The role of a music arranger can get a bit blurry. There are many different avenues to pursue, and the lines between composer, orchestrator, and arranger are very thin. In the recording industry an arranger can work as a freelance artist for a band or musician to take an existing piece of music and retool it to fit the band’s style and genre. An arranger can also work in-house at a music publishing company, creating arrangements for purchase: for instance, turning Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” into a 60-piece marching band extravaganza. In these cases, an arranger does not write an original piece of music, but rather adapts a song to fit a different need.
An arranger is primarily concerned with adapting voice, instrumental harmonic structure, rhythm, and tempo in crafting a cover or adaptation. The arranger will also create new thematic material (new musical phrases) for introduction, transitions and modulations as needed for the reinvented tune. Arranging is much like re-editing a film or redesigning a vintage garment to create a modern look: If a band wants to turn Beethoven’s Fifth into a hard-driving metal instrumental, an arranger is pulled in to translate musical parts written for a piano and violins to lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drum kit, and keyboard. The arranger will then modify the rhythm, tempo, and key to better match the metal style. It is a matter of personal preference whether an arranger chooses to work by hand or use music notation software like Sibelius or Finale for editing and printing scores. Once the new arrangement has been written, revised, and rehearsed with the band, the arranger will attend the recording sessions to follow the progress of the song, make changes where necessary, and collaborate with the producer and recording engineer to lend his expertise on the final mix of the song. The arranger is not tasked with the electronic mix of the recording or operation of the audio console; he or she is purely concerned with the written music.
Skills & Education
To achieve the required level of expertise, college-level coursework in music theory and composition, music recording or production is indispensable. You cannot write music unless you understand the subtle intricacies of what distinguishes one musical style from another—metal from alternative, jazz from R& B, and baroque from Romantic. You cannot be expected to become an expert in every instrument, though the ability to play several is generally expected; piano and guitar are most practical for work in popular music. Become familiar with popular music notation software, as some clients may insist on its use. Most of all, you must be able to read and write sheet music and charts.
What to Expect
The recording industry is home to big egos and big budgets; you may have producers, musicians, and business managers looking over your shoulder and breathing down your neck. There may be creative differences between your choices and that of the artist you are serving, so remember who’s signing your check before you make a grand stand for your creative vision. However, the chance to constantly work with different artists and in different settings can be stimulating, and if you respond well to variety and enjoy change, this is a job that won’t bore you. A good arranger will know how to make compromises, work around a disagreement, and stay cool under pressure. Making music is a team effort that requires excellent communication skills just as it demands musical talent. Most arrangers work freelance, so the flow of gigs and money may be intermittent in the recording industry. Diversifying between freelance, in-house publishing company work, or other media industries will build your résumé and keep the work coming in.
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