Q&A: What is Your Process?

Question: “What is your process for arranging or transcribing music?”

  1. SONG SELECTION. Naturally, the first step is to select a song for arrangement! Although this sounds simple, there are some important things to consider when choosing a song.
    • How complex is the song? As I listen to a piece of music, I pay attention to the composition’s complexity. Is it a song that has multiple instruments, voices, or parts? If there is too much going on in the composition, I often do not consider it a good candidate for piano arrangement. Some songs are simply too much for one instrument to handle!
    • How much do I love the song? After assessing the song’s complexity, I ask myself, quite frankly, “How much do I love the song?” Is it something that I truly love? If I am going to arrange it for piano, then it needs to be a song that I can listen to over and over and over without growing sick of it!
  2. RESEARCH. Like any proper project, it is important to conduct research before creating sheet music. But what, exactly, does “research” mean in this context? For me, it means scouring the Internet to see if someone else has already arranged a particular song. In some cases where the series is well-known and the song is popular, a piano arrangement already exists, and it is possible to find YouTube videos, MIDI files, and PDF sheet music demonstrating the arrangement.
    • If I am able to locate an existing piano arrangement, I listen to it and assess its accuracy. If I  sense that there are errors, I listen to the original song and compare it to the arrangement. Then, I make alterations as necessary.
    • Oftentimes, existing arrangements are simplistic compared to the original piece of music. However, I am a mid- to advanced-level pianist, so simple arrangements do not suit my tastes. If the arrangement I discover is too simple, I make sure to add more content in an attempt to capture the original song’s integrity.
  3. TRIAL AND ERROR. Sometimes, the song that I select is so niche that no piano arrangement can be found. If that is the case, then I begin my arrangement from scratch. It is a grueling process of trial and error that involves listening to the song many, many times.
    • I begin by picking out the melody. Usually, I sit down at my keyboard to pick out the notes by ear. Once I figure out that much, I open the Sibelius First program on my computer and create a basic outline of the melody. Sometimes, counting proves to be an issue, so I count out loud and tap with my hands to try and perfect the counting.
    • Next, I listen very carefully to the bass line and pick out the most basic notes that drive the song. I add these to my Sibelius First sheet music.
    • All the while, I also listen for chords and harmonies that complement the melody. I tinker at the keyboard to see if these additional notes sound correct.
    • Eventually, a rough skeleton of the song is achieved, which I then attempt to embellish and perfect in Sibelius First.
    • Throughout the project, I make sure to check that my idea for an arrangement is, in fact, playable. Sometimes I become overly ambitious and create something that is far too difficult for me or the average person to play. If that happens, I go back to the “drawing board,” so to speak, and think about what can be sacrificed or altered to ease the difficulty without losing the song’s integrity.
    • Lastly, I practice my arrangement until I am able to play it from memory. Then, the process truly complete!
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