Right now I’m listening to the soundtrack from the movie Braveheart. I found it tucked away in an old CD case. (Random fact: I actually did a term paper in high school on William Wallace.)

I’m listening to it right now (the soundtrack, not the term paper) on my Sennheiser HD650 headphones. Glorious. I’m almost too relaxed to t…y…p….e…..

Anyway, whether or not you enjoy orchestral music, there is a lot to be learned from it. I don’t listen to it a LOT, but when I do, I’m always blown away by how complex and interesting it can be…and they don’t use crazy plug-ins, weird panning tricks, or distortion pedals.

As home studio owners, we can learn a LOT from listening to orchestral music. Over the next couple of articles, I’m going to unpack this idea and give you some things to try on your next tune. Today, let’s start talking about arrangement.


When you’re producing a song in your studio, what drives your decisions? How do you settle on an arrangement?

First off, what does arrangement even mean? Arrangement is simply how the song is organized from start to finish. Arrangement and songwriting go hand in hand for me. A song is only as good as its arrangement. When I’m writing a song, I’m always thinking about the arrangement in the back of my mind.

If the lyrics are amazing, but the arrangement is boring, the song won’t have the kind of impact you want it to have. If you’re the songwriter, you need to give as much attention to the song’s arrangement as the lyrics. If you’re producing a song written by someone else, your job is to make sure the arrangement flatters the song.

This can mean making changes to the song itself, which can be tricky. If you use some tact, you can pull it off without offending the songwriter. And you’ll come out looking like a hero in the end.

Now that we’ve established what arrangement is, what all is included in the arranging process? Well, there are many things to consider, and a lot of people lump instrumentation into the arrangement process, but I think they’re somewhat separate. We’ll talk about instrumentation in a later article.

The way I see it, there are three main components to arrangement – melody, chord structure, and dynamics. I’ll discuss these in tomorrow’s article.

Comment Question:

In the comments section below, answer this question: Are you happy with the arrangement of your songs? Why or why not?

[Photo by jordanfischer]

13 Responses to “How Orchestral Music Can Help You Get Better Mixes – Part 1: Arrangement”

  1. David

    Not happy. I started out just played drums, so i never had to think about song structure. Since i’ve started writing music, i’ve realized just how difficult a good arrangement can be. I’m trying to listen to as many different styles as i can in order to (hopefully) absorb some tactics for creating interesting arrangements in my compositions.

  2. Matt

    Joe, I can’t wait to see what you post about arrangement. I agree that it can make or break a song. Some times I struggle with it and sometimes it comes along nicely. In any case, I like to do a quick demo of the song and listen to it in the car. Then, I just switch parts around in my DAW to see what works best. Once that is done, you can concentrate on the overall production…. when to bring in certain instruments to build the song, when to drop things out, et cetera.

  3. Stian Sylta

    Exellent job Joe. This is something that really needs some focus. I see both in my clients and my own work that one can always learn more about arrangement and now I`m looking forward to the next articles 🙂

  4. Vinnie

    Arrangement…I love it so much. Its the unsung hero of all music, the part people tend to gloss over but which is the most important part of all.

    Good to see it addressed here, and yes Classical music is a great example of this.

    Also, I was watching Godspeed You! Black Emperor live earlier this week, and it wasn’t until I was there that I realised how much of their music relies on clever and thought out arrangement. There aren’t many other ways that a band can get away with playing one musical idea for 10 minutes and keep it interesting!

    Its everywhere…EVERYWHERE! And the moment you start being able to recognise it, analyse it and apply it to your own music is the moment that everything becomes easier, clearer and sounding much better for your own music.

    Remember too folks – good arrangement is a mixing technique.

  5. Preshan

    Wow, what a coincidence. I was just listening to some movie orchestral soundtracks over the last few days and thinking the same thing.

    There’s definitely a lot to learn in the way of arrangement and how it translates to emotional impact. Looking forward to you posts, Joe!

  6. Marc Lapointe

    Since I am not a songwriter, I only assist artists when they come record. For the most part I am never really happy with the arrangements I get. Sometimes my opinion falls on deaf ears. How I as see it, arrangement is the ability of a song to carry through the story and keep your interest. The tools used are structure, volume change, added instrumentation, etc. I completely agree that good lyrics are just a small part of a big picture. To keep the listeners’ attention from beginning to end and get them to want more – That is good arrangement.

  7. Julian

    Love classical music! I’ve been spinning some on my Beyerdynamic DT880s lately, Apollo 13 soundtrack has been my soundtrack du-jour in recent weeks. I recently added a Headroom Airhead portable headphone amp for crossfeed to add a “natural” vibe and avoid ear fatigue. If listening on my DAW I just wrap the cheap Canz3D crossfeed plug and it gets the same thing done.
    Arrangement has admittedly been my weakest part. Once I have a song written, I start to hit a wall with where I want to take it and what layers to add — MixWithUs helped me break a lot of misconceptions I had about percussion and what could sound good, but I never thought about classical music as a great way to think about arrangement — but that’s half of what all composers do.

  8. Bob Sorace

    yes and no, I tend to buck the trend of standard arrangement rules. The one I use most is just having the same three chords throughout the entire song, but using dynamics and instrumentation to change it up. Listen to the Who’s Baba O’Reily, it’s the same three notes throughout the entire song, but they pull it off.

    Which is my problem, sometimes it works, but most often it doesn’t. I have a hard time writing a song the way your “supposed to” sometimes I’ll take a song I really love and use it as a template for a new song, again sometimes it works, sometimes, not so much.

    By the way I love classical music, I put it in my playlist when it’s nappy time, very soothing. I have the best naps when I listen to classical.

    • Mark B.

      Bob, not that you’d necessarily like this band, but I think Modest Mouse pulls off the non-traditional, often 1, 2 or 3 chord song structure thing quite well. Give “The Lonesome Crowded West” a listen! It’s got mistakes and everything!

      Joe, this is my weak point too. i need practice, and patience. not just luck.

    • Eric

      Three chord songs that are powerful and hold people’s interest have to have great melodies. When chord structure is too complex, or changes too often, there’s less room for melodic development. So the heart of a great song is MELODY. Lyrics and arrangement also help, but if the song does not hold up when stripped down acoustically to a guitar/piano and voice, the song (meaning melody and lyrics) probably needs more work.

      • Eric Aureille

        As a follow-up to what I said above-
        If you think about, a fair number of radio hits today are not that strong melodically, but emphasize rhythmic variation, sycopation, or rap lyrics. But, consider the songs that become classic hits; they almost invariably have melodies that can stand on their own. What do you guys think?

        • Bob Sorace

          Eric I agree 100%, it IS the melody which of course, I tend to have a hard time with. All of the songs that will be playing on radio, or whatever they have in 50 years will be the same classic songs we listen to now. It’s all been done before, anything after the 70’s is just a variation of something else. Sadly I really do believe that, The Beatles pretty much wrote the book and we’ve all been following ever since.


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