Q&A: How Did You Develop the Skills to Arrange Music?

Question: “How did you develop the skills to arrange music?”

My history with piano arrangement goes back to when I was only an elementary school child. I began taking piano lessons when I was 10 years old. I was a quick learner, because I am blessed with a lot of musical talent in my family. My grandmother served as a church pianist, organist, and children’s choir director for many years. Meanwhile, my father is a singer-songwriter by profession, and he has been fortunate enough to earn sufficient income that he does not need another job. My grandmother oversaw my piano study, and my father lent his musical ear to me. My parentage and upbringing set the stage for my success.

After I acquired the basic abilities to read sheet music, play with two hands, and utilize chords, I began to toy with figuring out video game songs that I liked. I sat down at my keyboard and tapped notes until the sound resembled something familiar to me. If I wanted to check my accuracy, I actually turned the video game on, entered the appropriate screen, and left the game on as I sat and played notes along with the music. This was a time when the Internet was not widely accessible, and YouTube did not exist.

BanjoKazooieTooie1In particular, some of my earliest experiments were songs from the Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie soundtracks. Those were among my favorite video games when I was younger, and I still love them to this day. Among the songs that I attempted were Mayahem TempleTerrydactyland, and Hailfire Peaks.

Later, when I was in high school, I achieved an advanced level of piano-playing ability. I continued to experiment with arrangement, and some of my projects included Simple and Clean (also known as Hikari), Dearly Beloved, and Hollow Bastion from Kingdom Hearts. However, my ability to arrange music required further development, as those attempts contained some inaccuracies and sounded somewhat plain compared to the actual compositions. 6860885033becdd84c0268391e899212

I experienced a growth in my arrangement ability when I was a sophomore in college. That was when I downloaded a 30-day free trial of Sibelius First. I soon discovered that inputting the notes into a program and hearing them played back greatly assisted my arrangement process. Additionally, it allowed me to see “empty” spaces (such as rests or long holds) that could be filled with embellishments. Thus, many more possibilities opened up for my arrangements. With the assistance of Sibelius First, I eventually completed my first piece of sheet music.

After that, I continued to train my ear to listen for underlying harmonies and chords that many people often miss. This, for me, is the most difficult aspect of arrangement—yet it absolutely cannot be ignored or overlooked. To leave out those harmony notes is to sacrifice the song’s beauty.

In essence, my ability for music arrangement boils down to 10+ years of hard work, patience, and perseverance.

Q&A: What Do You Consider to be Your Greatest Achievement?

Question: “What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?”

At the time of this post (03-25-2017), there are a few song candidates that I would consider worthy of the title of “greatest achievement.”

In general, any project for which I have no reference is a great achievement in my mind. If I am able to find existing sheet music on the Internet, it provides a huge jump-start to my process and cuts down the work time drastically. However, it is somewhat less rewarding; it is like the difference between using a template and creating something from scratch. Let me tell you—a lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into arranging a song from scratch!

Therefore, I find that my greatest achievements are the songs that I figured out solely by listening to them over and over, tinkering with them on the keyboard, and meticulously mapping them out in Sibelius First. At the moment, these are Cats on Mars, Jinsei ni wa Ai to Kanade to, Koukai to (coming soon), and a piano four hands duet from a certain Game Boy Advance game. One of these days, I will post that duet, but for now, it’s not quite ready!

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!

Q&A: What Software Do You Use?

Question: “What software do you use to create your music?”

The answer is Avid Sibelius First. As of today’s date (03-23-2017), I use version 7, though I believe that newer versions are available.

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WHY SIBELIUS FIRST?

  • GREAT VALUE. Sibelius First includes all of the necessary functions for creating high quality piano sheet music—at an affordable price! Yes, Sibelius First lacks some of the features of its more robust cousin (simply titled Sibelius), but most of those features are primarily for complex orchestra arrangements. For my purposes, Sibelius First offers the greatest value!
  • MULTIPLE PAYMENT OPTIONS. There are a number of payment options available to Sibelius customers. First, a free 30-day trial is available for download so that you can test out the program and determine whether or not you like it. I highly recommend tinkering with the free trial before your purchase. Then, you can choose between a perpetual license (which can be upgraded at a reduced price as newer versions are released), or a monthly or annual subscription. Select the option that best suits your needs!
  • PLAYBACK VIDEO. Sibelius First offers the ability to turn your sheet music into a 1080p high definition playback video, which allows viewers to listen to the music while a playback line follows the notes. Then, you can share your videos across the Internet! Older versions of Sibelius First did not include this feature, so I was particularly excited when it was released.
  • EXPORT AUDIO. Newer versions of  Sibelius First allow you to export your sheet music as an MP3 audio file. These files sound wonderfully realistic with Sibelius First’s 36 GB of professional instrumentation.
  • IMPORT GRAPHICS. Why not add graphics to your sheet music to give it an added sense of flair? This is an especially great feature for creating playback videos.
  • CONNECT TO MIDI INSTRUMENTS. If you own the proper equipment, you can connect your electronic instruments to Sibelius First. With Neuratron AudioScore Lite—included with your Sibelius purchase—you can input notes directly into Sibelius First by singing or playing an electronic instrument.
  • SCAN SHEET MUSIC. Is there a piece of sheet music that you want to hear as you practice it? Or perhaps you might like to alter that sheet music? With PhotoScore & NotateMe Lite—included with your Sibelius purchase—you can scan printed music and send to Sibelius First for playback, transposing, and editing.

For a complete list of features, visit http://www.avid.com/sibelius/features.

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