Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten

While the composer shapes the contours of the central melody and chords, it’s the arranger who, using countless tricks, colours everything in. What kind of technical colours does the arranger have in their tool box and what can you do to make even the most beautiful song even more beautiful?

The Instruments

The first question that an arranger needs to ask is “What instruments can I use?”. If you’re working on an arrangement of three brass instruments for a cover band, things are far less complicated than when you’re arranging, say, a full symphony orchestra complete with all of its different sections and instruments.

No matter the piece or song, you also need to have an understanding of the kind of instruments involved. The range of an instrument, for example, is one of the most important things to know about. If you write a line that’s too highly pitched for a specific instrument, there’s a big chance that it’s going to sound thin and strained. It might not even be physically possible to play that range with that instrument. Write a line that’s too low pitched, and you risk losing the expressive nature of the instrument entirely.

Other points that you need to consider are the musical options and limitations that come with each instrument. Strings can be bowed but also plucked (pizzicato); the timbre of trumpets can be changed using various mutes; and those same trumpets can be great for conjuring up explosive accents and strong melodies. But if you’re working with a bouncing melody with notes spread all over the place, then you’re better off giving it to the saxophone.

Keep Your Ears Open

Of course, there are plenty of books written about this subject and, of course, there’s plenty to learn from them. You could also fill your internal library with unending possible variations by simply listening closely to as much music as humanly possible – with a focus on instrumental music, because that’s where you’re likely to do the most learning. For many arrangers, classical music provides an essential foundation, but the jazz music made by the great big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie also belong in the classic literature section when it comes to your arranger training. Gil Evans, the house-arranger for Miles Davis was a magician when it came to timbre and orchestration and, over in the popular music sphere, Steely Dan and Gino Vannelli are heroes for many simply because there’s so much going on their arrangements that you get to hear something different every time you listen.

Whether you’re a composer or an arranger, your ears always need to be wide open – to everything. Watch an episode of Star Trek and listen to how the music responds to the action, and you’ll quickly notice it developing in connection with the story. Within the space of 45 minutes, you’ll probably encounter the whole bag of Hollywood tricks and the sheer craft of it. As things get more exciting, the horns get more high pitched; during space battles, the percussion rumbles with complexity; during the obligatory moments of triumph, the trombones and trumpets erupt; while Kirk’s love scenes are always soundtracked by sweet and lilting violins.

A good arranger has a developed imagination when it comes to the dimensions of a piece of music, and being able to see how it can be adapted to enhance the goal of the piece. The rhythm, the polyphony, the instrumentation, melody, timbre, effects, form, lyrics and so on all play a part. In the paragraphs that follow we highlight a few of these aspects but, please bear in mind that this four-page blog could easily be expanded to fill a 400 page book and that, for every suggestion that we make, there are countless exceptions.

Connect with the Lyrics

First and foremost, the arranger needs to know what the song is about. Billy Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, for example, is a stark and sensitive metaphor about Black slaves hanged from the bows of trees, so it certainly doesn’t ask for any cheerfully frolicking interlines or explosive chattering instruments. Instead, sombre lines and searing dissonance is demanded, with moments of stillness woven in. If you’re doing a rework of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’, then you can throw in as many cheerful little riffs as you deem necessary – the more the better!

With some pieces, the lyrics matter more than in others but, if a particular sentence is central to the lyrical message, then be careful not to overcrowd it. Take a good look at the polyphony, because a thick and layered harmony draws a lot of attention and can pull focus and meaning away from the lyric. Sometimes, of course, the lyrics can be a little weak in places, so you might want to distract your listener by, say, weaving a beautiful oboe line through it or masking it completely with a battery of wind instruments

The Affect

There are plenty of harmonic tricks you can use to support certain meanings within the lyrics. The best known is to use some Moll-Dur chords (Moll-Dur is German for minor-major). The perfect moment to throw in one of these magic chords is when you’re in a major key (C-major, for example) and some dramatic gesture is required – maybe because the lyrics are taking a sad turn. By borrowing a chord from the corresponding minor scale (C-minor in this case), the harmonies suddenly support the feeling of the lyrics.

You can read a lot about harmonic theory, and all of the information you can find will be useful for both the composer and the arranger. As well as Moll-Dur chords, it’s also worth finding out about intermediate dominant chords, diminished chords, the Naples sixth chord and the tritone substitutes. Anyone working with pop music is also likely to have a few blues cliches tucked away in their back pocket.

Two-Part Harmonies

In the example below, you can see a number of different ways to apply our first rule to a simple Thelonious Monk (Blue Monk) blues piece. Even If you can’t read a note of music, the principle is still easy to understand because, when it comes to two-part harmonies, the melodic component is the thing. The harmonic lines should not only combine to form a rich interval, but flow well in terms of their movement in relation to one another. For example, repeated notes can be extremely disturbing, because it can sound as if the voice is starting to stagnate. By adding extra notes in between, this can be prevented.

When arranging two-note harmonies, parallel thirds and sixths work best by far. Even if you’re making a four-instrument arrangement, you can still use two-part harmonies by doubling each voice. Sometimes, this can have an even stronger effect since it can weave a nice and thick four-voice carpet.

Three and Four-Voice Harmonies

With three or four-voice harmonies, you need to think more in terms of harmonic functions, because chords suddenly arise from note to note and need to have a logical connection. This sounds more complex than it actually is, but if you already have a bare understanding of the grammar of Tonica, Subdominant and Dominant you only need to apply those same principles at a basic level.

Say, the chord functions no longer alternate per measure but per note. The arranger is now constantly faced with questions like “Should I see this note as a suspension and move the entire chord by a semitone, or shall I treat it like an intermediate dominant? Or I could use a parallel harmony… or turn it into a transition chord?” In the beginning, creating these kinds of ribbon-harmonies can take a lot of time. It’s not hard maths, but a few lessons and some piano skills can really help. Your computer can also be a good friend if you’re not that comfortable with a piano.

The four-voice harmony version of Blue Monk (see below) includes a chord symbol next to each note of the harmonised melody. The funny thing is that an accompanying guitarist or pianist doesn’t even need to play along since the original main chord from the single-voice version is already there. When it comes to multi-voice harmonies, you can’t get much better craftsmanship than in the brass arrangements of Supersax, and the members of Take Six are masters when it comes to six-part harmonies – as exemplified by ‘Get Away Jordan’.

Question & Answer

Using multi-voice harmonies doesn’t necessarily mean that the voices always need to be moving at the same time. You could also use a question-and-answer structure. For example, on the third and fourth count of the first two bars of Blue Monk, there’s a little bit of space for a short ‘answer’ to the progression of the melody. Halfway through the sixteenth century, Thomas Tallis wrote a forty-voice motet filled with voices that certainly didn’t all ‘move’ at the same time.

What Kind of Movement?

There are various ways to ‘design’ your multi-voice harmony. Making each voice move at the same time is the most common: where each voice moves up and down in pitch at the same time. The intervals of each voice can differ greatly, but the direction of pitch is the same. If the intervals remain the same, then we call it parallel movement. It’s also fun to experiment with countermovement where, as one voice rises in pitch, the other lowers in pitch. This doesn’t always work out, but sometimes it can really, really work. Then you have sideways movements, where one of the voices remains ‘horizontal’ as it were, while the other rises or lowers in pitch. A great example is the duet ‘Something Stupid’ by Frank and Nancy Sinatra.


In most cases, an arranger is writing for a specific setting, so has to make do with what they have. The first thing to figure out is whether or not the available instruments are going to be enough for your vision. If, for example, you have a flute, a trumpet, a tenor and baritone saxophone in the band, then you’ll be hard pressed to work in any four-part harmonies. The flute is the highest pitched instrument in the group, so it needs to take on the main melody. But the sound of the trumpet has a lot of presence so it’s easy to mistake the trumpet line for the main melody. It can also completely drown out the flute. Flipping the roles of the trumpet and flute won’t solve the problem, but one possible solution is to have the flute and trumpet take on the same voice and play them an octave apart. With better matched instruments, there are more options. A big band will normally have two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones and a baritone saxophone. Glenn Miller created a unique sound simply by swapping one of the alto saxophones for a clarinet.

Example: Blue Monk

Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten

This is the first line of the original melody of Blue Monk. This blues melody is in F and uses the well-known three blues chords. Remember that the last note in the third bar is a syncopation of the first count and belongs to the chord in bar 4. The sharp note here is a ‘ghost note’, which isn’t really played and doesn’t need to be harmonised.

Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten
Here, the same melody is doubled with a simple second harmonic voice moving in parallel. You can see that neither voices include any note repetitions because of the use of chromatic passing notes, making them flow beautifully together. Here, the target notes land nicely on the chord note.

Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten
This is another two-voice harmony but this time, it’s largely based on countermovements – at least in the first two bars. In the third bar, countermovements are harder to achieve.

Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten
This is a version with a four-voice ribbon harmony. This is created by applying functional harmony theory to each note transition. Here, the target chords are similar to diminished chords and intermediate dominant chords.

Muziek arrangeren - Wat het is en waar je op moet letten
The three-voice version is distilled from the four-voice version by picking out the strongest notes from the third and fourth voices. In a blues piece like this, sevenths are preferred over the fifths of chords. Here, the third voice doesn’t always move the same way at every point.

Good to Know

The Tension Arc

One of the jobs of the arranger – or, at least, something that they need to pay attention to – is the tension arc. This is the art of keeping the listener curious about what’s coming next. Too much repetition of the same chorus can be broken up by inserting a solo or, say, working in a ‘special’ chorus for the wind section. Dynamics are another great tool when it comes to gradually giving a piece some body and building things up, while intellectual passages are definitely worth the work, but the listener can’t necessarily digest every detail if it goes on for too long. Also, the musicians always need to be able to keep up with your ideas. Wind musicians will quickly lose energy if strained or forced to play for too long; singers can become hoarse; and drummers can’t simply carry on forever. In short, arranging is not just about testing your brain and flexing your skills, it’s just as much about being aware of human limitations.

Just Do It

Arranging is a rich and demanding craft but don’t let any of that stop you from diving in. The truth is, you can make it as complicated as you want to. Start with material that already exists; don’t be afraid to show your work to someone who knows what they’re looking at; always recognise the mistakes that you’ll definitely make and, more importantly, learn from them! Soon enough, you’ll be walking the same path as every good arranger that came before you.

See also

» Notation Software
» Manuscript Paper

» How to Write the Perfect, Personal Wedding Song
» Unclogging Writer’s Block: 5 Tips
» How to Write Christmas Music?
» How to Compose for Film Like Hans Zimmer
» Music Composition for Beginners

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