they know where to find it

3) They know how to arrange that material well.

My next course covers the final topic - arranging. And it covers it at the piano.

Why the Piano First?

Now it might seem that arranging for just the piano is a little limited. Most projects involve many other instruments and perhaps don’t even use pianos or keyboards. You may never write anything that involves a keyboard or sounds particularly pianistic.

But if you're at all experienced as a composer/songwriter/producer, you probably already have a sense that all music is understandable through the lense of the piano. And that by learning to arrange for piano first, it enables us to get our hands on so much of what makes music tick: melody, harmony, accompaniment & more. It’s of course also the standard musical interface for a computer. (Unless you’re a badass and use a EWI)

But you probably haven’t considered just how close you are to arranging for any group of instruments, once you can arrange for piano.

In other words the great thing about learning arrangement at the piano well is that it’s 70% of the battle. The rest is really all about instrument techniques, quirks & ranges. The actual ‘good arrangement’ is mostly sorted out at the piano.

Arranging your music well at the piano is 70% of the battle.

Writing Vs Arranging

When you’re in flow and writing, there often isn’t a distinction between “writing” the music and “arranging” the music - and that’s a good thing - it’s good you’re not thinking about it!  

But from the context of upping your arranging skills, it’s useful to draw a dividing line between the melody/harmony side of things (think lead sheet) and the arranging of that material.

My next course, 'Arranging & Writing Music with the Piano' assumes you have no trouble writing material (or indeed don’t want to write new material) and are already thoroughly grounded in music theory. It therefore builds upon my previous course Music Composition with the Piano, which is a complete introductory guide to practical music theory and composing for beginners or intermediate musician's in need of a catch up.

Arrangement is (almost) Everything

As an experienced writer, you probably have already realised that the writing of the material isn’t actually that hard, it’s the arranging & production of it that brings the life, character, emotion and even genre to it.

If you’ve ever sat and wondered why your stuff doesn’t sound too exciting, or you’ve struggled to make music that sounds different to the stuff you usually write; if you’ve ever seen someone do a mashup of songs in totally different genres; or wondered why when you play the chords and melody of your favorite artist, it sounds so simple and easy… like so simple that even you could write it 😉... then this is the course for you.

I’ll take you through the entire process of constructing an arrangement, helping you understand the separate pieces and building blocks that go into making something work and evoke a certain genre. You’ll uncover and master each one in turn and then apply those to actually analysing arrangements and learning from them to develop your voice and style.

Hearing More Deeply

If you’re like me, you listen to music constantly, it’s part of your soul. I used to think that listening loads & learning the harmony, rhythm & melody was enough to internalise and then write like the music I loved. But for years I still was stuck, my music sounded placid, unexciting and really beginnery (NOT A WORD).

The great thing is, that once you understand even a few simple things about arrangement, you’ll begin to hear it everywhere and by simply listening to music you’ll start to truly internalise how it works, and the style of arrangements that you love will begin to come out in your writing & productions.

Hearing is not enough. The sounds you hear need to be interpreted so that your brain recognises the patterns & principles being used and can internalise it.

Arranging Helps You Become a Better Pianist

But even if you’re not that interested in writing music or arranging music or even arranging music for piano - learning make better arrangements at the piano is still really valuable for you - if you’re a pianist.

As a piano player, you will likely have to play in lots of different contexts. Learning how to adapt stuff, how to break out of your standard style and find new avenues to explore in your accompaniment, comping, soloing etc is super valuable.

In other words, learning how to arrange better is the missing link in structuring your piano practice - because you know how to construct the right exercises for you and the styles you want to master. If you’re well versed in arrangement, you can constantly be creating new exercises, covering all the necessary ground to build yourself down into the player you want to become.

Understanding how to arrange deepens your understanding of how to practice.

Do I Really Need to Learn How to Arrange?

So many people have the attitude of not wanting to think so deeply about music or so carefully. They may look at the path of learning how to arrange well and say ‘woah... that’s too intellectual - I just need to feel it’. That may be true, and is often for many people. But if you want to be a fully skilled arranger and composer who can write, arrange, produce and think in all genres - it would definitely not hurt you to upskill yourself in this area. Like if you’re a producer, or film composer.

Great musicians always have the principles of good arrangement internalised - they just may not realise it. By looking and studying all this, my belief is that you won’t have to think about it in future. However, a skillset like this is absolutely vital in those moments where you get stuck - it allows you to deconstruct why your stuck when you’re stuck and then unstick yourself!

Like I said earlier, when you're composing you shouldn’t be thinking about ‘arranging’ and ‘writing’ as separate things. In fact - arranging basically is composing - (in traditional education it’s weirdly easy to not be told this).

My next course is really a precursor to more general arranging courses. Before I started trying to arrange, I wish someone had told me to gain more chops on the piano. This is where it all starts.

Let me know in the comments below what sort of things you struggle with when it comes to arranging and maybe some great artists who you consider to be great at arranging.