Songwriters Who Don't Arrange Their Own Songs Don't Know This Little Secret...

Songwriters Who Don’t Arrange Their Own Songs Don’t Know This Little Secret…


There are a lot of songwriters who create their own musical arrangements. I am one of them. But 85 percent of the songwriters I know don’t. They only write songs. And if they end up recording one, they leave the arrangement to someone else, such as another musician with a studio or an online remote production company.

I bet that 85 percent of songwriters in general, don’t do their own arranging.

Perhaps some of them enjoy collaborating with an arranger. (For that, I don’t blame them, even though I’m a bit of a control freak with my own stuff.)

But I suspect that a certain portion of that 85 percent would like to do some or all of their own arrangements…some or all of the time…if they didn’t think it was beyond them. (It’s not.)

So, my purpose with this post is to give that group of songwriters (you?) the confidence to start doing it.

Okay, What Is an Arrangement Anyway?

When I say “arrangement,” I mean:

  1. The instruments you select to be played in a performance or recording
  2. The musical parts you assign to each.

It can be as simple as voice and guitar or as complex as, say…voice, piano and orchestra.

But the word is also used to refer to a specially prepared part of a musical piece or performance, such as a string or horn arrangement.

It can also refer to an interpretation or new version of an existing composition, such as an accordion and kazoo arrangement of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” (If you’re hearing that now in your mind’s ear, I do apologize.)

With all that in mind, an arrangement should enhance the melody and lyric, and give the song more impact, beauty, and appeal.

I’m About to Piss off Somebody with Music Degree…

I wish I could explain how to arrange songs in terms similar to how you make a cup of coffee. Y’know…you want a decent cup in the morning, you measure the water, measure the coffee, get a filter, etc. It’s a step-by-step process that gets a definite result.

However, arranging songs is not a step-by-step kind of thing.

It’s actually much simpler than that.

And here’s the part that’s going to piss off somebody with a music degree: Song arranging is really just making stuff up—no different from how you make up lyrics and melodies except that it’s probably easier. It’s something you do according to your own taste and style.

You don’t need a music degree. Or the ability to read or write music. And you don’t need to be able to play a bunch of different instruments either.

You just have to be able to make up bits and parts. And have the courage to say “here’s how it’s going to be.” You can do it. It’s just a habit you develop.

Even arrangers with fancy degrees ultimately just make up bits and parts.

Paul McCartney Did It…

Paul McCartney was not a violin, viola, or cello player. But he made up the string quartet parts for the song “Yesterday.” Then he sang them to producer George Martin, who wrote it all down for the string players to perform at the recording session.

How did Paul do that? Growing up, he absorbed a wide variety of music, including strings. He knew how it sounded and simply applied that knowledge to his own song. I would even go so far as to simplify it to he mimicked or approximated what he knew of the sound of a string quartet for his song.

At first, you too will probably rely heavily upon the sounds you love and are most familiar with to create your own arrangements. That’s totally valid.

These days, if you maybe want some horns on your song, you can hum the parts into the voice recorder on your phone and give it to a trumpet or sax player to perform. Or have your producer/engineer/studio owner play a sampled trumpet via MIDI. I did the latter the first time I made up a string arrangement (which you can listen to here if you want).

Music Education

Don’t get me wrong: music education is valuable. I had an excellent music theory teacher in high school. Then I went to college to study music further. But I was young and impatient. I didn’t want to listen to the crusty old professors who ridiculed pop and rock and roll. I didn’t want to practice the piano and learn a bunch of classical yada-yada I was never going to use. I just wanted to write songs. Be in a band. Plug in and crank up. Play in dark, sweaty clubs. Drink beer. Meet girls. So, I dropped out of college after a few semesters.

As a result, I got most of my musical education on the job. By listening and observing other players and other bands. It was a lot of trial and error. And it was also fun and fascinating.

(Of course, there are times I wished I’d stuck it out and got my degree. And it’s not because I am impressed by degrees but because other people are and that could have been helpful to me at times. But I digress…)

Observation & Familiarization

If you’re still not totally sure what to do, look at the songs you’re writing and ask yourself these questions:

  • What style(s) are my songs?
  • What other artists record songs like I write?
  • Do I know the instruments that they use in their arrangements? (It’s possible that you’ve listened to and enjoyed certain kinds of music for years without ever considering what instruments were being played.)

Get more familiar with these instruments. Observe people playing them live or on TV or YouTube videos. Pick them out in recordings or on the radio. Note the typical kinds of parts they are used for, the kinds of sounds they make. Absorb this stuff.

For example, in country music, the pedal steel guitar is used in various ways, such as for adding melodic filler in between lines of lyric and for solos. So, enjoy the music but also start paying attention to what each instrument is doing.

Observe and listen and use what you learn to start making up bits and parts for your own songs.

(Yes, it is just that simple.)

About Steve Wagner

Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based songwriter, arranger, and engineer who believes in keeping it simple. His songs have been praised by hit songwriter Harriet Schock in her book, Becoming Remarkable and by Americana music magazine Maverick, which called him a “literate writer…who makes universal connections with thoughtful lyrics blended with memorable melodies.” He’s been arranging songs nearly as long as he’s been writing them but only recently realized it was “a thing” he could help others with.

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