Making Arrangements (Part 1)

A few years ago my friend Sarah was lamenting that she couldn’t find any good hymn arrangements for violin, and asked me if I would be interested in writing some for her. Well, of course I would! But I was involved in some other projects at the time, so I’m just now getting started. I’d like to write several arrangements – it’s a great opportunity to collaborate with a talented performer throughout the whole composing process and get some feedback on my string writing – but I think I’m going to spread them out between some of the other projects I have on my list rather than write them all at once. It’ll be nice to work on something different from time to time.

Arranging music is a bit outside the norm for a university-trained concert music composer like me. We don’t do much arranging in college. Academically speaking, I think it’s considered a “lesser” activity than composing original music. Arranging calls on a lot of the same skills as composition, except that you skip the part where you come up with a musical idea or a melody. I suppose that some people feel it’s a more valuable educational experience if you have to invent your own thematic material. Personally, I think arranging music is a great pedagogical tool because it helps the student avoid getting “bogged down” in trying to write interesting melodies and allows them to focus on “big picture” issues like variation and development and the changing relationships between musical ideas. But outside of orchestration classes, my own education didn’t include much training in arranging, and that’s probably true of a lot of university-trained composers.

As I began to work on this project, there were two related questions that arose: First, what does it mean to write an arrangement, and how is it different than composing? And further, what expectations come along with writing a hymn-arrangement that might affect the choices I make when composing (performance during worship, implied text, audience)? Second, how do I make my hymn-arrangement distinct from the many others that exist?


In thinking about the composing-arranging spectrum, I was guided by the analysis and description proposed by Rob Deemer, in his article about last Spring’s Osvaldo Golijov controversy, “A Real Mess”. My own thinking on the subject has led me to suggest five categories of activity on the music-creating continuum that spans arranging and composing.

First, there are transcriptions of other pieces, where all of the original material remains basically unaltered and only the instruments playing the music change. There’s almost no composing (I mean writing new, original music) going on in a transcription, just music that was written for one instrument (or group of instruments) being adjusted so that it can be played by another. Compare these examples of the original Bach Third Cello Suite and its transcription for marimba:

Second, in a category almost identical to transcription, there are orchestrations of other pieces, where the original material is sometimes altered to make it more effective for the new instrument or instrumental group. Having this category might be a little “knit-picky”, but distinguishing between transcribing and orchestrating highlights the difference between changing nothing from the original and making the music more effective for the new instrumentation. A clear example of this is the process of orchestrating a piano piece for performance by an orchestra or band. Some things which sound good on the piano (like the rolling of chords or arpeggiated accompaniment patterns) don’t really work with an orchestra, and the orchestrator needs to compose a more effective way of playing the music that still captures the original musical idea. Compare the original “Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with its orchestration by Ravel. [Note how the piano must “break” the huge chords in the “great gate”, while the orchestra can play the whole chord together (and plays homage to the piano version with the timpani), at the 3:10 and 3:20 marks, respectively.]

In the third category, an arrangement occurs when a piece of music is created based on (or incorporating) another piece. An arranger will use pre-existing music such as a folk tune, but create a “setting” for it with an original introduction and conclusion, transitions between the verses, and perhaps a new harmonization or rhythmic treatment. Often, arrangements attempt to present familiar material in unique and interesting settings, but despite any new material, the goal of an arrangement is to feature the original music. In the following example, this orchestral arrangement of Sleigh Ride presents us with the original Christmas song in a rhythmically driving texture that seems to suggest the gallop of a horse.

The fifth category of music-making activity is the composition of a totally original piece of music. But between arrangement and original composition, I’d like to suggest a fourth category of activity that uses pre-existing music but focuses on the transformation and setting of that material. I don’t know that this category has a formal, recognized name (maybe I’d call it a fantasy, or a meditation, or a reflection, or a study), but while it shares some characteristics with an arrangement and may be difficult to distinguish sometimes, I think the difference is that an arrangement features and focuses on the pre-existing music while this category emphasizes the way the original material is set. Consider Ben Johnston’s String Quartet no. 4, “Amazing Grace”: this is not just a setting of the tune, but rather the emphasis is on how the song is presented and transformed.

So there are a number of points along the continuum between arranging and composing and a variety of ways that one can work with pre-existing material when creating music.


As I reflected on my experience listening to and playing hymn-arrangements, I realized that there were some additional expectations, implications, and requirements that could be allowed to factor into the creative decisions I would making. First of all, hymns have texts that could suggest how the songs should be set. The audience is often familiar with a hymn’s text and the hearing of the tune will bring the words to mind. The subject and meaning of the words will affect how the arrangement is interpreted, whether the arranger intends it or not. Second, while hymn-arrangements can certainly be performed in concert settings, their more common presentation is as a part of a worship service, either as a prelude/postlude or during a time of reflection. This might suggest certain requirements that need to be met in terms of the length of the arrangement, the musical complexity of the work, and its intended function within the act of worship. Finally, the hymn-arrangement has almost become its own genre of sacred music, with its own stylistic expectations and assumptions about how a piece will unfold. Within this genre, I believe there are three main types of hymn-arrangements with which audiences have become familiar: first, the setting of hymns with a new harmonization and modern style; second, the pairing of a hymn with a popular worship song such that they reflect on each other in unique ways; and third, the setting of a hymn in the style of, and usually paired with, a specific piece of classical music. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate what I’m describing:

I’m not suggesting that any of these expectations need to be met, or that there aren’t any other possibilities for arranging hymns (any of which might be more interesting than the above). But I do think that an arranger who is trying to be thoughtful about what they’re doing should be aware that there are precedents for the kind of work being created, and should perhaps think about these models and the kinds of expectations and implications they suggest when planning an arrangement.

Making a Distinction

The second question I needed to consider was how I was going to distinguish my hymn-arrangements from the many others that already exist. This is not just the old, tired pursuit of doing something totally unique and innovative that’s never been done before, just for the sake of being original. There’s a sort-of value in that, I suppose, but simply possessing the quality of complete originality doesn’t guarantee a composition will be successful. It’s better to approach composing by asking which aspects of a piece of music will be different than other compositions, and how traits might combine to offer something new. It’s not a matter of being original, it’s about being a little different, and thus unique and valuable.

Distinguishing a piece of music from similar works is critical to its success. I face the same problem every composer faces when they create a new work: if I were to write a hymn-arrangement similar to those that already exist there would be no reason for anyone to listen to my music. If there’s no difference between what I’m creating and something that someone else has already made, then I’m not fulfilling any needs that haven’t already been met in someone else’s work. For example, if I were to sing a song just like Frank Sinatra, why should anyone listen to me when, instead, they could listen to the real Sinatra? If you had a choice, wouldn’t you prefer the real thing? If I wrote a piece that sounded just like Mozart, why should anyone who wants to listen to Mozart prefer my music when they could listen to the real thing? Even if what I write sounds just like Mozart and is every bit as good, Mozart has already met the need for music that sounds like Mozart. Why bother with the imitation when you can have the real thing? Especially considering my imitation doesn’t offer anything new or innovative. And it’s not really a matter of Sinatra or Mozart being famous, household names. It’s that any composition that fails to distinguish itself in some way from all the other similar pieces will find that what it offers has already been fulfilled by other works, leaving its value greatly diminished. A successful composition must offer something a little different than the pieces that have come before it.

So how did I answer these questions?

My first arrangement for my friend Sarah will be the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I didn’t have a strong idea for the piece when it was time to start putting notes to paper. Sarah had asked if I could arrange something in a classical style, so I began by creating a new harmonization for the hymn and developing a sort of Baroque style accompaniment for the tune. It was a pretty uninspired effort, and I was struggling precisely because I hadn’t fully answered the above questions, and I had no idea where the piece was going. But sometimes you just have to start creating something, continue to reflect on what you’re doing, and wait for an idea to present itself. That’s what happened to me.

While I was composing some countermelodies to accompany the hymn, I wrote a phrase that was more free and expansive than what I had previously created. As I thought about how it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the piece I began to imagine a context in which it would work. What I envisioned was not just a straightforward “decoration” of the familiar melody of the hymn, but a sometimes-flowing, sometimes-floating, stream/cloud of notes from which the tune Come, Thou Fount would appear and disappear – an apparition on the edge of perception. I imagined something closer to what I described in category four above: not a setting of the melody, but a reflection on the hymn that would focus on transforming it in unique and unexpected ways. Thinking about the range of music-creating activity from transcription to original composition helped me to move my conception of the piece to a category that inspired more distinctive musical ideas. And in making this shift in how I envision the piece, I’ve found one way that this composition will be different from the others in its genre.

I’ll share more of the questions and challenges I encounter as this project continues.


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