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Yesterday we talked about arrangement. I mentioned that (in my opinion) there are three parts to arrangement – melody, chord structure, and dynamics. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Melody

When you’re listening to an orchestra, what’s the first thing you listen for? The melody, of course. The Braveheart soundtrack is particularly good at maintaining a series of melodies throughout the entire piece. You walk away humming that same little part over and over.

Melody is just as important in pop music. If the singer-songwriter comes in, and she manages to only sing three notes in the entire song, you most likely have a problem. All the fancy engineering tricks in the world can’t spice up a boring melody. (Except for maybe Autotune…) 🙂

When thinking through the arrangement of the song, the melody needs to be killer. Once you’re happy with the melody, you can move on to chord structure. Sometimes chord structure will dictate the melody, but oftentimes a good melody will work in several different chord structures. Let me explain.

Chord Structure

One of my favorite things to do when writing or arranging a song is to change the chord structure while keeping the melody the same. This can be a powerful way to capture the listener’s attention.

If the song was written with a typical 1, 4, 5 chord structure, try throwing in a 6 minor chord instead of the 1 or the 4. Or maybe go to the 4 instead of the 1…leave things hanging for a bit.

I’ve produced songs before that were originally only three chords. By adding in a few chords at key moments throughout the song, it went from being boring to interesting. It didn’t take much.

Orchestral music is so good at this. There are melodies that keep repeating throughout the various movements, but the chord structure is a little different every time.

For example, have you ever listened to the St. Matthew Passion by Bach? It takes the familiar melody (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”) and repeats it throughout the piece, but each time the chord structure gets darker and darker. It starts off nice and light, then it slowly adds more and more minor and dissonant chords, making for an insanely powerful piece of music.

Dynamics

Once you’ve nailed down the melody and chord structure, you need to think through the dynamics of the song. You’ll rarely find an orchestral piece that doesn’t flow back and forth from super-quiet sections to super-loud sections. This is yet another way to keep the listener engaged.

If the songs you’re producing are loud all the time, I’m going to change the song after a minute or two. However, if your song starts off quiet and builds, I’m much more interested. Or if it starts off REALLY loud, then drops off into a quiet verse, I’m hanging on to find out what happens next.

Focus on dynamics, and your songs will take on a whole new feel.

In the next article (on Monday), we’ll jump into instrumentation. There are some big lessons to learn from orchestral music about instrumentation and how it relates to mixing.

Comment Question

In the comments below, answer this question: Which of the three parts of arrangement (melody, chord structure, or dynamics) do you need to work on in your songs? What are you going to do to get better?

[Photo by jordanfischer]