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How to Arrange Music

A Guide to Beat and Song Arrangement

Last Updated: October 2023 | Article Details: 3377 words (18 – 20 minute read)

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So you want to know how to arrange songs or beats? Music arrangement is an extremely important part of the creation process. And it’s one that feels more like “work” than simply coming up with a song idea or sketch.

But unless you want to stay stuck in the dreaded “8-bar loop” and never finish any actual music, you better get to that “work.”

Without music arrangement, a really great idea falls flat and quickly becomes boring and repetitive or completely inadequate for the listener.

So in this guide to arranging music we’ll go over everything you need to know to get dope sounding song/beat arrangements – different approaches, important concepts and a step-by-step guide to getting out of the loop.

Just a quick note: We’re only talking about instrumental arrangement in this guide. We’ll have a separate guide on vocal arrangement, since that’s got it’s own nuances.

Ok, let’s get it…

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What is Music Arrangement?

Music arrangement is taking a short compositional idea (whether it’s a fully packed 8 or 16 bar loop, or just a 4 bar initial idea/sketch from your preferred option of beat making software) and giving it a sense of movement, evolution, and growth over time.

It’s taking an initial seed idea, and turning it into a full blown story – with peaks and valleys.

Music arrangement is really about the flow of energy levels over time. A song that stayed at the same energy level for 3 straight minutes would either be fatiguing or boring REALLY quick.

That song needs to have ups and down – ramp ups and wind downs in energy – to be a really engaging piece of music.

That’s what arrangement hopes to do.

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Is Arrangement the Same as Song Structure?

The idea of song structure is highly related to music arrangement, but they are not the same thing. Song structure specifically refers to the different sections a song has – i.e. Intros, Verses, Choruses, Bridges, etc.

Music arrangement, on the other hand, is all about what elements of the overall composition/song will play at what times within those different song sections.

You should have a good idea of what your song structure is (or what you want it to be) before you start arranging the music across those sections. That’s because your song’s structure will help dictate what level of energy each section should have.

And of course, each section will build upon the previous section of the song to help provide a consistent heightening/lowering of energy levels.

Related Content: Song Structure Explained Fully – Read More

As a quick refresher before we dive into how to arrange your music, here’s the most common song structure in modern popular music:

Intro -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Bridge -> Chorus -> Outro

Each section is normally 4 or 8 bars in length, but can be longer/shorter.

How Does Song Arrangement Work?

You may have intuitively noticed when listening to your favorite music or even making your own beats (learn how) that the energy (or hype level) of a track builds up as more and more elements start playing.

In the intro there are only a small number of things playing, and more and more things (vocals, drums, bass, etc) get added over time and raise the energy level that you feel from the music.

And that’s really all there is to music and song arrangement – strategically placing different elements of your song/beat idea across the length of the song.

Man Arranging Music on Computer

Not everything in your composition will play at the same time, all the time. That would be boring.

So in essence, when arranging music you pick and choose what instruments are going to play (and for how long) in each song section so that the overall song unfolds over time like an emotional journey (i.e. like a story).

Think of it like a roller coaster. If the roller coaster track was completely flat and straight it would be boring. That’s why all roller coasters have twists, turns, loops and high peaks followed by low “valleys.”

All About Energy Levels

There’s no rule that says energy levels have to constantly build UP over time.

Some songs may start with a high level of energy and then gradually decrease that energy over time. The important thing to remember is that it’s about making the song evolve over time.

It’s easiest to think about in terms of energy levels, but don’t think every song you make has to build UPWARDS. It can break down in energy over time, as well.

More importantly than anything else, your arrangement should serve the song. What does that mean? If the song is a ballad, you don’t necessarily want it to build up in energy in the same way a dance song would.

And finally, it’s important to understand that your energy level shouldn’t just KEEP rising or falling in a “linear” or straight fashion. It should ebb and flow with various peaks/climaxes and breakdowns/buildups.

Here’s a quick illustration of how energy usually flows through a song:

Music Arrangement Energy Flow

What you’ll notice is that it’s not a straight line up and to the right. It’s goes up and down with the highest energy level near the end of the song (often the final “chorus” section), followed by an “outro” section that winds down the energy level from it’s highest peak before ending fully.

The other thing you’ll notice is that each of the energy “peaks” are higher than the previous energy peaks in the arrangement. This ensures that listeners stay engaged the whole way through.

You’re constantly changing the energy, up and down, while never staying stagnant or the same level as other sections of your song.

Seeing it like this can help you visualize how you should approach the overall arrangement of your song.

How to Approach Music Arrangement

There are lots of different approaches to arranging a beat or song.

Some people may start with an initial idea (like a chord progression) and then as they add instruments to the overall mix (learn more), they also arrange each part in the timeline.

For example, you could create a 4 bar chord progression, and then let it loop twice so it plays a total of 8 bars. Then you could add a kick and snare in the second half of that 8 bars. You’d then copy/paste that second 4 bars again, and add another instrument(s).

You copy/paste again as you build the arrangement at the same time you’re composing the overall song.

Subtractive Arrangement

But a far more popular way of arranging music is to use the subtractive approach.

This way of arrangement starts at the end, so to speak. You compose your full instrumental first (i.e. write/play every part that will end up being in the song) as a 4, 8 or 16 bar “super” loop.

You then take that super loop that has every instrument playing at the same time and consider it your “highest energy” peak. This super loop will often end up being your final chorus.

And then for each section of the overall song, you selectively remove elements to build out the overall arrangement.

This is the type of arrangement I do most often. It’s just the easiest way to come up with a compelling arrangement when using the kinds of writing workflows most modern producers work in.

The Importance of Transitions

If you’re not careful, when you’re moving between song sections and building up the energy it can sound abrupt. That’s because simply adding lots of new elements to a new song section can make things feel disconnected or jarring.

That’s where transitions come into play.

When changing between song sections of your arrangement (ex/ moving from the pre-chorus to the chorus), it’s a good idea to add some transition elements to help smooth out the jump or fall in energy level.

Song Transitions Points Between Sections

These can be risers/downsweeps, drum fills, drum pulls (where you “mute” the drums before the next section starts), melodic “fills” or other things. Get creative with it.

Good transitions can also help increase the IMPACT felt by the listener when that new section hits.

A common technique is pulling the drums for a beat or two right before a chorus hits. That transition makes sure when the chorus starts, and the drums hit again, the impact of the section is even higher than it would normally be.

How to Arrange Music Step-By-Step

Here’s a step-by-step guide to arranging your music using subtractive arrangement.

  1. Write/Compose a “Super Loop”

    Write parts (play them out or sequence them in your DAW) for various parts of your overall song – harmony, melody, rhythm and layer them on top of each other. This could include chords, synth lines, bass, drums, percussion and other elements. This loop can be 4, 8, 16 or more bars and should feel like a “full” or complete instrumental with everything playing together at the same time.

  2. Copy/Paste the Super Loop

    Next, take every part of this super loop (select every element playing) and copy/paste it across your DAW’s timeline. You should paste enough sections to cover at least 3 minutes of time. This can vary depending on how many sections your song will have (i.e. will there be 2 verses or 3? is there a bridge? etc.). Make sure you’ve pasted it enough times to cover the intended length of your overall song.

  3. (Optional) Setup Song Section Markers

    This isn’t necessary, but it can help make things easier since you’re able to visualize each song section on the timeline, instead of just staring at a giant block of instrument parts. Setup markers at the top of your DAWs timeline for Intro, Verse and Chorus sections.

  4. Start Removing Elements from the First 4 or 8 Bar “Section”

    Start with the intro, and determine how you want the song to begin. Do you want it to be extremely sparse or more full? Try muting or deleting various elements until you get a vibe you like for the introduction of your song. For example, maybe your song will start with just the chord progression and main melody line playing (no bass or drums).

  5. Move to the Next Section, Removing/Keeping Elements from the Super Loop

    Move on to the next section and decide what elements should play here. Usually you don’t want a drastic difference in energy level, rather you want a gradual build-up. So if your intro had just the chords and melody playing, maybe the verse adds in the kick and snare drum along with the chords/melody.

  6. Repeat This Process for the Rest of the Song Sections

    Repeat step 5 for the rest of the song. The section after the verse in our above example may drop the melody, but add in the hi-hat for a more solid groove on top of the chords. Then for the first chorus, you may add the melody back in while also keeping the bass from the super loop. Go through each section like this and arrange the musical elements in a way that follows the energy level rises/falls in the picture above. Experiment here.

  7. Keep Every Element in the Final Chorus and Wind Down Energy in the Outro

    When you get to your final chorus, it’s probably a good idea to let every element in the super loop play. The final chorus is usually the highest level of energy of any song, and that can mean just letting the entire composition play in full for this section. The outro section of your song (the final section before the song stops) should wind down the energy of the song. It doesn’t have to if you want to have a completely abrupt ending, but that’s a creative choice.

  8. Add Transition and Impact Elements

    Jumps and falls in energy can sometimes feel jarring, so add some transitional elements like risers, drum fills or mutes to help smooth out the transition between sections. Impacts are elements that help make the feeling of a new section starting out more intense. A crash cymbal at the beginning of a chorus is an example of an “impact” sound.

  9. Listen and Re-Arrange as Necessary

    Finally, listen to your full arrangement from start to finish and make adjustments as you find necessary. You goal is to have a living, breathing, evolving arrangement of a song that unfolds like a story. Think about how the arrangement makes you feel – what’s the emotional journey you take when listening? Adjust it and tweak it until it feels and sounds right to you.

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    Tips on Getting Better Arrangements

    It can be tough to create really engaging arrangements of your songs when you’re first starting out, but there are some things you should always keep in mind.

    The more you arrange music (and listen critically to professional music in a good set of studio-grade headphoneshere are our favorite picks) the better you’ll get at this art.

    But here are a few tips to help you understand the nuances of song arrangement.

    Keep Things Evolving

    Static arrangements are boring. And nowadays listener attention spans are shorter and shorter.

    That means you have to constantly keep your listener engaged. The best way to do that is through contrast and novelty.

    Novelty refers to something “new” for the listener to notice or latch on to. Contrast, however, is a much more important concept to internalize. You want each section of your song (and even within sections themselves) to contrast the others.

    And you want the contrast/novelty to happen fairly often so the listener doesn’t get too bored too quickly.

    A good rule of thumb is to change something up every 4 bars across your entire arrangement, even if it’s subtle.

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    Less Is More

    Related to the last tip is the timeless advice of “less is more.” When you’re constantly worried about novelty/contrast every 4 bars, it’s easy (and incorrect) to just keep adding new elements or instruments to your arrangement.

    The problem with that approach, however, is that you run the risk of making your arrangement TOO dense or thick. And if you also have a vocalist recording on top of the instrumental, there may be no room left for them in the mix.

    You don’t want to have TOO MANY things playing together at the same time – things will just sound cluttered and busy.

    Song construction and arrangement doesn’t need to go overboard.

    Every song only really needs 4 or so (give or take) elements – rhythm, harmony, melody and ear candy. The rhythm includes the drums, percussion and bass. The harmony and melody are self explanatory and also encompass music or audio that is sampled (learn more). Ear candy is just little “hooky” elements that act like a little sprinkle of sugar or a cherry on top.

    Drumming on Buckets

    You should work with contrast/novelty within those sections. For example, the energy level and novelty of a section changes A LOT simply by adding a hi-hat cymbal to a kick/snare groove. So you can be subtle with your novelty/contrast. Always remember, less is more.

    You may now be thinking, “wait… but when it comes to harmony and melody, it’s a lot harder to contrast things – what should I do?”

    Most newbies will simply add in more and more melodies to an arrangement thinking they’re building energy and adding novelty. But that’s entirely the wrong approach. Even when it comes to harmony/melody, less is more.

    The main melody of a (non-instrumental) song is usually taken care of by the vocalist, but the instrumental may also have one melodic line. And the harmony (i.e. chord progression) of a song normally stays the same throughout the song.

    So how do you vary that?

    Use Layering, Automation and Effects

    The answer to the previous question is layering, automation and effects processing.

    You can drastically change the vibe and energy level of a section by adding/removing layers. So instead of playing a new melody part, you play the same melodic part but with a different timbre of instrument. Or you may add/remove layers (a piano vs. a piano plus a guitar, for example) to the chord progression across different sections of the song.

    Beyond that, you could add effects to the parts already in your arrangement in various sections to add some variety and contrast/novelty. For example, adding a “telephone filter” effect to a part during a bridge section will help bring it’s energy level down, without the need for picking another new sound (learn more) to add..

    And you can use DAW automation to control the effect so it evolves and changes over time. This can add some really interesting texture and evolution to an arrangement.

    Note: Automation is using your DAW to “automatically” control an effect (or effect parameter) for a specific length of time or section of a composition by drawing in a curve with your mouse or hardware. It can be very powerful to, for example, have a distortion start light but become heavier and heavier across a particular instrument during the pre-chorus section, before removing it altogether and having the instrument play normally in the chorus.

    As you can see, there are many ways to add novelty/contrast without constantly adding in new sounds, instruments or synths (learn more about the best synth VSTs).

    Related Article: Sound Design Guide – Read More


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    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is Arrangement in Music Production and Songwriting?

    Arrangement in music production is the process of taking an initial song idea or sketch and turning it into a full song. This includes determining the various sections a song will have and what parts will play at what times. Some of it is methodical and some of it is experimentation. The goal of music arrangement is to take that basic song idea and turn it into an evolving, emotional journey that takes the listener on a ride and keeps them interested/engaged from start to finish.

    Is Arranging Music Hard?

    Music arrangement can definitely be intimidating and a very involved process to get right. But once you understand the purpose of arrangement and the ideal ways for music to unfold, it can be very fun and engaging to do. It’s definitely not as fun as the initial composition phase of music creation, but is just as vital since a well-arranged song can elevate the emotional impact of it.

    How Can I Learn Music Arrangement?

    The best way to learn the techniques of great musical arrangements is to study the music you love. Find a few songs that you absolutely love and have the deepest or most profound emotional impact on you. Pay attention to how the song unfolds. What are the different song sections and what gets added or taken away for each section. How does the song unfold. The more you study your favorite arrangements, the better you’ll become at arranging your own songs.

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    Final Thoughts

    Beat and Song Arrangement can be a pretty intimidating topic, but it doesn’t have to be.

    It does take some skill, but is actually quite simple once you understand the purpose of it – to help you song unfold in a logical, easy-to-follow and engaging way like a story.

    There should be emotional ups and downs, while evolving over time to keep a listener interested and engaged.

    The best thing to do, is to get started on arrangements RIGHT AWAY. Don’t wait. Once you’ve come up with a song/beat sketch or overall idea, stop adding new sounds and start working on the arrangement.

    And it’s important to force yourself to get to the music arrangement phase of creation, otherwise you’ll be left with a folder full of dope 8 bar loops, but never have any finished music.

    Don’t be that guy (or girl)… It sucks.

    If you’re new to making music, sign-up for our free Beat Making Cheat Sheets and you’ll get our 7-Day Course to Better Beats as well.

    That’s it for this beginner’s guide to song and beat arrangement. Thanks for reading, I hope it was helpful.

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.