When performers approach a piece of music, they must decide how they’re going to interpret it. The notes may be there on the page, but a lot artistically has to happen for those notes to come into life. A music arranger is often an integral part of this artistic process.
A music arranger can work with a single musician or a full orchestra plus choir and conductor. Obviously, the more parts involved in performing a composition, the more complex the job of the music arranger. However, in every case, the music arranger is there to specify the exact requirements of how and when each note of the piece will be played by each performer.
The music arranger answers such questions as what instruments will be used, what tempos to be used and when they change, how the melody gets harmonized, where the embellishments and flourishes should be made and where they shouldn’t. These are just some of the musical and artistic choices the music arranger makes.
In some cases, the artist may ask a music arranger to arrange a piece in a different key or even a different genre of music. For example, an arranger might convert a work of Bach into a hot jazz performance. It’s due to the work of a musical arranger that violinists can find sheet music to play rock songs. In another case, an arranger might simplify a complicated work so beginners have some place to start without getting discouraged.
Part performer, composer, editor and conductor
To become a music arranger, one needs to know how to read and write music – for starters. The more instruments you play, the more complicated works and performances you can arrange. You don’t need to know how to play every instrument that’s part of a performance, but the more intimately you can see things from the musician’s perspective, the more authenticity you can bring to an arrangement.
Knowing composition and music theory is also a must. Whether paring down, reinterpreting or re-working a musical piece takes composition skills. Music arrangers also must constantly edit their arrangements during the composition phase of their work. Finding the right tonal balances, embellishments, and entry points for different instruments or voices is an iterative process.
Last, the music arranger needs to draw on conductor’s skills to help the performers execute the arrangement.
Those were just the musical skills
In today’s world, arranging music is a technology-intensive process. A successful music arranger, like a music producer, will need expertise in a variety of equipment, everything from synthesizers to arrangement software.
A music arranger also needs to be able, and happy, to work alone. Working with the musicians and singers comes at the end of a project. A project starts with the music arranger spending a lot of alone time finding inspiration, starting down one path before shifting to another, writing down potential arrangements – all part of their creative process of producing a specific arrangement. It also requires one to have a healthy dose of both organizational skills and artistic temperament. Two traits that aren’t necessarily present in the same person.
Finding your way
Educationally – the best places to focus are on music fundamentals and learning to play multiple instruments. You can certainly learn the technical skills of musical arrangement. Yet if you want to be a successful, in-demand music arranger, you must have a deep foundation of musical knowledge and instrumentation. The more instruments and genres you know – what makes them unique, what moves people about each one – the better you’ll be.
Studying music in college can certainly provide the education you need to get started, but it isn’t strictly necessary. As with most musical professions, experience and proven skill have the most value.
But how do you get that experience? Well, studying music will help here to, not just for the education, but for the network and opportunities your peer group can provide to start getting experience. As you build experience with your peers, who won’t have the budget for a professional music arranger, you build your skill set. It takes years for even a working music arranger to master the art.
Once out of school, keep yourself in the music world – whether as a musician, teacher, whatever role your skills allow so you can continue to find music arrangement opportunities. Music publishing companies hire music arrangers. Producers and performers hire music arrangers. Stay active and connected in the music community to start building your portfolio.
It will be worth it. According to a survey of professional music arrangers, 80% were satisfied with their job and 88% of them felt their work makes the world a better place. Now that’s a nice arrangement.