Songs And Their Sections (Part 2)
Part two considers arrangements: getting right all the instruments order in the.
Making the bits make music. Jon Lewin continues to rip up some mildly successful little numbers in the quest for the perfect arrangement. (How about lots of money without working for it?)
PAY ATTENTION, students of the Making Music school of songwriting: you are now almost fully equipped for penning the rock/pop classic of the late eighties. All that remains is to fill in the few remaining gaps in your collective knowledge with some choice hints on the techniques of arranging and orchestrating the instruments at your disposal.
By "orchestration and arrangement", we don't mean string sections, the RPO, and music scores; we're simply referring to the way ordinary rock/soul/pop bands use their instruments, playing with and against each other. The sort of things that pop groups get producers to do these days.
Take a song, any song. Let's assume that it's carefully crafted (and not just a twelve bar blues), with introduction, verses, choruses, middle eight, and an extended ending. You've written it on your own instrument (mine is guitar, so I'll be writing mainly from that point of view), but you want to record it with all the other instruments commonly found in modern popular music, such as keys, drums, bass, and voice.
Where are the lyrics? Go and get them, read them, and think about the atmosphere they invoke. Try to put yourself into the frame of mind suggested by the words, as this should set the mood for the rest of the song.
Play your intro. It doesn't have to have anything to do with the rest of the song, but traditionally it's part of a melody or a hookline that turns up elsewhere in the song. Listen to Marillion's "Kayleigh", and that arpeggiated guitar/synth part before the rest of the band come in: the Bm and A presage the chords of the verse.
Be careful about the instrumentation. It's not sensible to have all the instruments bashing away right from the start, as you risk unbalancing the dynamics of the rest of the song — put the crescendo at the beginning, and the listener will lose interest later. Try various combinations, like bass and drums, guitar and drums, synth on its own. Experiment, but keep your intro succinct, and attractive to the ear — always keep in mind what it is there to do.
Here comes the first verse. Try to keep the arrangement simple under the singing — if you've got something to say, give the listener a chance to hear it. Try it with just the rhythm section. If you use both guitar and keys, don't have them both playing chords at the same time — we get so many demos which suffer from this, which can turn a nice chord progression into a thick wodgy mess. Katrina & The Waves' "Walking On Sunshine" save their keyboard for the end of the verse, where the song swells into the chorus. Alternatively, if you can't get either player to shut up, try using acoustic guitar — as the Rolling Stones discovered on their early singles, they make a much more percussive sound than electrics, contributing to the rhythm rather than the chords. If you haven't got an acoustic, try miking up an unamplified electric.
A typical HM ploy is for the bassist to stick on one note through the verse, leaving the singer and guitarist to provide the melody. Leaving one note droning underneath a melody is actually a very, very, very old trick (600 years or so?), so don't be afraid of trying it in other types of music; PIL used drones on guitar, piano, and strings in 'Rise'.
Another interesting device was employed in 'Rise': the fretless bass carries the tune under Lydon's atonal "I could be right..." refrain. This shows that melodic interest doesn't have to come from the lead voice, as many excellent vocalists (favourites of mine like Lou Reed and Nick Cave, for example) have realised.
Treat the vocal carefully: unless you're a Cocteau Twin, don't drown it in reverb. Don't swamp it with echo, or strangle it with chorus and double-tracking effects. Think about the words; if they're one person singing to/about another, try and make the vocal sound as natural as possible. Save the harmonies and complex backing vocals for later.
This is where they should be. Choruses are usually an abstracted comment on what's been going on in the verse; so it's not illogical to suddenly bring in extra voices/heavenly harmonies/etc. Sister Sledge's 'Frankie' is a fine example of this. Change the vocal treatment slightly, even if you're not planning any Crosby, Stills, & Nash impressions (David Lee Roth sings in a different voice on 'Yankee Rose'). One of the main lessons learnt from reviewing demos is that vocals are usually the least professionally recorded element. Get the vocal sounding good, and the listener will immediately take you more seriously.
I mentioned that the organ 'swelled up' into the chorus of 'Walking On Sunshine'. This is a first taste of the different dynamics of verses and choruses. Because the chorus is usually the hook, the part of the song that people are most likely to remember, it must be emphasised. There are innumerable ways of doing this — doubled vocals or harmonies are a start, but the backing track normally needs to expand as well. The Waves bring in a second rhythm guitar and an organ, The Cure use a keyboard on 'A Forest', in 'Kayleigh' Marillion's drummer changes from rimshots to proper snare, The Temptations & Supremes version of 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me' uses a string section. At its simplest level, a guitarist could go from muted chords to open strumming.
Sooner or later, you're going to have to start thinking about the dynamics of your song, as it moves from intro to outro. Does it start quiet, and get progressively louder? Or does it have a quiet bit in the middle, then tail away at the end?
So what about the second verse? Should it be louder or quieter than the first? Does it follow on from the verse, or is there a chorus before it? Listen to what you have, and trust your own judgement of the way the structure feels.
If you want verses to have the same instrumentation and arrangement, yet still seem to progress upwards in feel and volume, try adding a synthesiser drone bass note low in the mix. Or how about changing some effects settings? The Cure's "The Forest" starts with eight bars of guitar and drum machine, but the song doesn't really seem to have started until the bass comes in. This effect isn't just due to the frequencies added by the bass: listen closely, and you can hear extra reverb being added to the drums at the same time. This addition gives the track a more ambient atmosphere, which subtly alters the feel without affecting the sound.
It's not so important to make the choruses feel different from each other — they are peaks in the land of song, towering above the lowlands of the verses...
It doesn't have to be eight, or in the middle — it's just a convenient phrase for the other bit — the variation. Quite often, it changes key. Of the eight songs I studied in detail for this article, five of them dropped down to a minor for the middle eight. Instruments drop out — in 'Frankie', it's the percussion — or come in, as in the melodic instrumental 'bridge' that Robert Smith plays in 'The Forest'. Volume goes down, rarely up; in 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me', the middle eight is used for the talking bit (I love those talking bits) — listen, and you can hear all the instruments thrumming away underneath, but dead quietly.
Why bother with them? Are they really necessary to the song. Oh, alright. There goes the drummer onto the ride cymbal, bing bing bing. Bit of a cliche, but it does fill the sound out when the guitarist goes up the neck, leaving the middle frequencies unattended.
If you have to have a solo at all, it'll probably take place over the chords to the verse — though there's no hard rule.
Someone once said the best solos were the ones you could whistle, which is a reflection not on feedback, but on the way solos are often creative extemporisations around an existing melody — usually the vocal. Use your imagination.
As the Ramones once said, "Third verse, same as the first." They were referring to the lyrics, of course, rather than the arrangement. Or were they?
Once you're out of the solo, it's head down for the end of the song, and no messing. The song should be in full flight for the last verse and choruses — instruments out and throbbing along, overdubs akimbo. But there's more that you can do to impress the listener with your rockingoutness: changes of key, and of tempo of individual instruments, for instance. Sister Sledge booted 'Frankie' up a gear by changing key after the solo, and by following that up with a double time horn break, which simply doubled up the earlier call-and-response lines.
Vocal ad-libs can help, as can extra lumps of guitar or synth, adding to the general ambience of busyness and completion. Try overlying two or three vocal lines — Howard Jones recommends using verse and chorus tunes together, thus tying together the melodic themes.
There are innumerable tricks you can learn about song structure (both writing and arrangement), and the easiest way of doing it short of having me round your house is by listening. Pick your favourite records, put the headphones on, and concentrate. Listen to each instrument in turn, and take notes. It is something you can learn, but there are no reference books — it's just experience, and that can take years. I hope I've saved you half an hour or so...
Feature by Jon Lewin
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