In the early days …
I began arranging in the mid-late 80s when I was still at school. Those early days were pre-internet, so I didn’t have the luxury of Googling the lyrics to a song – I had to write them down from the recording (they had lots of mistakes). I also had to buy an entire album when I wanted just a single song because there was no iTunes store that allowed individual song purchases. I even once went shopping for a CD player that specifically had responsive fast forward and rewind buttons to make transcribing music easier. There were a few strange looks from the shop assistant during that trip!
Over time, the advancements in technology have greatly influenced the speed at which I can arrange music. Although it was hard work, having lived through those early days makes me appreciate everything we have now even more.
Here are 7 ways that technology has truly revolutionised the way I arrange music:
1. Finding songs to arrange
Arranging inspiration can come anytime and I listen to ALL music with my “arranging ears” turned on. You never know when you’re going to hear a song that will make the perfect arrangement for your next gig or school concert.
Although radio was around in my early arranging years, I didn’t have the luxury of accessing music when and where I wanted, and for such a low cost. After living through that time when you needed to purchase an entire CD for $30 just for one song, I still appreciate the ability to preview and purchase individual tracks via the iTunes store.
Nowadays I take advantage of the preview feature in iTunes which is a great way to get a taster of lots of different styles.
Online music services like Spotify can also help you discover new music easily, based on your listening preferences.
Youtube has also become a staple: an excellent place to listen and view music from all eras and a great source of existing arrangements.
2. Tracking and managing lists of potential songs
I’ve always kept “just in case” lists of possible songs for arrangements. You never know when you’re going to need something within some kind of parameters: a slow song to contrast the fast ones, a song just right for girls, a Christmas song – you get the idea. I find that keeping an ongoing list of possibilities means I always have options at hand.
In the past I kept a handwritten list in my arrangements folder. Nowadays I keep lists of songs in three different places:
- in iTunes in a playlist
- on Pinterest
- in Evernote
My iTunes Playlist contains tracks from my music library that could one day become arrangements. When I hear a potential song I purchase it (if I don’t already own it) and drag it into the Playlist. Sometimes I have multiple Playlists on the go – one for each ensemble I’m working with at the time.
Ninja tip: you can drag a song into a playlist that you have not yet purchased. Just locate the song in the iTunes store via the Browse option and drag it into the Playlist on your sidebar. It will be accessible from the Playlist at any time (you can only play the track’s preview) and if you decide to use it, you can click on the purchase button to access the entire track.
I’ve written before about the way I use Pinterest to collect and share links to articles, apps and videos. Pinterest allows you to organise your links (“pins”) into groups (known as “boards”) and one such group is a running list of Pop Songs for School Ensembles which contains student-friendly songs that mostly have 3-4 chords. The songs that I save on this board are all Youtube videos and you can play the video right from within Pinterest.
Here is one of my collections – a list of songs with mainly 3 or 4 chords that might suit school ensembles (tip: the image below is interactive – you can click on it to view the contents):
Evernote is a tool I use daily. It’s a place to capture information and ideas and because it syncs across all of my devices – Macbook Pro, iPhone and iPad – I can access the information wherever I am. In Evernote I have a simple text list titled “Arrangements” and usually include notes about the songs I list there. Out of my three capture locations – iTunes, Pinterest and Evernote – the Evernote list is probably the one I use the least. It’s far more handy to be able to listen to the song with a simple click when I’m viewing it in iTunes or Pinterest.
3. Gathering resource materials
You may have already found a recording of the original version of the song, but there are other resources you can use to give you a head-start in creating your arrangement. There’s no point spending hours transcribing a song from a recording if you can find the sheet music or a MIDI file for your chosen song at a small cost.
At the very least, finding the lyrics, sheet music or MIDI file can save you time writing out the melody and bass line and will allow you to spend more time tackling the creative aspects of your arrangement.
You can find the lyrics to almost any song online. Do a search for the song title plus the word “lyrics”. From there, I copy the lyrics into a Word or Pages document so I can add my own notes, and reformat them if necessary.
The easiest way to purchase sheet music is via download from an authorised website. I buy most of my sheet music from the following places:
Ninja tips: you can often transpose the sheet music before printing out your purchased copy. Also, if possible, I try to save the music as a PDF so I have a digital copy in case anything happens to the printed one. Musicnotes.com also has an app which allows you to access your purchased sheet music from your iPad – highly useful!
MIDI files are created by a musician sitting down at a MIDI keyboard and recording all the separate parts of a song into a sequencing software program like GarageBand, Mixcraft, Logic or Pro Tools. The beauty of a MIDI file is that it can be opened in a variety of music software programs – including notation software such as Sibelius and Finale. I use them as a way to get notes into Sibelius quickly, without having to manually enter everything myself.
Using MIDI files in this way is not all smooth sailing (as I’m sure some of you know). Sometimes when you open the MIDI file in Sibelius it is completely unreadable and definitely not suitable for printing and distributing to your ensemble! But over time I’ve worked out a few key techniques and tricks that make MIDI transfer into Sibelius a good (often great!) experience, saving me hours of time in the arranging process. If you’re interested in knowing more about that process, it’s covered in my Speedy Arranging With Sibelius Course.
There are hundreds of MIDI file sites but I usually just type the song title plus the word “MIDI” into Google. Most of the time I end up using one of these sites:
Ninja tip: look carefully for the correct download button on these sites. They generally make their money from advertising and many of the links labelled “Download” are really ads! Once you’ve download the file, it should end with a .mid file extension.
4. Playing back of song
Sure, you could just use iTunes or Windows Media Player on your computer to play the song back. You might even have the song on a CD.
However, there are times when you might want to slow the tempo down to hear part of a song more easily. Or perhaps the part you’re listening to is difficult to hear at its original pitch? Personally I find it difficult to hear very low basslines because they are out of my own singing range and transposing the track up an octave can sometimes solve that issue. It can also be useful to loop the playback of a song section to save yourself pressing rewind/play a lot, in quick succession.
There are 3 tools that I have used over recent years that have helped immensely with these issues:
- Audacity (free desktop software)
- Transcribe! (paid desktop software)
- Anytune Pro (iPad app which also comes as a Mac desktop version)
All three allow you to import a recording, view the wave form of the song, slow the tempo down (or speed it up) and transpose the song with just a click or two. Transcribe and Anytune Pro have many more arranging-friendly features than Audacity (such as the ability to easily mark song sections to aid speedy playback and to set up loop playback sections), but Audacity is a great starting place if you’re on a budget. Anytune Pro on the iPad is my current go-to tool of choice.
Audacity is free, while Transcribe!! is $39 (aff. link) and theAnytune Pro app comes in both a free version with limited features and a paid version which is well-worth the money if you arrange or transcribe music frequently.
5. Getting the Arrangement into a Sharable Format
You’ll need to share your arrangement with your group somehow and there are a number of different technology options, depending on which sharing method you want to use. Once again, the advancements in technology in this area have made this part of my arranging process incredibly fast when compared to my early arranging days! Having an arrangement in some kind of digital format opens up a world of possibilities.
Notate the song
Using notation software means you can take advantage of copying and pasting chunks of music, move parts around, playback the arrangement to check your work, transpose at the click of a mouse, and even create instant rehearsal CDs (backing tracks) for your group.
The easiest way to notate your arrangement is by using a specialist notation software program. The best notation options are:
If you are not planning to notate your arrangement, you might choose to record it into a sequencing program like GarageBand, Mixcraft, Logic or Pro Tools using a MIDI keyboard (or an on-screen keyboard). The benefits of using sequencing programs are much the same as using a notation program, although they’re better suited to making an arrangement sound good, rather than look good as a printed arrangement.
Another option might be to sing or play the parts and record them using a hand-held microphone, multitrack recorder or into a microphone attached to your computer. You can then distribute recordings of each part (as well as the arrangement as a whole) to the members of your group. This is really only a viable option for small arrangements such as choral parts or small ensembles.
6. Sharing the arrangement
The options for distributing arrangements has also changed dramatically due to technology. Here are some of the options:
If you notated your arrangement, you can:
- Print out scores to distribute to your singers
- Email PDF versions which can be viewed on an iPad or other tablet device
- Upload an “interactive” version of the score to your website that plays back
- Create an audio file (MP3) of the entire score using your notation software’s Export Audio function
- Create a karaoke version for each part by muting that part and using the Export Audio function to export the remaining tracks
If you used a sequencing program you can:
- Print a score if the program has a notation function. The results are not nearly as sophisticated as a dedicated notation program like Sibelius or Finale, but may be passable if your score is not a complicated one
- Create a backing track of the entire arrangement
- Create a karaoke version for each by muting one part
Your only option here is to distribute MP3s of your recording of the arrangement. Distribution options include:
- Upload the MP3 to a website where group members can download it
- Put the MP3 into a cloud-based file sharing service such as Dropbox or Box and share the link to the file with group members
- You can create karaoke versions for each part if you recorded all the tracks separately
7. Rehearsing the arrangement
Finally, technology has even transformed the way arrangements are rehearsed. If you are using notated scores, you can read the arrangement on iPad or an Android tablet. I have an iPad and my score-reading app of choice is Forscore.
Forscore allows you to turn pages quickly, annotate your score, add in links between pages to manage page turns easily (especially when there are 1st and 2nd time bars or codas involved), embed an audio file and create set lists for groups of songs you are going to perform.
Has technology transformed your arranging process as much as mine?
Become an arranging ninja…
If you’re interested in learning how to use Sibelius effectively to create your own arrangements, I have 3 different online courses that might help:
- Sibelius Basics
- Sibelius Advanced</li>
- Speedy Arranging with Sibelius (includes scanning and MIDI files)