Sometimes what makes a song really stand out isn’t so much the writing, per se – it’s the arrangement of the instruments on the recording or performance. The different combinations of sounds and varied dynamic ranges of certain instruments can change a cliché chord progression or melody line into a stand-out moment. When used as a tool, arrangements become powerful ways to breathe life into a song that you may be having difficulty completing.
Whether you’re recording in the studio or performing live, try any of these arrangement tricks to get your songs out of a slump. The fun part about arrangements is that you can experiment with their basic concepts across any instrument. Eventually, you’ll hear what works best.
1. A simple percussion arrangement
Adding percussion to a track can make a very rudimentary song come to life. Case in point: "Magic Bus" by the Who. Featuring a Bo Diddley-esque single guitar chord rhythm and a shouted group vocal refrain, it’s the polyrhythmic playing of the wood block and shaker that gives the song a vibe of its own.
2. Harmony vocals
The sound of two voices singing is a great way to spice up a song’s arrangement. Some of the greatest songs of all time just wouldn’t be so great without the harmony singing that arguably makes the song stand out. One of the greatest arrangers of harmony vocals is without a doubt Jeffy Lynne, whose incredible use of harmony colors Electric Light Orchestra’s best tracks. He took harmony singing even further, texturizing the voices with modern studio effects and processing to create three-dimensional vocal soundscapes found in tracks like "Strange Magic."
3. Doubling up guitars
It makes total sense: the only thing that could sound better than one guitar is two! And the great thing about doubling up guitars is that there are no hard and fast rules. Whether guitars are in harmony or in unison, whether one guitar is bassy or trebly, any song's arrangement can be kicked into high gear with some doubled-up guitar parts.
One of the original and most unique double guitar lines can be found in the Thin Lizzy song "Wild One," which employs harmonized and staggered guitar lines to create a unique and powerful sound.
4. Punching up the bass
While guitars are often the focal point of a pop song, letting the bass guitar take the lead can add a new dimension to the same old songwriting. Whether it's literally taking the lead by playing the melodies of the progression, or just being played at a louder level that the other supporting instruments, punching up the bass will create a unique vibe every time.
A great example of tapping into the power of bass dynamics comes from the song "Soul Suckin Jerk" from Beck's Mellow Gold album. The song starts off with a slinky and funky bassline under a mid-tempo funk beat. About halfway through the track, the rhythm breaks down to the drums and the bass. Then suddenly, the bass gets cranked into grinding, heavy-metal territory without losing the funkiness of the beat. It's an awesome transition, giving it a feeling you wouldn't find often in a hip-hop and funk-influenced track like this.
5. The power of the breakdown
Without a doubt, one of the most classic ways to take a song to another level is to drop out a major instrument for a certain length of time, also known as the breakdown. So many songs have used this classic arrangement trick, yet it never fails to inspire an emotional response or a sense of drama.
One of the best breakdowns in pop music is the cow-bell breakdown in the Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies." Lasting only a measure, it make a powerful transition and showcases why the breakdown is so integral to dance music and hip-hop.
Christopher DeArcangelis is an active musician and copywriter from Chicago. He writes songs, plays guitar, and sings vocals for the rock and roll band MAMA and is the founder of the creative agency Static Free Industries.