how to arrange a rock song. Photo by Thibault Trillet:

Arrangement is a big topic, but we’re going to try to look at it as simple and practical as possible. There are a few best practices when it comes to writing rock songs and arranging all the elements so everything sounds clear and organized, both in terms of structure and in terms of how things fall in a mix.

Let’s look at some of the key elements we should focus on to properly arrange a rock song.

Use the Pop Song Structure

Arrangement of the sections of a song is one of the first things you want to look at and is one of those things that blurs the line between songwriting and production.

Here we want to make sure that the pieces of the song are being used for their best purpose. Sometimes you might write a Bridge and realize it actually makes a better Chorus, for example.

As far as the sequence of each song section goes…

Most modern songs in all kinds of genre’s follow some variation of the Pop Song Structure.

This is:

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

What is great about this structure is that it makes sure we are not putting in too many different ideas into one song.

It also presents your ideas in a nice sequence that is digestible. We can make small tweaks to spice things up by adding in things like Pre and Post Choruses, Instrumental Breaks, Solo Sections, etc.

Arrange your Instrumentation According to EQ Charts

I am not an audio engineer or mixer, and you don’t have to be either. The idea here is for you to have a general idea of the space each instrument takes up in a mix and how you are arranging your instruments.

There is a saying in audio engineering that says:

“A good instrumental arrangement mixes itself.”

That means that HOW you take up the frequency space with your instruments will make things sound clear and organized right off the bat, almost like it’s already mixed because your instruments are not fighting each other for frequency ranges.

For example if a bass and a distorted guitar are doing the same note in the same octave then your frequency range used is very thin and each instrument may sound less clear and easy to pick out.

But if you lower the bass an octave from the guitar, then the range of frequencies used grows wider and thicker and each instrument will be clearly distinct even though they are playing the same note. It also creates room for more instruments to fill out.

This sounds easy when it is just two instruments but things get more complicated as you add in drums, vocals, and keyboards. Make sure that instruments are not fighting each other for the frequency range, but rather working together in layers.

If you are using a standard rock instrumentation then keep in mind the below as a general rule.

  • Bass takes care of the low end.
  • Guitars take care of the mid to mid-high range.
  • Drums can occupy everything from low end thanks to the kick drum and toms, the mid range with the snare, and high end with various cymbals.
  • Keyboards can take up anything from the lowest end, to mid, to high end because it can play so many octaves.
  • Finally vocals can take up the low, mid to mid-high range.

Spread your instruments across the whole range of frequencies. Too many instruments trying to do the low end might sound muddy, and too many instruments on the high end will sound harsh and thin. Imagine a drummer using a ton of cymbals during your guitar solo. Pretty harsh, and would fight the guitar for the high end.

Spread Complex Chords Across Multiple Instruments

Many rock bands use Powerchords, which makes it really easy for them to be placed in a mix and sound great in conjunction with the other instruments. However, some bands also like adding more complex chords using chord extensions.

I suggest if you are in a rock band and want to use complex chords, think about how you can spread the notes of the complex chord across the multiple instruments. For example, if you have a Powerchord with an added 9th note, maybe just do the Powerchord and have the vocals or a synth hit the added 9th so you still get the feeling of it but the guitar Powerchord still sounds clear and powerful. This will depend on a case by case basis, and there are for sure bands that use complex guitar chords even with distortion and it sounds great. This is just a tip because sometimes it might sound really good to spread those chords across instruments.

Place Instruments in the Right Space in the Mix

Another important practice in arrangement is how you place the instruments in the mix. What I mean by that is, when you close your eyes and listen to the music, where is the sound of each instrument coming from in relation to you?

A lot of the time for rock bands, if you close your eyes you will hear instruments as if you were sitting in the drummer’s seat on stage looking at the audience.

You will usually hear the guitars off to the sides. If it is just one guitar, many times they just record the same guitar a second time and put each track on each side to get a wide stereo sound. The kick, snare, bass guitar and vocals are usually in the middle, and if you have keyboards that play pads or soundscapes they will usually be even wider out to the sides than the guitars, so they just kinda coat all the instruments like a wide blanket. This is just one example though, different producers do different things in different genre’s, and they have also changed depending on audio engineering trends across time.

When arranging your song, it is good to know where in physical space the sounds seem to be coming from because then you can spread your instrumentation in a way that sounds very wide, clear and each instrument has its own space and is easy to pick up if you focus and listen.

Make Sure Melodies and Rhythms are Not Cluttered

I’m sure it is starting to be clear by now that a good arrangement is all about avoiding clutter. This applies not just to the instrumentation but to the actual melodies and rhythms you write for your song.

If you are having multiple melodies at the same time, make sure they function interdependently. They should sound like they are having a conversation rather than sounding like two separate monologues playing at the same time. If one is doing a busier lick, make the other one hold notes longer underneath, for example.

Same goes for rhythms. You don’t want to have rhythms that sound cluttered. Where there is space in one rhythm, you can add another rhythm on top.

You wouldn’t want to have the drummer doing tons of busy fills, for example, if you have a lead vocal that you want the listener to be paying attention to. It could get distracting. The drums should leave some room for the other instruments when they are not the center of attention.

This also works the other way around. If you want the drum to do a fill to bring up the tension right before the Chorus then make sure the other instruments are not doing something that conflicts with that.

Wrapping it up

Some of these probably seem a lot more like production details than songwriting, but there is a gray area where both are kind of the same thing.

Much like how if you wanted to film a movie you would write a story but you would also want to imagine how it would be filmed in practice, so you can know if changes need to be made to the story to make it feasible to shoot. Writing and production work hand in hand.

Also keep in mind that rock bands can differ greatly in their sound and arrangement needs. Nine Inch Nails has a much more industrial and synth heavy sound than say Metallica. So there are many differences to take into account in the arrangement depending on the band and sound.

I hope these general best practices help you get a basic idea and understanding of how to approach things so you can make adjustments for your specific band.

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