Want to know how to arrange pop songs' instrumentals from scratch? Then keep reading this article or watch the video above.
After producing pop for almost 10 years and making every mistake, one thing is clear:
Every good mix starts with a great arrangement
This article's example song is my original "Maybe Tomorrow." It's a pop song with solid reggae influences.
In my workflow, writing lyrics and melody come first. Once that's done, it's time to harmonize and arrange.
Creating a MIDI outline of the arrangement
The first step is to create a MIDI outline of the arrangement:
- Pick the instruments that will play the harmonies.
- Then define which sections (verses, choruses) will feature each instrument. And which sections won't, for contrast.
In other words, what sections will have a busy or sparse arrangement?
Busy or sparse arrangement?
Make these decisions with the lyrics in mind.
Use the instrumental to reinforce the feelings your lyrics convey.
In the example song, I wanted:
- Verses and Pre-Choruses getting busier and busier, with instruments playing short staccato notes;
- Sparse and relaxed Choruses, with long sustained notes.
And the instruments I envisioned were:
- One guitar;
- Some kind of organ;
- A whistling sound to play the hook;
- And the rest is singing.
In pop music is crucial to also plan the vocals and back vocals ahead. In this case, I went with:
- The main vocal melody;
- Two extra back vocal harmonies;
- And some ad-libs.
Planning the arrangement
Draw all those melodies with MIDI notes before recording anything.
Don't worry about the instruments' timbres for now. Load basic sounds and start arranging.
Set up markers on the top of your project to mark where each section starts.
Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, and Bridge.
Think of a song as an emotional journey. An emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs.
The emotionall rollercoaster
Then build it up from the ground up.
Don't deliver the entire song's message at the beginning. Or else people will have no reason to keep listening until the end.
Achieve that by ensuring the drums play different patterns according to the section.
How to arrange pop songs: Drums
In the first verse, my drums only play a quarter-note pattern.
Then it gets more intense. The drums play an eight-note pattern with extra snares (ghost notes).
At the pre-chorus, there's more and more energy building up. The pattern gets busier — playing notes twice as fast with a heavy swing.
This change in the drum pattern causes a feeling of acceleration and builds up tension.
And the chorus is the perfect moment to release that tension.
When the chorus hits, the drums drastically slow down.
I borrowed a typical technique from reggae music — the "one drop rhythm." They go back to the quarter-note pattern but skip the downbeats.
And since these two sections are so contrasting, it would be weird to transition without a drum fill.
Pop music arrangement transitions: drum fills
So right before the chorus, there's a drum fill that anticipates the snare from beat 4. A lesser-known trick that helps you slow down the rhythm.
To make it even more dramatic, it's followed by a rest.
So the instrumental says: "slow down, stop now, here comes something important."
Using drum pattern contrast to arrange pop songs
Play with drum pattern changes throughout your songs.
Make them busier, then sparse again, matching the lyrics.
I only release the Kraken in the last chorus of the example song.
It's the big moment when things get out of control. There are energic cymbals, and all the elements play together.
But drums are not the only instruments you can use to create contrast between sections.
Looking at this overview of the song's arrangement, you can see a few contrasting things.
- The whistle only plays in the choruses;
- The first verse starts with no back vocals;
- Then the first harmony joins;
- And the second harmony joins in the pre-chorus;
- But they both leave the arrangement in the first chorus.
It's not time to unleash the giant chorus yet. Saving that for later.
The rhythm guitar is a constant element throughout the whole song.
It's also the backbone of the song's harmony.
Yet, it plays a different pattern in the first two choruses.
It goes from the usual offbeat reggae guitar to a pattern with long, sustained notes.
The organ almost only plays during the bridge, a section different from the rest of the song. And a few licks here and there.
Use these arrangement tools to ensure your songs have a progression.
Develop your arrangement into the climax that happens in the last chorus.
Contrasting octaves and note ranges
Besides that, take advantage of each instrument's note range to create more contrast.
Which octaves and which notes will each instrument play?
That's paramount to avoid overlaps with the vocals and back vocals.
Overlaps can cause masking later when mixing.
Make all these decisions before the production stage.
And getting this right from the beginning is crucial.
If you skip this step, you may make yourself work twice as hard in the final stages.
In Ableton Live, you can visualize all the MIDI instruments simultaneously. They're color-coded in a single piano roll.
Arranging pop music with Ableton Live's Multi-clip Piano Roll
This is gold for arranging.
It makes it easy to ensure none of the instruments play overlapping notes. It preserves the separation of instruments.
You can also ensure instruments won't play too close and dissonant notes. Unless you do it on purpose.
So every instrument stays within its range.
And you can plan all their movements without losing sight of the bigger picture.
In the image below, from the bottom to the top:
- In green, you're looking at the bass;
- In brown, that's the guitar. It plays a wide range of notes. But there's a gap in the middle, where the vocals and back vocals sit.
- The orange notes are the main vocals;
- And the pink and light green notes are the back vocal harmonies.
I can't stress enough how important this is.
Use a piano roll with all instruments, and mixing becomes straightforward.
Creating licks, movements, passing notes, and placing ear candy became easier.
Look at this gap in the melody (orange and pink):
It was the perfect moment to add a bassline lick going up in pitch (green).
It wasn't there before.
But with the multi-clip piano roll, adding this kind of movement is intuitive.
This article focuses on the instrumental part, but what's a pop song without vocals?
So here are some vocal arrangement tips.
How to arrange pop song's vocals
Remember: different arrangers will do this differently.
And this is not a set of rules you must follow. But it's the most efficient way I've found to arrange pop music.
I like to separate my vocals by section to process them individually.
One track for the verse, another for the pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge.
Below, you're looking at dozens of ad-libs tracks.
Each phrase gets its own Audio track with different effects.
And six harmony back vocals:
During the pre-chorus, they're panned to the left and right.
But during the verse, they're centered, along with the main vocal.
It's almost like the vocal doubling effect from the previous tutorial.
You got to read it if you're interested in thickening vocals with doubling.
You'll learn all the vocal doubling tricks and get a free doubler plugin.
For more pop production techniques, here's the hub.