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.


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.


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]

13 Responses to “How Orchestral Music Can Help You Get Better Mixes – Part 2: Arrangement Continued”

  1. Cush

    Dynamics is such an understated part of songwriting, especially with a lot of the people that I write/play music with. It’s also one of the reasons that I can’t listen to most extreme (death/black/grind) metal for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Balls to the Wall aggression, volume, distortion, and speed is just too much after a certain amount of time, no matter how technically proficient you are.

  2. Al

    You just said it Joe; In my opinion the Dynamics will give that “soul” to a song, and will definitely take it to the next level.
    BUT, there’s a “but” : it all will payoff if the engineer/producer guy uses proper compression and not involving the “loudness war”

  3. alan stewart

    I have used orchestration in some of my songs, my main problem is what the heck to do with the orchestra..lol….
    When I was a young tyke in high school, and middle school, I was in band, and choir, and even had college level music theory in high school, so I know the ummm… theories, but I do have trouble in actual practice.
    My main obstacle in recording a song, and it is a major obstacle for me… I want to treat each instrument as a soloist. I will be mixing the tracks, and say.. “Ohhh.. that bass line sounds good, let me bring it up, but wait… the drum part right there if I pan it , sounds good too, and heck.. .the underlying guitar lead, needs to be heard too” those are my problems.

  4. Christopher w

    melody is the biggest issue I have with my own songs, I’m terrible at them… the only way I can get them sounding good is if I make the song [almost] ambient.

    I’m no songwriter, I never learnt skills like chord structure. heck, I’m have been a keyboard player for about five years and I only know a C-scale. I got taught “hey, pick three chords that sound good together and we will go from there”.

    which is why something as complex (to me) as writing melody lines takes ages with no real results.

  5. Bob Sorace

    Melody is a killer for me, for most of my musical career i’ve just been the guitar player, so I’d write the song and let the singer figure the rest out. Now that I’m trying to wear all of the hats, it’s a lot harder than it looks to come up with a great melody that doesn’t just follow the chord structure.

    I love the idea of slowly taking the chord structure and making it darker as the song progresses, I’m going to try that tonight.

  6. Sparqee

    Huh…. I always think of Melody and Chord Structure as “the song” (along with lyrics). Dynamics I consider an aspect of performance. What I think of as arrangement is the choice of instrumentation and when and how each instrument is played throughout the course of the song (e.g. the drummer is on the hats in the verse and switches to the ride during the chorus, etc.). I suppose I also consider the song structure (verse into pre-chorus into chorus then to bridge, etc.) as part of the arrangement.

    Tomatos/Toe-matos. 🙂

    • Joe Gilder

      On Monday I’ll talk about instrumentation.

      You’re right, though. Melody, Chord Structure, and Dynamics are all a part of the songwriting process. What I think we as engineers/producers need to do is realize that as we’re producing a track, it might be necessary to change one or ALL of these. A lot of engineers ONLY think of instrumentation, and they view the song itself as “off limits.” I think that’s short-sighted and can lead to tracks with great instrumentation, but boring arrangements.

      • Dave Chick

        It IS kind of like a tomayto – tomahto thing isn’t it?

        A publishable “song” in P.R.O.’s eyes is a melody, chords and lyrics. What you do with that foundation is the arrangement.

        Joe’s got it right in that an arrangement is anything that puts a “spin” on that foundation – can be changing up the melody, chords and instrumentation.

        Chords is a biggie – it can be as simple as voicing the chord differently (inversion / open vs. closed), chord substitution (what Joe’s pointed out above), altering/extending a chord, or a mixture of all of those.

        I think one of the big things you’ve left out Joe is rhythm – that plays a big factor in an arrangement too. It can be subtle or overt changes in the underlying rhythmic structure that can take a song in a different direction. Rhythm and instrumentation go hand in hand to define the style and genre too. Playing with that definitely gets fun!

        • Joe Gilder

          You’re totally right, Dave. Rhythm is a huge part of it.

          While everyone’s definition of “arrangment” may vary, what I hope we all do is realize that we as producers/engineers can have a DRAMATIC effect on the song, as long as we’re open to analyzing/changing things as necessary.


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