Arranging: From Less to More – Mastering The Big “Mo”

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Students of great arranging frequently and shortsightedly limit their focus to matters of technique–inspired orchestration, sophisticated voicings, clever melodic manipulation, etc. In short, elements which can be studied with a photograph instead of a recording. What can get missed in such analysis is the element of momentum, the quality of the arrangement to capture and engage your attention and emotions over time, creating an emotional impact and listener satisfaction surpassing any momentary interest.
If you compose in the film or game industries, where the musical “tail” invariably does not wag the dramatic “dog,” you may not feel the need to master this elusive element; that’s the film’s job, right? However, your music, in the form of main titles, closing credits, live performances, promo packages, etc., frequently serves more than just a dramatic moment and your value as a composer may well be gauged by your powers as your arranger. Therefore, it may very well pay to be able to craft a compelling musical statement that carries your listeners’ attention and emotions from start to finish.

We’ve all experienced great arranging of main or closing titles from Jerry (“Rudy”) Goldsmith, Bruce (“Young Sherlock Holmes”) Broughton, Alfred (“Airport”) Newman, Bernard (“Citizen Kane”) Herrmann, Elmer (“The Magnificent Seven”) Bernstein, James (“The Rocketeer”) Horner, Bill (“The Right Stuff) Conti, and John (you-name-it) Williams, to give but a tiny few of the more easily-found examples of the concept. But how often do we really dissect, not just the ear-grabbing moments, but the strategic road map which pulls us from “aha!” to “ahhhhh” in minutes rather than seconds?

Usually, this concept is a progression from less to more in any number of ways. Some are simply additive, layering new elements onto the old. Others are mutative, taking the familiar and subtilely altering it to gradually add weight or energy. Still others are replicative, but with the sensation of what went before still lingering in the collective conscious. All give the cumulative effect of going forward, of adding not just energy but expectation, the fulfillment of which is the listener’s emotional payoff.

Here are some of the elements which can, when strategically incorporated, create the momentum which can propel your music to become greater than merely the sum of its moments. The next time you hear a cue that has really satisfies you throughout its duration, see if you don’t recognize some of these and how their use helped push it forward:

* Modulation: The granddaddy of all devices and also the most noticeable, usually by intent. May be sudden for shock value or more carefully prepared to achieve maximum anticipation/reward value.
* Gradually Increased Dynamics (or Tempi.): Obvious. Like modulations, may be sudden or telegraphed. Your taste.
* Counter Melody: Like it sounds, a secondary (perhaps contrapuntal) melodic statement which, when constructed with a shape, energy state, direction and frequency range in opposition to, and layered on top of, the established melody adds gravitas and stimulation to what otherwise would be just more of the same.
* Gradually Incorporated New Ideas: The ping-pong of inserting contrasting material at paced intervals and retuning to the familiar can work wonders for giving the sensation of forward progress and is the basis (when blown up to epic proportions) of many great symphonies.
* Progressively Thickened Voicings: Going from thinner constructions of melody and harmony to more completely-fleshed out chord voicings, and more and greater spaces in such voicings to fewer and smaller.)
* Increasingly Sophisticated Harmonic Structure (or chord “changes”): Beginning your statement with the simplest version of the harmonic motion and progressing to ones more descriptive and supportive, moment-to-moment, of the lead line.
* Progressively Widened Pitch Spread: The simplest and thinnest start you can make is a solo line. Your opposite extreme is limited by your available ensemble forces or technology. Try to achieve some gradual progression from narrow to wide. In other words, start from the midrange and save your piccolos and gran cassa for later.
* Progressively Saturated Pitch Spectrum: As it sounds, this involves the “filling up” of the increasing high/low spread in the PWPS.
* Progressively Thickened Orchestration: This is the color variant of the PSPS, gradually increasing the forces used, either at somewhat regular stages (to be noticed) or little by little (for more subtle growth.)
* Progressively Descriptive Harmonic Structure: Again, simplify the harmonic support of your theme at the outset and gradually progress to the most complete, fully descriptive treatment at the end.
* Progressively Active/Accurate Bottom: Look for ways to begin with a simplified version of your bass line, perhaps with fewer uses of chord roots if there are common tones available from adjacent chords. For a simple example, a I-IV-I motion can all go on top of the root of the I chord. As you proceed, you can gradually add more bass line motion by going with the more accurate chord roots, or even beyond to make more melodic and interesting contours.
* Broadened Thematic Note Durations: Eventually taking your theme at half tempo while continuing your established accompaniment pace underneath adds huge weight and and power to your statement.

These are just a select few of the many strategies available which can put “Big Mo’” into your music. See what you can come up with on your own. Most of these are logical extensions of the most fundamental of arranging principles–to not slavishly repeat yourself within the same cue (or the same project, for that matter) without a seriously compelling reason (oh, like meeting a


  • February 4, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    All excellent points!

    I’ve noticed that many of the younger generations of composer /arrangers who have as their primary palette the ever growing resources of the digital world but little or less experience writing for acoustic and human execution have a tendency toward over complexiity ( and /or over density or thickness of
    voicings ) because it’s relatively so easy in a DAW environment.

    Observation of the approaches suggested here will definitely improve the variety in ones arranging approach in the long run.

  • February 11, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    straight to the point

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