Form in Motion: Dot's Guide to Song Arrangement

Form and arrangement are two closely related aspects of a song that can be the most challenging to come up with during the writing process. It’s easy to generate various loops, beats, motifs, and smaller sonic building blocks, but there is a much deeper level of musical literacy and understanding that is required in order to execute a fully arranged piece. This is why so many developing artists and producers find themselves getting “stuck” when it comes time to turn those 8-bar loops into entire songs.

To help with this process, I like to imagine the final song as the experience of going on a drive, where form and arrangement come together to create a moving journey for the listener. This drive can be broken down into three main aspects: the car, the environment, and the motivation to go somewhere (or leave somewhere behind).

Let’s start with the car. You could have a pile of beautiful car parts, but if they aren’t all assembled correctly, you won’t be able to move. We need a blueprint or schematic to follow in order to create a well-running machine, and a lack of understanding of the mechanical basics will be one of the first blocks in your effort to go anywhere with these parts. The same principle applies in music production and songwriting — if you don’t know the underlying forms that music is built upon, then you’ll either create something that doesn’t work very effectively, or you’ll waste a ton of energy trying to reinvent the wheel.

There are numerous important reasons why these forms or patterns have come to be, so to avoid learning them for the sake of “being original” is only going to slow your creative development. If you took two of the exact same cars, and sent one driver on a journey through Skid Row in Downtown LA, and another driver on a road trip up the PCH in Malibu, then the drivers would have two very different experiences, yes? Two songs can also have the exact same form but take the listener on completely different trips. For the sake of brevity, I won’t include a lecture on common song forms in this article, but you can find more information here and here.

Next we have the environment you’re driving through. What is the overall mood, and significant visual aspects that make up the space, and how does the environment change over time? A well-arranged song will have a healthy balance of musical elements in the foreground, middle-ground, and background. Too much in the foreground and the driver gets distracted, and not enough focus means the driver will fall asleep. Too much repetition on the journey and the driver starts to feel bored, but not enough familiarity and the driver will get lost. Finding an effective balance of focus, mood, and repetition/variation is crucial to writing a great song or instrumental. 

Last but not least, you must have a clear motivation for this drive, otherwise there is no reason to go anywhere in the first place. What are you moving towards, what are you getting away from, and WHY? Are you going to go see someone you love, or running from a problem? Are you simply getting out to enjoy the view on a Sunday drive? What is the pace? Are you in a hurry or taking your time? How high are the stakes of this situation?

Answer all of these questions for yourself, and you’ll have a much easier time turning those short loops and fragments into full songs! 

Need more help with form? Try this exercise: 

  1. Analyze a few of your favorite songs, and listen for similarities of how they are structured, as well as what arrangement techniques are being used to create distinctions between each section or phrase.
  2. Import a full song into your DAW and make some notes on the timeline to mark each section or phrase, i.e. intro, verse, chorus, bridge, breakdown, etc. 
  3. Delete this song while leaving this “scaffolding” in place, and then fill it in with your own music! You won’t be creating the same song, just using the form as a roadmap to follow. 

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