Composing and arranging sound like similar jobs and processes. They both involve music-making before you get to the recording booth, right? But how similar are they really and which one is harder to accomplish?
In this guide, I’ll explain which of the two are harder tasks to complete and what steps each of them involve.
Is Composing or Arranging Harder?
Composing music is harder than arranging because it requires more ideation and creative reflection. Composition involves the creation of original melodies, harmonies, and drum patterns. Arrangement, on the other hand, involves the ordering of pre-made music parts into a complete score.
That’s not to say arranging is easy: putting a bunch of melodies and chords together in a coherent way still requires decision-making and creativity. More so, arrangers must understand when and where to use different instruments to make a song or track sound better.
Why is Composing More Difficult?
But, if we compare the two tasks, I would say that composing requires more introspection.
Creating original musical ideas that not only flow naturally but also compel listeners is no small chore. And all of that must be done with only 12 notes to choose from (less than that if you compose a track in a single key).
Composers also have less conventions to rely on than arrangers do. Arrangement for any genre often follows a formulaic design. For example, a competent pop arranger who wants a wall of sound will know how to fill up the sonic space with a string section.
What’s more, most composers will also prepare a preliminary arrangement for their creations, which lessens the burden on the arranger.
But, really, how different are the two tasks that we’re discussing? Let’s compare them in more detail.
Is Arranging the Same as Composing?
Arranging music is not the same task as composing, although the two tasks often overlap. It is a different role that proceeds after the composition process. Music must be written before it can be arranged.
Composition refers more to the original formulation of notes and rhythms into complete musical ideas. Arrangement is complementary to that. It essentially organizes the musical ideas for coherence.
What Does is Mean to Arrange a Composition?
In pop genres, arranging means to score the backing music for a song. But, historically speaking, arranging a composition means to adapt pre-existing music to a different medium. For example, re-fitting one of Mozart’s orchestral suites to piano is an example of arranging.
Depending on the style of music that you work with, arrangement will involve different tasks. But, in general, an arranger will carry out the following functions:
Orchestration is the process of picking which instruments will plat what parts in a song/track, and when they will play it.
You don’t have to make orchestral music to orchestrate or arrange, though. Selecting the instruments for any song or beat is still an act of arrangement. For example, a rap arranger may decide:
- What samples kit to use for the drum beat,
- The preset or custom ADSR synthesizer envelope for the 808 bass,
- Whether to play the chords on a guitar, piano, pluck synth, etc
Picking the Right Types of Instruments
The task of orchestration also requires some creative thinking: you have to determine what instruments will match the emotional tone of a song/track while still fitting into the final mix. A banjo usually won’t mesh well with a dance pop anthem. A clarinet solo is unlikely to sound right in the middle of a gangsta rap track.
Choosing the Right Number of Instruments
During the orchestration process, an arranger must also decide how many instruments will play in each section. For example, do you want the song to build into a big chorus full of guitars, strings, and choir? Or do you want the music to suddenly die down into a very fragile and whisper-y chorus that emphasizes just the vocalist and a single guitar?
Musical formation is the process of structuring musical phrases and accompaniments into sections to make a full song or track.
For modern styles of music (pop, rock, rap), formation simply means picking the sections of your song and what elements will appear in each of those sections.
For example, you may have a vocal melody for some lyrics, as well as some chords in the same key. If you arrange the form of the music, then you’ll decide how many choruses and verses will appear in the song. You’ll also pick what chords will go in the choruses and which will play in the verses.
Reharmonization is the process of replacing or switching chords in a song’s progression without changing the melody, rhythm, or song structure. It’s sometimes just called chord substitution.
This is done to add variety to a track without introducing new melodic content (which may pull attention from the main melody line).
For example, switching up the chord progression during the chorus or bridge is a simple and effective way to signal section changes. It tells your listeners: “hey, this part of the song sounds a little different so pay more attention”.
Do You Have to Be Good At Piano To Compose?
No, you honestly don’t need awesome piano skills to compose music in any genre. A basic level of piano-playing skill will suffice, or you could compose music using a different instrument entirely.
Unless you plan on being a professional composer for film or video game scores…in that situation, prospective employers or clients will probably expect you to be a competent pianist. But just making music in your own home studio, or on your own time for selling/distributing later, does not require professional piano proficiency.
The truth of the matter is: music theory competence is more important than piano prowess for both composers and arrangers.
As long as you understand the core concepts of music theory, then you can write and arrange music with a keyboard and a digital piano roll in your digital audio workstation (DAW).
Examples from Real Life
I have no formal training on piano and I don’t pretend to be a pianist in any way. I’m a guitarist who happens to own a MIDI keyboard. But I understand music to the extent that I can write melodies and harmonies with any instrument I have on hand.
Take the following two tracks for example:
I composed, arranged, and produced both of these music pieces by just “winging it” on a MIDI keyboard. I came up with the initial ideas on guitar and simply arranged/transposed the parts to be played through VSTs of pianos, strings, horns, etc.
So, no. You don’t need to be good at piano to be a composer. Unless you’re applying for an actual composer job and the employer specifically says they want to see a degree in piano performance or something.
Composing and arranging may sound like names for the same thing to beginners. But they are actually quite different tasks. Composing usually requires more contemplation and creative analysis, making it the harder task to complete and master. But arranging still requires it’s fair share of know-how.
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