Don’t touch the play button! – Arranging with your eyes closed

Arranging with notation software like Finale or Sibelius allows us to hear our arrangement while we write. An amazing advantage over writing by hand with pen and paper. But exactly there lies one big problem.

“It’s not about how many thing you can put in, it’s about how many things you can take out”

Many arrangement suffer from the too-many-notes-syndrom. There are a couple of reason for this (honest) mistake. One of it is actually the tool they use. The notation software itself.
It’s a common feature of any modern notation software (Sibelius, Finale etc) to playback your work with sampled instruments. Problem is, the software can only playback the notes your actually write. Which means anything you don’t write but simply indicate using chord symbols, slash-notation and accents for drums or expression indication as “play ride cymbal” or “free comping”
– which is pretty common rhythm section notation – won’t playback at all.

You could of course program a more or less decent bass, piano, guitar and drum accompaniment but it is needless to say that this is a very time-consuming job and never comes anywhere close to the real thing. You could of course use tools like Finale’s Drum-Groove plugin to create basic patterns, but let’s be honest: unless you are a drummer yourself and you really know what you are doing,  your drum programming mechanical as hell. Besides most notation software’s sound banks sound dull and lifeless. This kind of playback is going to fool your ears and lead you to wrong conclusions about how your arrangement will sound like. Trust me. Forget Band-in-a-box too. It’s a toy.

The urge becomes enormous to write more and more notes into the other remaining parts to get a picture of your arrangement. The problem is, you focus too much on the playback.
Believe me: the playback feature IS your enemy. It gives a completely distorted picture of how your arrangement will sound like. Computers play everything easily. No notes too high, no lick too fast, and no need too breath. They can play the highest trumpet not in pianissimo or the technically impossible licks with out a single hiccup.

But if the playback function is the enemy and programming a rhythm section track is basically useless, how can you hear what your arrangement will sound like?

“Try for a change your imagination and develop a good inner ear”

Like you would in the ol’ times with pen and paper, try to imagine your arrangement being performed in a concert. Try to get a sound-vision. (It’s ok to close your eyes when you do that.)
Get a feel for what your arrangement will sound like. Use descriptive words to describe that in your score. Have faith that the musicians will make the music come to life based on your instruction. Leave out everything that is not absolutely necessary for the player to play that song the way you want it. Anything that is only in the score to give you a nicer playback, has to go. Sorry.  It is only going to obstruct the players creativity and prevent him/her to make your song sound the way you actually envisioned it.

But here is the thing:  restricting myself right from the start is blocking all my creativity. It leads immediately to a form of writers-block, or arrangers-block.
How can I know if a guitar line is really really really necessary until I have the total picture?

Here is my strategy that works like a charm for me and is my preferred workflow for years already:

I first make just the general layout. What do I know already for sure? The main theme? Write down the melody. The basic chords? Write them into the accompany-staff, piano or guitar, it doesn’t matter. The basic structure of the song?  Put down some double bar-lines to mark the sections. Use only the most basic way of notation. It doesn’t need to be perfect at all. You will change it anyway all later.
Then I start building a general vision of my arrangement. (Visualisation is a strange word when it comes to something you can only hear, but I can’t come up with a better word for it now).  Once I have an idea I start writing it down into all those empty bars. Whatever comes to mind; randomly. A groovy bass-line here, some chord symbols there,  answering horns or string lines throughout a verse, even sometimes multiple version for different verses, a different harmonisation of the second chorus; I never worry if it is going to stay later in the arrangement or not. I just write down every possible thing I can come up with that could maybe work.
Even my form decisions I take when creativity hits me. Hey, what about a “special” at the end of that solo section. Why not?!  I don’t yet need to work out completely how its going to be, definitely don’t harmonise it yet. Maybe I want a long rubato intro or better a short alternative intro in tempo? What about a solo section in the middle? I think you get the idea.

Don’t get stuck on details. (yet!)

Once my draft-arrangement is “finished” it’s probably going to sound terrible. It is definitely going to be infected with the too-many-notes-syndrome. And it will be either unplayable or at least terribly difficult and most likely not at all pleasant to listen to.  Now it’s time to take a break. Not for an hour. More like a day or two.

Once you re-open your arrangement hit the play button (now it’s ok to use the playback function 😉 and try to listen to the arrangement like it was done by someone else. As soon as you hear that a certain element is not working take it out. Possibly, at least I know I do, you will get fresh new ideas while you browse through you work. Like association. You start to anticipate what “should” happen next. Go for those instinct. It’s going to give an organic flow to your arrangement.

It’s ok to use the playback function to check for errors. No question about it; that IS a total blessing. Your ears are always going to spot errors much quicker than your eyes. (check these super cool tips about finales swipe-audition-feature)

What is your preferred workflow?
Leave your reply in the comment section.



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