Everyone loves a good story. No matter what kind of stories you like, there are certain things common to good storytelling. Making a song listenable–arranging it–is pretty much the same as writing a good story. Yes, you have to have a good story to start with, but tell it poorly and you’ll lose the audience.
So here are some tips for arranging a song. Don’t be put off by the word ‘arranging’. By it I just mean figuring out a good way to play the song.
Good arrangements have an arc.
They have a beginning, middle, and end. I often hear inexperienced bands crank a song up to full speed within 4 bars, and leave it there until the last note. That flat-line is tedious, and wears the audience out quickly.
Good arrangements have an Introduction that sets the tone.
Introduce your song in such a way that it sets the song in motion and hints at things to come. Create a sense of expectation. A good, practical way to do this is to take the high point of the song, the loudest, busiest passage, and do a pulled-back version of it for the intro. When the big passage comes, it’s been foreshadowed and already feels familiar.
Good arrangements have interesting instruments (characters).
Introduce the instruments (characters) all at once = lots of energy.
Introduce the instruments one at a time = more attention on each one.
Instruments that pop in unexpectedly are useful for pulling the song in a different, surprising direction. Doing this highlights whatever lyrics go with that particular section. They don’t have to be odd instruments–you don’t need to find someone who can play an ocarina. Just use what you have, but think outside the box.
Good arrangements ebb and flow.
Don’t think of dynamics as just ‘loud and soft’, but rather in terms of adding or subtracting energy. Add and subtract notes, play longer or shorter notes, change the sound of your instrument, etc.
For instance, you could keep playing the same volume, but play less notes. That would pull energy out of the song, and give you the effect you’re looking for. (This also solves a common problem–slowing down when you get softer)
Good arrangements have surprises.
Surprises create interest, keep the audience’s attention and throw a spotlight on whatever the lyric is at that point. A sudden change in volume, going suddenly a cappella, dropping down to just one instrument, etc. This is the equivalent of shouting ”SOMETHING’S COMING!”
Good arrangements have tension.
Very loud, very quiet, notes are left hanging… where will it all lead? End a passage on a sus4 chord and let it ring for a whole measure, and everyone will immediately start wondering what’s coming next.
Good arrangements have a good ending.
Resolution. The loose ends are tied up, the song has a sense of ‘finishing’. A good ending springs from what came before, and feels inevitable.
Don’t overthink this! Just be aware of it and look for ways to make your song interesting, varied, and attention-holding. If you can, listen to the song as if you were an audience member, and ask yourself–is this worth listening to all the way to the end?