We’ve covered lyrics over the last 2 posts (and previously I gave a few brief top tips for song writing). Now it’s time to move onto arrangement proper.
- I know it’s not part of arrangement, but it’s too important to ignore. Many songwriters take a lyric and a chord sequence or a riff and just try to hammer the 2 together. This can work and may give you a satisfactory song. But too often it results in a song where the melody is a little boring and limited and is only held up by the chords, lyric and arrangement.
If you want a better melody, write it before you have any chords or a riff. Then add chords which fit after. The majority of your melody will likely move by step (e.g. from A to B to C, etc.) or arpeggio (notes of a chord one by one) for a smooth flow but putting in occasional larger jumps can be very effective.
Try to keep phrases short and singable so you’re not struggling for breath.
Make Your Title Stand Out
This can be done by having that part of the melody higher or lower than other lines. It can also be done by making the rhythm vary from the other lines. Another effective tool is making your melody/lyric pause just before the title, either with a rest or a held note.
The more hooks you can get in (those short bits that stick in your memory and you can’t stop humming them), the more likely people will remember your song. Hooks can be in the lead vocal, the back vocal and in instruments. If you can get in at least one of each, that’s great. Make sure that your title is a hook. See here for more on this (XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX).
Starting and Ending
Zero starts (very short intros) and dead stop endings are usually best. Stopping in mid phrase to keep them wanting more is great if you can make it work.
One Of The Crowd
It’s always good to have some very simple hooks that people can join in with – think of football chants. People like songs they can sing along to.
Syncopation can be very effective – move things to off beats – either from the beginning, or for contrast later on. Play around with different patterns. Try moving different notes to different beats and see what works (see echo tip below)
Variation is key: bring in new instruments; drop out existing ones.
Make use of space – you may well want to throw the kitchen sink at your chorus; if so, make your verses emptier; maybe make your bridge/middle 8 almost empty – one instrument and voice, you can then add back other instruments gradually.
Change the dynamics ; look at songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana or “Creep” by Radiohead, to see how contrasting loud and soft can work (it doesn’t ONLY work in rock music, it applies to all styles – even in the hardest core dance music they drop out the 4 on the floor kick and maybe just have pad synths sometimes).
Move your hi hat pattern from 8ths to 16ths or 32nds to add momentum and back to 8ths to reduce it between verse and chorus for example. Moving from hi hat to ride cymbal is also a common method of filling out choruses.
Move things up/down an octave for variation – this can work with lead riffs, chord sequences, lead vocals, harmony parts and even bass lines. If you’re writing for other artists make sure it stays within their vocal range.
Can you use echoes to add interest? An echo synchronised to your tempo can do amazing things to a good staccato riff. Or even on your lead vocal it can be used for effect, maybe in a breakdown section (where instruments drop out and are brought back in gradually).
Try using distortion to mess up sounds a little, but remember there are settings other than maximum.
Variety and Familiarity
It is important to balance these. You want the song to have enough repetition to be catchy and memorable, and enough variation that people don’t get bored and want to hear it again.
So try to make the repetitions different. Certainly by the time you get to your 3rd verse/chorus you should be changing things around from the previous ones so that, although they hear the familiar melodies and hooks, there is something new happening to make them prick up their ears rather than start yawning.
Ideally when the song gets to the end they were enjoying it so much, they’ll hit repeat. And hopefully they’ll tell their friends about the great new song they just can’t stop playing.