An Arranger reworks an existing musical composition for a live performance or studio recording, adapting the instrumentation, vocals, and harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements to create a new version of a song or musical composition.
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How To Become an Arranger
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Arrangers write original new adaptations of existing pieces. An Arranger reworks and adapts existing compositions by changing instrumentation, adding orchestration, and changing harmony, tempo, and musical style or genre. Arrangers are employed in the live music and recording industry, as well as in film, musical theater, radio, and TV. Arrangers are sometimes also called Music Arrangers.
An Arranger might write string or horn parts to be added to a pop song written by another artist. Most arrangements will keep the melody, lyrics, and structure of the original piece so that they can be easily recognized, while reworking the song or composition by restructuring certain musical elements, adding new harmonies, or paraphrasing different sections. They take an existing melody and provide variation by adding to or detracting from parts of the music.
Many Arrangers are also Bandleaders, Musical Directors, Orchestrators, Conductors, performers, and Record Producers. They may work as specialists in music preparation or as music proofreaders. It’s common to see musicians working in various segments of the music industry using their skills as Music Arrangers.
Arrangers have a lot of creative freedom to express themselves in writing arrangements. They might decide to use new chords to support the melody, increase or minimize the instrumentation, adapt for a completely different style or instrumental setting, change the tempo or meter, change the key, add a new intro or ending, or add vocal harmonies. An Arranger can have as much influence on the final version or a piece as the original Songwriter, Composer, or Producer.
To learn more about what it’s like to work as an Arranger, we spoke to:
- Stevie Blacke (Dua Lipa, Rihanna, Lady Gaga)
- Carl Marsh (Eminem, John Prine, Etta James)
- Randy Waldman (Barbra Streisand, Beyonce, Frank Sinatra)
What does an Arranger do?
An Arranger can take a really bad song and make it sound good, they can take a really good song and make it sound amazing, or they can take a good song and make it sound bad. An Arranger can make or break how a song is recorded and how it’s presented.
It’s funny because the Arranger usually makes or breaks the song and gets the least amount of credit. They usually don’t get any of the royalties, whereas the Producer–who sometimes does as little as just ordering lunch–ends up getting the royalties. It’s not really understood, and part of the reason is that it’s a grey area.
For instance, a perfect example is The Beatles. They wrote a lot of very basic songs just on guitar and piano, but when their Producer/Arranger George Martin got involved, he said, “Hey guys. This song would be great with a string quartet.” (I think it was the song “Yesterday.”) They said, “A string quartet? We’re not interested in that.” He said, “Why don’t you hear it? Let me arrange it and record it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it.”
All of a sudden, this simple song that was done on a guitar just went to a whole new level. Of course, they loved it. The next thing you know it was: “Hey, why don’t we add a classical trumpet to this song? Why don’t we do this? This thing could use an orchestra.” That’s what arranging is about. These are very, very basic songs that were brought to an incredible new level.
That depends on the type of music and show you’re arranging. For me, I work more in records and live–pop, rock, and more modern music–rather than film or TV, which is kind of a different job in some ways. Someone sends me a song and says, “We need a string arrangement. We need strings and horns in this song. Can you write out all the parts and record it?”
And for me, I record everything myself–not the horns, but the string parts. So I’m adding string parts and melodies to their songs. Most of the time I get to play everything myself. I’ve been doing it for eighteen, twenty years. I’ve built a reputation; kind of laid the groundwork. Not a lot of people play violin, viola, and cello as well. It’s more common to play the violin and viola, but the cello is a totally different beast. And then also, double bass. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll add string parts, and record them, to lots of different style songs.
I am always in some way, shape, or form working with an orchestra or a group of musicians. I might be working with a rhythm section, a string quartet, or a seventy-piece orchestra but I’m either rewriting music for them, rehearsing them, or conducting them. Everything I do has to do with a group of musicians.
It could be a solo musician but more often than not I’m working with a group of musicians, writing arrangements and orchestrations for them. What I do is step in a room by myself for about maybe a week, maybe a month sometimes (maybe three months sometimes on the big projects), and write lots of notes.
Then I either go out on the stage for a performance or go in the studio and I conduct what I’ve written. It’s a lot of calm followed by a lot of really intense activity– short but intense activity.
I work with clients, who are generally speaking Producers and artists. They come to me and say, “We’re envisioning a project that will be realized by a group of musicians.” The artist may have some songs that need to be arranged or orchestrated and they say, “This is our vision for them, you take the reins and supply the specifics” (i.e. write the notes that are involved to realize this vision they have).
They come to me on the front end and initiate the process. Their vision might be to have a rhythm section accompanying the artist or a choir accompanying the artist; it comes in any permutation you might think of. Even three Banjo Players! That’s the fun of the job. I write the notes and we either go into a studio or on a stage together with the group of musicians and we realize the vision.
Orchestrators and Arrangers are very closely related. It’s overlapping quite a bit because Orchestrators arrange and Arrangers orchestrate and it’s not always very clear who’s doing what. There’s a very elastic definition on both sides of the fence.
Is a music arranger a producer?
Many times, a producer also acts as the arranger, as in the case of George Martin and The Beatles. But this is not always the case. An arranger creates an arrangement of instruments (usually orchestral) while the producer is guiding the entire sound of the recorded song and is responsible for the final production. The producer may also be acting as the engineer, which is not something an arranger would be involved with.
Arrangers work almost exclusively on a freelance basis. Their pay can fluctuate based on each project’s budget and the scope of work. Some Arrangers charge a flat fee for each song or for a completed project, or they might charge by the written page or even by the hour. There are a few salaried positions, for example, working for a TV show or recording studio, but these positions are usually combined with other roles such as Bandleader, Music Director, or Producer.
Being able to arrange music is a helpful skill for anyone making their living in any area of the music industry. Musicians with top-notch arranging skills have more opportunities to earn additional money as part of their day-to-day duties. While there are a few people who mainly specialize in arranging music, usually Arrangers also fulfill other roles as independent musicians which are supported by their arranging skills. This can lead to higher earnings than reported for just arranging music.
The average annual salary for an Arranger is approximately $54,400. The salary range for Arrangers runs from $40,000 to $60,000. Starting out, one is likely to earn below this range, while top Arrangers can earn much more, and some Arrangers also earn recurring royalties from their arrangements.
How do Arrangers get paid?
There’s no industry standard [for setting up a fee structure]. It all has to do with knowing what your client wants and what they can afford. So it’s tricky, at first, to set your price when you have a Producer come to you and say, “I need you to write some arrangements for me.”
Be fluid and find out how much they have in their budget. The amount will vary depending on the profile of the Producer you’re working with. If you’re working with a very high-profile Producer, obviously that Producer will be dealing with projects that are very well-funded so you can afford to charge a little more on those projects.
On the other end of the scale, if you’re dealing with an independent Producer with very small projects you have to make sure you’re making things affordable. The Producers understand that, too. You just have to learn how to set your price.
Typically there is an Arrangers’ scale with the Musicians Union, and most Arrangers belong to the Musicians Union because they are musicians. It’s propitious that you get to work on the same jobs that you get to arrange. That happens fairly often.
But, quite a lot of Arrangers do not work through the union, so typically it’s like service for hire. You send the Producer an invoice and they pay you. Occasionally, not very often anymore, you can get into a royalty situation, but that’s less than 5% of the time. You get paid your check when you hand in your notes.
Arranging is a little different from working as a musician because a musician has a scale; you go do a recording session and there’s a union scale or double scale. The Arranger pretty much makes up his own price by figuring out the value of the arrangement and the budget of the project. Then people can say yes or no or negotiate.
It also depends on what kind of arrangement it is. You can arrange for just a trio or a quartet, or for a big band or an orchestra. It depends on the project. If it’s for a big-name artist with a record deal, there’s definitely more budget to afford a higher price. A lot of times people are paying for it themselves and you just come up with a price you think is fair. If it works, you go from there.
How do you get paid? You set a price and you stick to it. I used to have a Manager that would deal with it, and now I just do it all myself. I listen to a song, and I’ve been doing it long enough that I pretty much know how much work is gonna be involved. I figure out how many hours it’s gonna be and how much I wanna make from a project.
I more than likely will charge an unknown artist who has no label and a small budget less than someone like Dua Lipa or Madonna. There’s a sliding scale. It also depends on the size of the song, how big of a string section I’m gonna have. Am I doing the arrangement, or am I just playing someone else’s parts? All those factors go into it.
If I’m working with someone I’ve never met before, never worked with, especially if they’re on the other side of the world, I’ll usually get a deposit first and then finish. Or I won’t send them the completed project until I get my cash.
[The performance rate] really depends on what I’m doing, because I could just play a solo cello on a song one day, and then the next day play a 40-piece orchestra on something. I try to stick to what a union scale might be as far as the solo thing. I think it’s like $350 or $400 a track or a session these days for a solo instrument. It’s a starting point and [it’s] negotiable.
Some of the jobs I do are union, so I have to get paid at least a minimum. Again, it’s different if I’m doing a string quartet, or a 10-piece section, or a solo instrument. And then for the arrangement part, that’s a different thing. I’m trying to figure out how much time it’s gonna take to actually do the work and whatnot.
Do music arrangers get royalties?
No, arrangers do not receive royalties by default, unless they arrange a public-domain work or if they are credited as one of the songwriters on an original song. This is good to be aware of so that, as an arranger, you can negotiate a portion of the songwriter’s or publisher’s royalties for yourself. Arrangers need to be paid fairly too!
Arrangers usually work for Producers, Composers, artists, and music publishing companies. Industry demand comes from the recording industry, music publishing, musical theater, live music, radio, film, and TV. Artists and Producers will always need Arrangers.
As with most music careers, it can take a lot of effort and time to get a foot in the door and work your way up.
Because arranging is often a freelance job, work is found through word of mouth. Having a strong professional network of relationships with musicians, Composers, and Producers is a key to success. It’s also important to build and maintain an updated portfolio of quality work to show to prospective clients.
Once an Arranger has built the connections they need so clients will think of them when they need arrangements, finding work should come naturally. Be aware that work hours will vary based on the project, who the Arranger is working with, and any deadlines involved.
What's it like to be an Arranger?
It’s not a job for everybody in the sense that the social aspects are limited. You’re working in kind of solitary confinement for most of the time so you have to make sure when you get out, you really go for it in terms of networking and being social are concerned. You don’t see other colleagues that often. There are pluses and minuses, but it is a very rewarding job creatively.
In my dreams, I would love to hold regular office hours! It’s a double-sided problem [because] chances are, as an Arranger/Orchestrator you’re going to be a very curious person and when you’re creating you’re going to take the extra time to delve into something to learn more about it.
So every job takes longer than you estimate, but it fulfills you creatively. The other side of the coin is that when you’re dealing with Producers and artists you’re aligning with creative people and you can’t really spell out a real time table effectively. If you say “I have x number of days to work out this arrangement,” halfway through the artist says “I’ve just had an inspiration! Let’s change everything!”
So sometimes you end up working long hours with deadlines and that can be challenging. You have to be the type of person who can be loose about their schedule and can allow things to flow and can realize the value in letting those things flow.
You’re not only going to be satisfying your clients but you’ll be raising the ante to another level of creativity. You just have to have that philosophy and that outlook.
As in every creative field, there’s more than one possible path to becoming an Arranger. Arrangers end up making their living in many ways. They might be a Bandleader creating new arrangements for their ensemble to perform, or a Music Director adapting songs for stage or film musicals. They might work for a film or TV studio writing new arrangements of popular songs so studios don’t get stuck paying a lot of money for the rights to existing recordings.
Arrangers might also work as Conductors, Orchestrators, Music Directors, instrumental or vocal performers, Event Managers, and Record Producers. Working in the greater community of musicians and in music-related roles helps aspiring Arrangers to network and collaborate to enhance their likelihood of success.
Going to music school can also lead to relationships that could potentially boost future professional success, especially if the school is in a major urban area with a music industry presence. New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville are considered primary music industry centers, but there are others, such as Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Austin, TX, and others, including overseas. It’s probably important to be in a large city where there’s enough work to keep an Arranger busy.
Like many careers in the music industry, advancement for Arrangers comes in the form of working with more well-known artists and Producers, with bigger budgets and more prestige. The musical know-how and industry connections that will help one prosper as an Arranger take time to build but are likely to pay off in terms of job satisfaction and increasing skill level and accomplishments.
How do you become an Arranger?
Play. Get out there. When I first started, I was going to every gig I could possibly take and meeting as many people as I could. Just getting out there, getting my name out, doing the work, and doing a good job. It’s all been word of mouth.
You can’t expect it to just happen overnight because it’s a deep and wide system and it’s cumulative. The best Orchestrators and Arrangers really come into their own after about twenty years. Of course, there are exceptions but not very often.
So you have to be ready to learn how to fall and pick yourself up again as you accumulate the knowledge you’ll need for the vocation. By the same token, once you reach that point there’s a sense of job security. But to get to that level you have to go through the passage of accumulating that knowledge.
The way you do it is you try and put yourself in the situation where you’re around other people who might at some point in time need an Arranger. When hopefully one of them eventually turns to you and says “We need an Arranger for this. You can arrange right?” you say yes. (You never say no.) Then you learn how to do it, quickly.
The job is just too wide and varied; you can’t just start out having all the skills clients need. When I started, I was in a rock band and we had a recording contract with CBS Records. The Producer turned to me after one of the sessions and said, “We need some strings. You’re in music school; you can write a string arrangement, right?”
I said yes. I didn’t have a clue. I started talking to all my friends who were String Players and had some intense conversations for two weeks and I pulled it off. It was the beginning of my career as an Orchestra Writer. You have to have enough faith in yourself to just say yes and jump and let the net appear.
Go on the internet and find out who the great Arrangers have been in the past. Go hear examples of what they’ve arranged and go see why they say these guys are the greatest. Limit yourself to five of these people and listen, listen, listen. Start to get the idea. That’s really the best way to approach it.
Hone your music reading skills and learn how to read scores. Learn orchestration. Orchestration can be self-taught, although it makes it easier if you have Professors to teach you in a college course.
Familiarize yourself with a program like Logic or Pro Tools where you can learn how to write your arrangements on the computer.
That’s a good question. If you’re already working as a professional musician, if somebody’s working on a project and they’re working on a song, you can volunteer and say, “Hey, let me do an arrangement on this.” Or without even asking, just start putting together simple arrangements, come in with ideas, and say, “Hey, how about if we do this?”
You just have to be proactive and let people know that you can arrange or want to arrange and it snowballs from there. Once you’ve done something and it sounds great and some people hear it, they might ask you to arrange for another project. I know at least for me, it’s been word of mouth.
Experience & Skills
Arrangers work in collaboration with many others in the music industry, sometimes as members of a team. They need to have a strong musical vision and enjoy working with everyone from Composers and Songwriters to Producers, performers, technical people (like stage crews and Recording Engineers), and performers to bring the musical vision for a piece to life. As is the case for all musicians, professional networking skills are a must for Arrangers.
In addition to strong interpersonal skills, Arrangers should be great at verbal communication and have impressive leadership abilities. They need a complete understanding of music theory and should be able to read and write music quickly and easily. They should also be able to transcribe and orchestrate music and know how to conduct musicians in groups large and small.
Arrangers must have a deep and thorough understanding of a variety of musical styles. They should be able to use Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and know how to access music and software libraries and collections. They should be able to play an instrument well, and able to sing rhythms and melodies reading from the page. They should understand how harmony, melody, and rhythm work together to create beautiful music in all kinds of musical settings.
Arrangers use compositional techniques such writing new thematic material for introductions, endings, transition, and modulations. They can take an existing melody and provide musical variety by changing the instrumentation, tempo, rhythmic feel, and harmonic setting. They need to gain mastery with the entire musical lexicon, using it in new and fresh ways to create something completely new from an existing song or composition. This requires a certain amount of technique, talent, skill, and artistry.
Arrangers must be organized, as well as creative. They need to be able to figure out which instruments in the musical ensemble will play which parts, write those arrangements, and sometimes even perform themselves. Attaining the experience and skills necessary to become a skilled Arranger is a process that takes place over the course of many years.
What skills does an Arranger need?
The main thing is you have to have a feel for a song and how it should build, what makes it interesting, and what makes it exciting. As far as the actual mechanical skills you need, you have to understand all the different instruments and how they sound in an arrangement, what notes they can play and what notes they can’t, what they can do, what they can’t.
Most Arrangers learn that just through experience. You’ll write something and if it doesn’t sound good you go, “Hmm, okay. Next time I’ll do this differently. Probably turn it up a notch.” You learn what sounds great and what doesn’t necessarily work as you go.
You need to be able to read and write music. You need to understand the instruments that you’re working with … what kinds of sounds you can get out of them, what their range is, what the tones are gonna be like mixed in–especially with vocals and how to keep them separate, that type of thing.
You have to be personable. You have to not be a jerk because no one wants to work with someone who has an attitude.
I also learned years ago that when I’m working with other people’s songs, it’s just that: it’s someone else’s song, so I need to learn to take my ego out of it and not stress if they don’t like what I did. I’ll try it again. I’ll do something completely different. Which is rare. Usually, they like it. But sometimes I’ll get, “Can you redo this whole thing?” Sure. It’s your song. I’m more than happy to make that happen, you know? Because at the end of the day, their name’s on it.
They would have to know the basics (at least) of every instrument out there and if they don’t know the basics they need to know where to get the information quickly.
For instance, if you’ve never played a sitar before, you need to know exactly who to call to ask them how to play it and what’s possible on it. It certainly helps to have a working knowledge of as many instruments as possible and a very specific knowledge of as many of them as possible. Of course, you have to be able to read music fluently and systems of music (i.e. scores) because you’ll be dealing with scores for orchestras and bands.
Also, be able to understand the different genres and what gives them their peculiar sounds. Indie pop bands, for instance: you have to understand what makes them sound like indie-pop bands and how to put that together. You have to understand how to make an orchestra sound like Schubert. So you can see how you can’t just accumulate all this stuff overnight.
You have to be the type of person who likes to organize large systems because you’re dealing with quite a few questions. I’m dealing with maybe a seventy-piece orchestra and how do I decide who’s playing what? It’s the same with a band or a classical music genre. It takes quite a bit of background to listen and understand what those things are about.
If a prospective Arranger has that sort of sensibility they’ll do well, [especially] if they’re very meticulous and put a lot of attention into detail and organizing what can be a really large system before them. [This career] really is for someone who has a vision for their life and what they’re going to do over a long period of time. It’s not something where you can say, “Well, this week I’m going to learn this job and start looking” [for work].
It’s the type of job where you have to have a long-term vision for yourself and you have to take on a long-term commitment when you take on the job. But those who have the vision and the commitment don’t seem to have a problem with that.
What is the difference between an arranger and composer?
Arrangers and composers are similar in that they both arrange the performance of a song. But the big difference is that composers write (and sometimes arrange) original songs while arrangers interpret a composer’s song into their own musical arrangement.
Education & Training
Most (if not all) Arrangers complete some program of formal music training to learn the skills needed to be successful in a competitive music industry environment. This might include earning a college degree or diploma from a university or conservatory program. They could major in commercial music or in (song)writing and production. There are even arranging majors and minors offered at some schools, and master’s degrees in music writing and production.
As undergraduates, future Arrangers take all the core music studies, such as harmony (music theory), ear-training (solfege), music notation, and take arranging classes. They take classes in stylistic analysis, scoring, manuscript, and music technology. They also take private lessons on their principal instrument, take basic keyboard classes (i