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How do pop producers make engaging compositions?
When should you add or remove instruments?
Try these 6 pro tips for song arrangement!
As producers, a big part of our job is to aid in the arrangement of a song, ensuring it grabs and holds the listener’s attention.
This means that we can’t expect to use the same few melodies the whole time without boring listeners. Eventually, some new ideas will need to be added to the mix. This doesn’t just mean new instruments and layers, but rather new approaches to arrangement itself.
One major problem is that it can be difficult to find creative ways to make your arrangement interesting. If you’re struggling in this area, try these tips and see if they spark your creativity.
From layering sounds to creating special effects, there are many different tricks here for crafting incredible arrangements. Many of these techniques are related to each other and can be combined to create amazing songs!
1. Give Each Section Its Own Sound
One of the most important things you can do to create an attention-grabbing arrangement is to make each section sonically distinctive.
While that may seem daunting, most sections of a song do not have to be drastically different from each other. In fact, you’d be surprised at how much of a difference adding or subtracting a few elements in your track can make.
Maybe instead of using all the ideas you came up with for your first verse and chorus throughout the whole song, try removing some of them instead. See if you can get away with saving those ideas for the second verse or the second/third chorus.
This can help make your song feel like it’s getting progressively “bigger” as it moves along. While many think of this technique as useful in slow-building power ballads, these techniques are often used in upbeat pop songs.
A good example of this is Don’t Start Now by Dua Lipa. The first two choruses are pretty sparse, it’s predominantly bass, drums, and vocals.
By the time we get to the final chorus, the piano and strings that have been teased in each pre-chorus finally enter, along with extra vocal adlibs. This makes that last chorus feel huge!
If your track is too sparse, the inverse of this process may work better for you. Try to think of at least one new element you could add to each section, or even consider swapping out an existing part of the song for a new one at a certain point.
For a good example of how to do this, check out Spinning by No Rome. The instrumental is fairly repetitive, but the different vocalists and the instrumental changes in the final verse and chorus keep it interesting.
These subtle variations really help to hold the listener’s attention throughout the song.
2. Layer Sounds
Sometimes the key to an effective song arrangement isn’t to throw a ton of parts into it but to reinforce the few elements that are already there. This technique is known as layering in music production.
Layering is a trick that involves using multiple audio tracks that are playing the same part. The combination of each element will make that one part feel “bigger” within a mix.
This can include anything from using multiple drum samples to make a kick drum sound bigger, to having a melody or chord progression being played by multiple instruments.
To demonstrate this technique, I’m going to use one of my productions as an example, Attention Horse by electronic music artist Glitch Gum.
In this song, the verse has a bright guitar melody and some synth pads in the background. Going into the chorus, we wanted it to change from the colorful verse into a massive bass drop.
However, using only one bass sound would have ultimately left that drop feeling anti-climatic. We decided to layer three different bass sounds together, and even a low horn part in the mix.
This way the bass would cover a good amount of the frequency spectrum, from the sub-bass to the high mid-range. This allowed us to get away with a sparse arrangement in the choruses. On the final chorus, however, we employed tip #1 and added some new sounds to make the last chorus feel huge.
This technique of layering sounds can be a really effective way to enhance a simple arrangement, and experimenting with removing (and re-adding) parts can also help improve the overall dynamics of your track.
Another trick for creating a dynamic arrangement is to vary the frequency content of your song.
If you look at this spectrogram of a typical pop song, you can see how the amount of energy in each frequency range changes throughout the arrangement.
The highest concentration of energy is usually in the chorus sections where the full frequency spectrum is being used.
The low end is being taken up by the bass, low-end synths, and often a rhythm instrument that is playing the chords. The high end will be taken up by the lead and background vocals, and any instrumental lead melodies from guitars, keys, or a synth.
When we get to the verse, bridge, etc, the energy drops down dramatically. Here, the energy is concentrated more in the low and low mid-range.
The lead vocals are still happening in the high range, but the background vocals often get removed or reduced to fewer parts. The instrumental often gets reduced to the rhythm section and whatever instrument is playing the chords of the song.
This should give you a clue as to how frequency content creates dynamics within arrangements. Having a variety of instruments taking up the entire frequency range makes that section of a song feel huge.
Removing those elements and keeping your focus on the lower end of the spectrum makes a section feel smaller. Experiment with this in your own arrangements. Maybe save your hooky synth melody line for the chorus and make the verses just rhythm instruments, or even save all your vocal harmonies for the chorus.
By varying the amount of energy you have in each frequency range in different sections, you’ll have a dynamic arrangement in no time!
4. Create Special Effects
This may be the least “musical” out of all these tips, but as producers, it is one of the most important things we can do if we want to make competitive, modern arrangements.
While the music is still the most important part of what makes a song great, in modern pop and electronic music listeners are also drawn to the unique sound effects that are added to a track.
I define a sound effect or special effect as any event in a track that occurs only once or twice. An example of a producer who uses this method heavily is Finneas, producer for (and brother of) Billie Eilish.
Her songs are arranged so sparsely that these subtle little events that only occur once in the song help keep the arrangement exciting.
If your arrangement is not this sparse, you do not have to make your use of effects this extreme. You could simply experiment with automating a filter on your mix, a technique often used to make the buildup into an EDM drop more intense.
Maybe you can create a crazy delay effect that you automate to intensify right before a big drop or chorus.
These little effects can help people engage with your song. As you can see from these first few tips, any kind of variation or new ideas you can throw into your track will help hook people into the story you’re trying to tell with your song.
5. Create Ambience In Your Track
While introducing variation into your music is a fantastic way to spice up your arrangement, for some songs it’s better to keep it simple. In those cases, it’s still possible to create variation and interest in your piece, albeit much more subtly.
Adding ambient layers to your track is a great way to make a stripped-back arrangement feel just as huge as any pop tune. There are many tools you can use to create these parts. You can use synth pads, guitar parts, vocals, or even field recordings from sample libraries to create these layers.
One of my favorite tricks for creating ambiance is to take out a note from the vocal (i.e. if the song is in the key of E, take out a clip of an E note) and put it on a new track.
I’ll then send it to a reverb bus with an infinite decay in my DAW. I’ll record the effect onto a new track and then chop it up, sometimes reverse it and place it where I need ambiance in an arrangement.
Another example is from engineer Marc Daniel Nelson. If you listen to the clips in the video, the basic arrangement is pretty bare bones.
To spice things up, he takes various guitar parts and routes them through a delay, where he is continuously automating the volume of the effect as well as the amount of feedback in the delay loop.
Creating an ambient sound, and varying its level and tone throughout a track can really make a simple music arrangement come to life. You’ll quickly find that by doing this, you won’t have to crowd the mix with too many extra ideas just to create interest. One simple idea that works well is better than a mess of ideas that don’t add anything to a song.
6. Don’t Work Linearly
When you produce music, your process probably starts with writing the first verse or chorus and building the other parts of the song around that.
While there is no wrong approach to writing music, this could be the reason you struggle with creating an interesting song arrangement. Maybe you throw every single idea you have into the beginning of the song, leaving you with nowhere to go.
While the previous song arrangement tips may help you create variations in a track you’ve already made, for future productions you should try this approach from the very beginning to put you on the right track.
In the world of mixing, some professionals recommend you start your mixes by working on the most climactic part of your song first, which is usually the final chorus. This can help you gain perspective on your mix because you want that section to be the loudest, most exciting aspect of it.
With each section you work on after that, you’ll be trying to make sure they aren’t as loud or exciting. Instead, you’ll make sure these sections aid the most climactic section.
This technique can be applied to producing as well. After all, good productions are what lead to good mixes.
The next time you sit down to produce a track, try this approach and make the most climactic section of the song first. Throw every single idea at it.
Then work backward from there and try to get the rest of the song to aid in building up to that moment. You might be surprised at how exciting this makes your music sound.
As you can see, there are many different ways to spice up your song arrangement if you’re feeling stuck. I hope these tips give you new ideas to try in your music.
From layering sounds to adding new elements to creating ambiance, the possibilities are endless. Plus, these techniques can be combined to enhance your arrangements even further, leading to new personal discoveries. Just experiment and have fun!