Arranging Processes

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Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

  • Questions of phrase structure and the rhythmic dimensions of the embellishment strategy need me to go out for a walk. The regular groove of alternating steps gives a framework for rhythmic thought without absorbing too much brain-space. The streets around my home are littered with mental associations with phases of this work: Oxford Road with ‘Valerie’, Forest Road with the coda to ‘I Tell Me Ma’. (This also explains why I am not the most observant person you know. How long has that front door been painted green?)
  • The shower is a stereotypical place both for singing and for thinking. In my life, it is where tricky bits of the baritone line (and, by definition therefore, everyone else’s lines too) get worked out.
  • You know that feeling of holding on to your sleep-state when you have to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night? Poised on the edge of consciousness is a great condition for figuring out big-picture questions of form and tonal structure. Many a time I have come to, satisfied with the narrative shape of an arrangement, but with absolutely no idea how long I have been sitting there.
  • Whilst form emerges from deep sleep, expressively-concentrated moments like tags or key changes need to float into the hypnagogic space opened up in an afternoon nap. An overwhelming need to doze is less a signal of lack of sleep, than of a cognitive need to get the controlling parts of my brain to relax and let the rest play. I rarely remember the waking dreams I slip in and out of as I work through the detail, but I rarely forget the musical decisions that accompany them.

So, you see why I struggle with the ‘how long does it take?’ question. It’s not just that you don’t think to measure the timings of these kinds of circumstances. It’s that the kind of mental engagement that is interested in measuring time is exactly the wrong type cognitive state for this kind of work. The best musical decisions are made when you lose all sense not only of time but of your own existence.

And this, of course, is why arranging – like so many musical activities - is so addictive. I’m sure even the nicest person finds themselves a bit wearing every so often, and I’m only middling nice. Drinking yourself into oblivion is one solution, but you don’t get a hang-over from harmony, and an arranging binge leaves you with something your friends will find useful.

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