Producers' Corner (Part 1)
In this first article of a new series, John Harris examines basic song arrangement.
Why do some songs which you demo seem to work and others don't? What is needed to give that extra something that's lacking? John Harris offers a little practical advice on arranging pop songs.
In the field of pop, the song seems to move through its various parts (verse, chorus etc.) at an incredible pace. One of the cleverest purveyors of pop 'tunes' is Nik Kershaw who, with the help of producer Peter Collins seems to come up with arrangements of great complexity that somehow manage to sound simple and flow very smoothly. For example, on a track like 'Dancing Girls' he's changing key like there's no tomorrow. However, changing key is not always necessary to keep a song going and may be used merely to accentuate certain parts of the song, create a change in mood, or, as is often the case simply be used to lift a song by modulation to a higher key near the fade out, though I must confess that I find this last method a little cliched to say the least; how many times have we heard it on the Eurovision Song Contest! The rate at which key changing takes place also contributes to the song's feel. An abrupt change might signal a sudden change of atmosphere, whereas a gradual change of key (for instance in the middle section) usually has a subtler effect and is often used to create tension in the harmonies.
But I digress, the real question is how we more humble, non-music reading illiterates can hope to match the talents of professional arrangers who probably have a catalogue of clever arrangements at their fingertips? In the pop music field it's usually down to the songwriter and producer in the studio, although the A&R man looking after a particular act often has a say, and the record company would have the right to change things later... etc. So, at the Home Recording stage it's a good idea to try and get the best, most effective arrangement possible.
It's always a good idea to listen to the radio, (even, dare I say it - the charts)! While you might not like all the songs you hear, there may well be some clever arrangements going on. Listening to records of your favourite artists is also advisable, but pay most attention to the tracks which have been released as singles because if you're aiming at getting a deal with your demos, then it's invariably singles, not album tracks, that the A&R men want to hear. You could try listening to specific aspects of the arrangement one at a time. For instance, the way the instruments fit together to form the overall texture, the harmonic and key schemes, the rhythmic patterns and soon.
You'd be surprised how many bands go into the studio without the slightest notion of the actual song arrangements, with the result that a lot of time is wasted going over it. Nodding of heads to signal a change in the song is not recommended, besides which, to the harassed and perplexed engineer it looks like a lot of footballers heading an imaginary ball around the room.
First you must learn to recognise different parts of the song, like the verse and chorus (easy bit), and other parts like 'bridge' (a part which is neither verse nor chorus but joins the two together), solo, middle eight (usually abbreviated to M8 and so called because it's eight bars long, although you can have a M12 or M16), intro's and outro's etc.
Count through the song using a stroke of the pen for each bar of 4/4. (I'm assuming that your prospective hit is in 4/4 as most though not all of them are.) A typical simple song arrangement might run:
Verse 2 IIII/IIII
Double Chorus IIII/IIII/IIII/IIII
Chorus to fade IIII/IIII/IIII/IIII etc.
Using this sort of shorthand method enables you to see at a glance the basic arrangement of the song. It has the advantage over the traditional ABC method, where each letter stands for a certain part of the song, (ABABCADB, AABABB, ABACAB etc.) in that you can easily see the number of bars allocated to each section. It's also possible to write chords above the appropriate bars. Alterations are easy to implement. For instance, say the verse of the above arrangement is a strong part of the song in its own right, it may be an idea to reintroduce it after the M8 before the chorus to fade, or maybe a solo would be nice at this point. Another advantage of this method, once you get the hang of it, is that you can jot down an arrangement wherever you are. Even if you get a brainstorm while sitting at the Chinese take-away waiting for the sweet 'n'sour to appear you can feverishly grab a menu and start scribbling!
So what's the point of an intro? One of my theories is that they've been introduced to stop DJs from spouting their inane drivel over the rest of the song. But more seriously, you find that there's often no singing at the start of pop songs these days and that your intro must be an attention grabber. Whether it's through a pounding back-beat and eighth note sequencer pattern like 'We Close our Eyes' by Go West, or a more subdued, but equally valid saxophone hook on that George Michael ballad, which incidentally has a reprise later in the song. As well as being an attention grabber, it's nice to have a theme, melody or hook that is instantly recognisable as belonging to a particular song. Again the George Michael song is a case in point. Playing an instrumental version of the chorus sometimes works as an intro, or even simply introducing the opening verse riff, but whatever you choose to do, if you're into making a hit, try and set the mood for the rest of the song.
It's been my experience over the last couple of years that A&R men have been keen on having a strong verse. No longer is it the filler between one chorus and another that it may sometimes have been in the past. However, be that as it may, it's still wise to get to the chorus quickly, say within the first thirty seconds if possible, but don't leave it longer than a minute unless the rest of the song is incredibly hooky too. This is especially important at the demo stage. If you imagine that the guy listening to your tape has got another hundred or so in a bag on the floor, he may only have time to listen to thirty seconds or so in order to weigh up a song's potential. A good ploy is sometimes to make the first verse only half the length of the second so that the hook comes in quicker.
After you've had two verses and one or more choruses it's wise to change tack, and this is often achieved by bringing in a sung M8. The M8 is more often than not a more subdued part of the song with the result that the part which follows it (whether solo, verse, or chorus) is more dynamic. This means that the song has a climax point which I feel is structurally important in the production of a good and interesting arrangement. It's also a good idea to change key for this M8 and then resolve back into the original key of the song for the part which follows it. This provides a moment of tension, and a feeling of release when the chords are resolved. (Yes, it's all to do with sex really!) For straightforward disco, this doesn't seem to be so important as dynamically the song tends to remain at the same hypnotic or robotic level.
As far as soloing goes, this is your chance to shine if you're a talented instrumentalist, although I feel that more impact is given to the solo if you think of it in context with the song and not as an opportunity to show off your technique. Often it's better to try and put a melodic hook in here instead of a bona fide solo, or if determined to solo, then it's interesting to incorporate some of the melodic phrases from other parts of the song. It all depends on what the song requires and this is just another case of practice and experimentation.
Above all, the arrangement of a pop song must flow, moving naturally from one section to another. But if each part is too clearly defined it can often be detrimental to the sound of the song as a whole, so a good 'groove' running through the arrangement is necessary. This is really up to the rhythm section to provide, unless you are programming, but in both cases remember that pop is not a medium for displaying flash technique unless exceptional circumstances demand it, and uncomplicated rhythmic patterns tend to work best.
If the song still sounds too sectional then it may be worth employing what is known in the trade as a 'pad' keyboard. This will play with the same sound throughout the song, following the chord changes and will act as a musical 'cement'. It doesn't need to be high in the mix, barely audible in fact, and it really can aid continuity. Often just such a keyboard 'pad' is put down early on in the recording process as a guide.
Obviously, play around with the arrangements and try not to stick too rigidly to any one formula. Remember though, if you're demoing songs to send to companies, to hit them hard and fast with the hooks.
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Feature by John Harris
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