Making Arrangements — A Rough Guide To Song Construction & Arrangement, Part 1

Tips & Techniques

Published in SOS October 1997
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Technique : Composing / Arranging

PART 1: Great songs are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. BIG GEORGE mops his brow and takes it to the bridge... This is the first article in a three-part series. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.


Over the next couple of months we'll be looking into the most scant-regarded and often-ignored element of music: arrangement. It's a massive subject which has umpteen rules, all of which can be bent, broken and rewritten. For the purpose of this series of articles we will not be looking into how a guitar/bass/drum group get their live set together (for a detailed look at those aspects of arrangement and general musical preparation, I suggest you take a peek at SOS's sister magazine Sound On Stage).

So just how do you go about arranging a tune? The answer to that question has as many connotations as the age-old conundrum: how long is a piece of string? On the assumption that the string is two metres in length and seven strands thick, I intend to look at the long and short of arrangement for any sound that calls itself modern popular music.


Let's start by looking at what arrangement isn't:

• It's not finding a chord sequence for a song (although it often is changing the pattern of a chord sequence to make a more sympathetic harmonic bed).

• It's not writing the lyrics to a song (although it can be working out exactly what the backing singers will be doing with themselves).

• It's not deciding what the rhythm to a track is (although, in truth, it sometimes is).

Actually, the line between composing or producing a tune and arranging it is a very thin one. If you're either the producer or the composer, arrangement goes with the territory, whereas if you're being brought in by a composer or producer specifically as an arranger, it's usually to arrange the strings or the horns or the backing vocals (we'll examine those particular aspects and what the job pays later in the series). For now, we'll look at the basics of how to get the best out of a song you've written.

The first thing you must do is make sure that there's a reason for every part to be there -- that goes for any piece of music you write. The amount of times people include four bars of nothing between sections (because it's always been there) is equal to the amount of songs that never have a hope of getting anywhere. If you're writing a piece of art that you hope will turn on millions of people, make sure that every part has a reason and nothing is missing. That's the art of writing, arranging and producing hits. Everyone knows what ingredients can be used -- it's all down to the stirring, I guess. Aprons on: let's cook!


THE VERSE: We all know that a verse is the part of the song which tells the story. Most songs have no more than four verses, which would include repeating the first verse at the end. Bob Dylan has written songs with dozens of verses, but none of those ever became hits. Of course, you can get away with only one verse repeated over and over again, if you want. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, with 'Roller Coaster of Love', and Nirvana, with 'Something in the Way', are two that did.

THE CHORUS: The chorus is the part of the song which you want people to be singing along with by the end of the song -- the first time they hear it. One easy, effective and sure-fire killer way of making a chorus lift to maximum hit-ability is to find the highest root note string sound you can and have it simply playing all the way through. It sounds corny, but just try it. It could be one of the elements that makes your track a worldwide smash hit. Ask the Pet Shop Boys what they think of this idea.

THE BRIDGE OR TAG: This is a section that links the verse and the chorus together. That music shop favourite 'Wonderwall', by the mighty Oasis, has a perfect example of a bridge, if a little long and unadventurously used ("And all the roads we have to walk are winding..."). The song also has the 'two verses at the beginning' trick (see next section).

THE MIDDLE EIGHT (or, as James Brown would shout, "Take it to the bridge") is a third melodic part, usually placed after the second chorus to break up the song pattern. It's called a middle eight because it's usually eight bars long, but there's no law saying it has to be that length or even there in the first place -- whatever feels good and fits the bill. No-one has ever done a study on this but I would hazard a guess that 50% of records have a middle eight, and of those, 50% are eight bars long. Michael Jackson used this device for effect in 'Billie Jean' ("People always told me, be careful what you do..." -- which, by the way, is eight bars long).

A KEY CHANGE: Why? Because it can lift a song at that difficult 'two-thirds of the way through' stage, where the listener's interest is beginning to waver. The usual key change is to move up a tone (from A to B, for example). It's advised, for maximum effect, to build into this with a huge drum break or a dramatic pause. Key changes down are seldom, if ever, used, because they give the opposite effect of uplift. And note that more than one key change per song can be more annoying than exciting. There's a classic example of a key change in the Whitney Houston hit 'I Will Always Love You'.

THE CODA is a cool way of ending a track. It's either the chorus hook repeated continuously, or a new section used to tail off a track. One of the most exciting codas used in popular music is the end of Elvis Costello's 'Accidents Will Happen' -- the bit that repeats the words "I Know", ad infinitum.

Of course, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' doesn't fit the patterns explained here, but all but a handful of the tens of thousands of top ten hit records before and since have.


Let's assume that your song has the following conventional structure:

Verse 1


Verse 2


Verse 3


Verse 4

Double chorus


How do you make it more interesting?

• The first thing to add is an intro. It could simply be a vamp of the opening couple of bars of the verse or the final four or eight bars of the chorus. Then again, four bars of drums at the beginning of a song never goes down badly either.

• Try getting rid of the first chorus by sticking verse 1 and verse 2 together.

• Then, after verse three, double up the chorus, drop the last verse down a gear and make it a middle eight. Halving the rhythm track or changing the fourth chord to a minor second chord is a good way of going about this.

• A middle eight section is a great way to set up the final chorus onslaught (see 'The Nashville Number System' box).


Beats per minute (BPM) first became a science in the mid '70s, when various producers using early sequencers to make dance music worked out that 137bpm was the optimum speed to excite the human heart rate whilst dancing (137 -- the disco heaven). Since then sequencers have become an awful lot more sophisticated, as has the BPM awareness of the music makers. These days there are more pigeonholes in which to place music than ever before: house and garage tracks tend to fall betwen 130-145bpm, jungle in the 165-170bpm bracket, and happy hardcore between 170 and 175bpm, but all bpms are subject to change on the whim of a single track, which could be yours. There are some styles of modern dance music which have very eclectic tempo constraints: techno can go from an industrially moody 80bpm to a brain-smashingly bizarre 500bpm. If you're thinking about trying something in a new style for you, do some homework first. Dance music is an exact business, and close scrutiny of the current market leaders is essential to understanding the form and arrangement. A visit to your friendly local specialist record shop with £20 in your pocket will give you the best overview of what is the current norm. And in dance music, being current is everything.

Even if you're not a dance music expert and have no intention of dipping your toe in that particular beat pool, tempo is still an issue. A couple of tricks that are seldom used these days, but were common practice up until the Linn drum came onto the scene, involved speeding up the track, both gradually and as a whole.

Tracks would speed up naturally during the recording of the backing track, which is something that doesn't happen these days. If you use a sequencer but don't use loops, try notching up the BPM of your track every verse and chorus. Starting at 120bpm and ending the track at 125bpm can give a sense of urgency without the listener having the faintest clue what's going on.

The other way of speeding up a track which used to be used on a very regular basis was to slow down the mastering tape machine by a factor of 8.5% at the final mix stage. When played back at normal speed, the finished master would be slightly over a semitone higher in pitch. The reason for this was that it made the playing sound a bit tighter, particularly the drums, and gave the overall sound a bit of a toppy edge. On the downside, it made working out songs from the record difficult, because they were often slightly out of tune.


It may seem that some of the aspects we've covered have strayed into production or composing, but as I mentioned at the beginning, the line is a fine one. Next month we'll look at instrumental arranging, including adding horn and string parts, both sampled and real, basslines, rhythm structures, and fancy arrangement tips.



Each month, I'll take a look at the arrangement of a well-known record to see what makes it tick. To start with, let's consider 'Good Vibrations', recently voted the greatest single of all time by the readers of Mojo magazine.

This record is more than a mere classic, it's the Holy Grail of pop. Recording commenced mid-February 1966 at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, towards the tail-end of sessions for The Beach Boys' most influential album Pet Sounds (although ultimately, it was not included on that album). After a shaky and uncertain start, it took six weeks of recording time, spaced out over several months, to complete the track. Moving the session between five different studios, bouncing from a 4-track machine to a stereo mix on one of the early 8-track machines, and slicing multitrack tape as he went, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' founder, producer and principal composer, gave 'Good Vibrations' a godlike sound.

On the finished record, 'Good Vibrations' is in the key of G flat major (six flats) and starts with the verse descending from the relative minor: E flat minor. It was probably played in the key of F (one flat) with the verse starting on the chord of D minor and sped up at the mixdown stage. Typical pop songs of that era (or indeed any era) usually have a basic groove running throughout the track which doesn't change a great deal from start to finish. Not so 'Good Vibrations'; this is, in Brian Wilson's words, a 'pocket symphony'. It lasts just over three and half minutes but has as many dramatic changes in mood as a piece of serious classical music lasting more than half an hour, moving from the delicate opening verse (bass, vocals, and organ only) to the soaring vocal harmony sections on the chorus and bridge, and then, in the middle of the track, dropping right down to the simplicity of a church organ pad accompanied solely by a tambourine. Of course, much of the atypical structure is due to the way the track was recorded in completely different-sounding sections, and then edited together later.

As well as the unconventional structure, the instrumentation used is, to say the least, dangerously exotic. This was a period when pop records were either guitar, bass and drum combos or traditional orchestrated arrangements for vocalists. For one thing, 'Good Vibrations' doesn't use a guitar; instead it uses a solo cello and a theremin to build the rhythm section for one section, and in another section doubles a honky-tonk piano with a jaw's harp. The instrumentation changes radically from section to section; the bass plays in some parts but not in others, drums and vocals drop in and out, and the voices sometimes accompany fully developed backing tracks (such as in the chorus) and are in parts almost a cappella.

The beat, although the standard four-in-the bar, has a triplet feel (1 2 3 / 2 2 3 / 3 2 3 / 4 2 3) -- some people call it 'threes over fours', others 'a shuffle beat'. This is the same feel as Tears For Fears' 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' and Billy Ocean's 'When The Going Gets Tough' and many other lesser number one records. For the casual listener, the most prominent triplet figure is the part played by the cello, which saws away on the root note of the chord during the chorus.

The very first thing you hear is the angelic voice of Carl Wilson, Brian's brother, singing the word 'I' a triplet quaver before the downbeat. The first eight bars of the verse feature a heavily phased organ passed through a Leslie rotary speaker (for more on this, see the Hammond feature starting on page 40 this month). The organ plays the chords on the beat, accompanied solely by the tight bass guitar sound of Motown and Country music session giant Carole Kaye playing super-cool triplet figures. The second eight bars have a broken but rigid drum pattern played by session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine (alleged to have played on more hit records than any other musician ever) in tandem with a tambourine splash and a counterpoint descending French horn laid beautifully in the distance.

The 16-bar chorus was edited into the multitrack master tape at some point during the construction of the track. Like all the other edits that made up the finished record, this one is partially masked by vast reverb decays added at the mixing and sub-mixing stages. Rhythmically, the chorus is stable, but instrumentally it's wild; the throbbing cello is stretched over a straight bass and drum framework accompanied by a back-beat tambourine, and the whole arrangement is topped off by a gentleman called Paul Tanner playing a theremin -- most unusual for pop music of the time.

The chorus vocals are split into four 4-bar sections. The first section is the 'I'm picking up Good Vibrations' hook line, the second section adds an 'oo bop bop' figure (years before those Hanson boys were a twinkle in their parents eyes), the third section adds a gorgeous high harmony to the 'oo bop bop' part and the fourth section adds an even higher harmony. The structure of these vocal parts and their harmonic framework may not be the kind taught in the Royal Academy of Music, but the excitement they generate in the listener is equal to anything scratched on a piece of parchment by a long-dead composer.

A common way to develop a song arrangement is to add something to the second verse. Again, 'Good Vibrations' deviates from the norm; the second verse and chorus adhere to exactly the same patterns of instrumentation and harmony as the first time through, and the verse section is never repeated again in the song. Furthermore, the song then moves into a section that is completely out of left field; a honky-tonk piano plays with half-time feel accompanied by an on-beat bass drone, a different tambourine (shaken, not hit), a jaws harp, and more theremin low in the mix. After eight bars, there's a four-bar vocal crescendo ('aaaah'); the third and fourth bars vocally counterpointed with an angelic 'Oo my my my', which takes us into the middle eight.

Musically, the middle eight changes from the relative minor to an E flat major and instrumentally adds a sleigh bell. The vocal arrangement ('I don't know where but she sends me there...') has four separate parts which interweave so divinely the Spice Girls or Boyzone couldn't even dream them properly.

From a half-time middle eight, most people would go straight into a big splash hook-line section. Brian Wilson decided to slow the track even further, moving into a 23-bar section of church organ and tambourine by means of the most savage edit in the track. Most arrangers would steer clear of this kind of drop in pace, on the grounds that it would be chart suicide, but not Brian. This section is split into six sections of four bars (my maths is fine, just give me time to explain). The first section is vocal-less. The second section adds the line 'gotta keep those loving Good Vibrations happening with her' and at the end Carole Kaye's fat, round bass strikes up, leading into the third section which has blissful vocal harmonies and a bass line. The fourth section adds a harmonica and over the course of these four bars all the vocals fade out (again, an unconventional move). The next section is vocal-less, with just the church organ, tambourine, bass root and harmonica, as is the first two bars of the sixth and last section. On the third bar there's a crescendo vocal 'aaaah' which stops with everything else on the down beat of the last bar, decaying with delicious, distorted, ultra-analogue spring reverb to near-silence, before the next surprise: an eight-bar coda of 'Good good good, good Vibrations'. This time, there's no 'Oo bop bop' vocal accompaniment, just straight root-third and fifth block harmony, but once again, all these vocals fade out in time for the final two bars of the section, leaving the cello and bass prominent before the final piece of singing on the track: eight bars of rapturous barber shop-type vocal harmonies. There are no words, just 'dos', 'bas' and 'oos'. As if this wasn't unexpected enough, the final playout is then heralded by two bars of just cello and very prominent theremin before the drums and bass kick in for the final two-bar fade-out with full instrumentation. The exotic instruments, the complex vocal arrangements, and the many dynamic crescendos and decrescendos all combine to set this record apart from most pop music. In short, if there's an instruction manual for writing and arranging pop songs, this one breaks every rule.



I'm working on the assumption that you're not a classically trained pianist or a gifted jazz ivory-tickler, and that you input your musical information through that new-fangled MIDI thing, by means of a keyboard. Here's a handy chord-playing tip. In short, instead of having one chord shape that moves up and down the keyboard, never changing, try using different inversions. If the chords you play are (C) (F) (G), rather than playing the notes in the order C E G / F A C / G B D, where the fifth note of the chord stays in the same position, try playing C E G / C F A / B D G.

To create a mere interesting bassline, use notes from within the chord other than the root. You'll be playing like Liberace before you know it. (For chords with more than three notes, see 'Posh Chords' box).



In the last decade of the 18th Century, the centre of the music world was Salzburg, Austria. Two hundred years later there is no more productive music city on the planet than Nashville, Tennessee. Whether you like country music or think it's a pile of twanging nonsense, the fact remains that there are more studios, producers, arrangers, composers and musicians making music every day in a square mile there than anywhere else on earth.

Though this is more to do with songwriting than arranging, there's a most remarkable thing about the way that music is made there, which can be of great benefit to musicians of all tastes: instead of musical notation and chord progressions, they use something known as the number system. Numbering the notes of the scale from one to eight (the latter being an octave higher) and applying those numbers to chords means that a song is seen as a numbered pattern of chord changes, regardless of what key the song is in. It may seem an odd way of looking at music, but don't knock it until you've tried it -- whatever flavour of music you deal in. It makes learning new songs easier, changing the key to a song a doddle, and understanding what makes other great songs flow so well more straightforward. It would be completely out of order of me to suggest that looking at a number of great songs by other artists as a set of chord numbers, and picking the bits you want to use as a blueprint for your own song in your own comfortable key is a good way to start a new song. If only because this article is about arranging and not songwriting.

Anyway, every musical key is numbered in the table below. A number on its own signifies a major chord; in the key of C, a 1 is read as C major. Other "flavours" of chord are created by a simple shorthand; for example, if you want a Bb minor in the key of C, a minor chord based on the flattened seventh degree of the scale, if would be written as b7-. Nashville convention implies a particular kind of chord for each step of the scale, although this is always fully notated to avoid ambiguity:

1 = major

2 = minor 7th (2-7)

3 = minor 7th (3-7)

4 = major

5 = major

6 = minor (6-)

7 = 7th (7/7th)

So while the 6 chord would normally be minor (notated as 6-), you might want it to be a major or major 7th (6 or 6/7th). And remember, changing a chord from major to minor and vice-versa could make the difference between a massive hit and just another song.

Incidentally, the 6- chord is the relative minor of the key. (In the key of C it would be A minor.) Which means that the same notes are used in the relative minor key of A minor as are used in the major key of C. This may not seem that interesting, but if you use it in the correct way it can make you as rich as Eric Clapton. (Eric Clapton has based his entire guitar-playing style on exclusively using relative minor scales, and he's not the only one, by a long shot.)


1 C C# D E F F# G G# A Bb B
2 D D# E F# G G# A A# B C C#
3 E F F# G# A A# B C C# D D#
4 F F# G A Bb B C C# D Eb E
5 G G# A B C C# D D# E F F#
6 A A# B C# D D# E F F# G G#
7 B C C# D# E F F# G G# A A#
8 C C# D E F F# G G# A Bb B




Here's a list of every chord used in music, ever. They're only in the key of C. To find out what they are in other musical keys, either use your musical transposing skills, or the transpose button on your keyboard or sequencer. Try them out -- you'll sound like a musical genius.


&Mac198; = MAJOR 7th



C6 = C E G A

C6/9 = C E G D A

C+9 = C E G D

C&Mac198; = C E G B

C&Mac198;(13) = C E G B A

Cmj9 = C E G B D

Cmj13 = C E G B D A

C7 = C E G Bb

C9 = C E G Bb D

C13 = C E G Bb D A

C-6 = C Eb G A

C-6/9 = C Eb G A D

C-+9 = C Eb G D

C-7 = C Eb G Bb

C-7+11 = C Eb G Bb F

C-7+13 = C Eb G Bb A

C-9 = C Eb G Bb D

C-11 = C Eb G Bb D F

C-13 = C Eb G Bb D F A

C-&Mac198; = C Eb G B

C-9&Mac198; = C Eb G B D

C-7b5 = C Eb F# Bb

C-9b5 = C Eb F# Bb D

C-11b5 =C Eb F# Bb D F

Co = C Eb F#

Co7 = C Eb F# A

Co7+&Mac198; = C Eb F# A B

C+ = C E G#

Csus = C F G

C7sus = C F G Bb

C9sus = C F G Bb D

C13sus = C F G Bb D A

C&Mac198;b5 = C E F# B

C&Mac198;5 = C E G# B

C&Mac198;11 = C E G B F#

Cmj9#11 = C E G B D F#

Cmj13#11 = C E G B D F# A

C7b5 = C E F# Bb

C9b5 = C E F# Bb D

C7#5 = C E G# Bb

C9#5 = C E G# Bb D

C7b9 = C E G Bb C#

C7#9 = C E G Bb Eb

C7b5b9 = C E F# Bb C#

C7#5#9 = C E Ab Bb Eb

C7#5b9 = C E G# Bb C#

C7#11 = C E G Bb F#

C9#11 = C E G Bb D F#

C7b9#11 = C E G Bb C# F#

C7#9#11 = C E G Bb Eb F#

C13b5 = C E F# Bb D A

C13b9 = C E G Bb C# A

C13#11= C E G Bb D F# A

C7susb9 = C F G Bb C#

C13susb9 = C F G Bb C# A

Csusb5 = C F F# B

This is the first article in a three-part series. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

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