I don't know about you, but I love the raw thrill of starting a brand new production. I love picking a new instrument and finding a way to play it in a new way, fluidly writing chords and melodies in the moment, fueled by being in the creative groove. Sometimes I make something amazing, something I love and can't believe I invented. Other times, I make something terrible that never sees the light of day. That's okay. But I love the initial rush of freely creating a new song.
What I don't love is arranging. It's hard to make a second song section that sounds good while still sounding different from the first. And the third song section is hard too!
We're all looking at ways to shortcut this process, and many voices out there recommend using "subtractive arranging" to give themselves a boost out of the one-song-section trap.
What is Subtractive Arranging?
Whether you try to or not, the easiest way to start a new production is to create a single song section. It could be chill like a verse, anthemic like a chorus, or exciting like a drop. No matter where you start, most of us tend to start on one section.
And then you feel stuck. You created this awesome section with great rhythm, the instruments sound full, and the sound design tickles your imagination. This song section is often called a "super loop". But you don't know where to bring it. You don't know how to make a song out of it.
Subtractive arranging is the process of copying and pasting your super loop again and again until it fills about a song's length of time. Then start removing or "subtracting" elements of it at various points in time.
For example, maybe after 16 bars, you take the drums out. And for the first 16 bars, you leave the drums in but take out the lead melody. Keep subtracting components of your super loop to make a song section, cut out different components for another section, and before you know it, you have an arrangement.
The Problem with Subtractive Arranging
There's one main flaw in what you just did: you made song sections, but they all sound similar to each other because they all share too many common elements. From a compositional perspective, your song lacks "sectional variety."
I hear and critique tracks all the time that are guilty of a lack of sectional variety. And sometimes they sound really great. But if the chorus or drop starts and you've already heard every instrument it has earlier in the song, you've got a problem. And if the chorus or drop starts and you've already heard every chord and every note it has earlier in the song, you have a massive problem.
As each song section progresses, a song lacking sectional variety feels like it's never truly ending one section and beginning another. Instead, it feels like one never-ending song section. It's boring. It puts listeners to sleep.
But My Genre Doesn't Rely on an Obvious Arrangement...
It probably does.
It doesn't matter if you make electro-pop, future bass, trap, indie, folk, or even jazz. The most popular songs in your genre contain a number of elements that make them work. One of them is a strong arrangement, and another is the story of energy throughout the song.
A strong arrangement is critical to make the song feel like it's going somewhere, it's critical to keep the listener engaged, and it's critical in creating a journey that the listener feels he or she has just traveled.
In something as diverse as music, there will always be exceptions. Jam-bands like STS9 make songs without defined sections that keep evolving without ever returning to where they started. Some sub-genres of trance feature long songs that evolve almost imperceptibly throughout, setting a mood and a beat to keep club-goers moving, but otherwise lacks variety. Likewise, music for meditation or the spa intends not to take the listener through a story, but just to soothe the listener with relaxing sounds.
But for everyone else: arrangement matters.
What Makes A Strong Arrangement
It's all about creating and relieving tension.
A verse probably doesn't have a lot of tension, but it shouldn't feel stuck: it should feel like it's going somewhere. If you use a pre-chorus or a build, you're intentionally ramping up the energy, telling the listener that something exciting is coming. And when the peak moment of the song arrives, whether it's in the form of a chorus or a drop, the energy and euphoria should feel like it's been earned. Then, when the song transitions from that peak to the second verse, the reduction in energy should feel like a great relaxation, like you've just returned to somewhere comfortable.
Repetition is also a big part of a stong arrangement: the listener likes to be able to identify which song section he's in, but even more, he wants to feel the safety of returning to a familiar song section that he already knows. Except that for each return, the song section should be evolved somewhat. Some new element should be added to make it sound more exciting or more complete than it was before.
You may think that the Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus format feels old. It's been around since the 50's. But it's stuck around so long because it works. If you make vocal music or instrumental electronic, you should pay attention to this format because listeners love hearing it.
There are variations, of course. An older variation might be Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus
And a more modern variation is Verse > Pre-Chorus (High-Energy) > Chorus (Low-Energy) - Drop (High-Energy, Reminiscent of Chorus) > Repeat
Those cycles of energy rising and falling are understood by the listener. And the familiarity feels comfortable, which the listener likes.
Then How Do I Build My Song's Arrangement?
This is a little tricky, because you'll have to find which option works for you. The subtractive method isn't very effective because it encourages a lack of sectional variety and discourages the forming of a song's story of energy. But I can tell you what I do.
I generally start by making one song section, just like most of you. And sometimes, it immediately calls to me, asking for this other song section to come after it. Sometimes, by making a verse, the chorus begs to come out. But that doesn't always happen. There are so many times I've felt stuck at the end of a verse wondering how to make a chorus, or even more often, stuck at the end of a chorus wondering how to make a bridge.
It can help to loop the previous song section and listen to it on repeat. I try to forget that I'm the composer and imagine myself as the listener. What do I expect to come next after what I'm hearing now? Does it sound high energy or low? Does it have drums? If so, what do they sound like? Does it have bass or chords? If so, what do they sound like? Do any melodies come to mind?
That may be all I need. But if nothing's coming, it may be time to give the song a break. If you don't listen to it for two days, maybe a week, there's a good chance that when you come back to it and listen all the way through, you'll begin to imagine where it will go musically.
Also, it really helps to know that you don't have to create perfection. In fact, you probably can't. If I make a great sounding verse and chorus, I usually feel like the pressure's on; that the bridge has to be amazing otherwise the song is a failure. But applying pressure kills creativity instead of fostering it. Tell yourself it's okay if the next song section you make sucks, or if it doesn't match the previous section at all. You can delete it and start again. In fact, you may have to. When you stop beating yourself up for making something imperfect, you free yourself to try. Sometimes you'll need those extra tries. Other times, just knowing you could have extra tries takes the pressure off so you can make something right the first time.
I'm not going to lie: it's possible to make a great arrangement using the subtractive method. But if you use this method, know that if you want to make a compelling song that connects with its listeners, you have to force that sectional variety, and you have to work to build that story of energy that sets the scene, ramps up tension, and ends with a climax and closure, just like a great movie.
But if you choose not to use the subtractive method, as I choose not to, know there are alternative ways to jump in. Ways that don't make building a strong arrangement an uphill battle. You may find your own method that's totally different than mine. If you do, please share it with me in the comments below.
And if you already don't use the subtractive method, I hope this little exploration into arrangements and tension and story will be helpful for you in creating great music.