I write some of my own material, and I work them up to get them ready to perform, but I don't consider myself an arranger. I've been thinking about getting deeper into developing songs for performance so I'm asking about what skill sets I will need to have in order to move forward with arranging music, my own and others too. Will I need a degree in Music?

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    What sort of ensemble/band are you thinking about arranging for? Commented May 21, 2018 at 9:22
  • @AreelXocha - Well, I wanted to start with some pretty simple stuff and my band is playing country-rock music right now, so I'll start there, but I'm not against progressing on to other styles and seeing where it takes me. This is just one big adventure for me. Commented May 21, 2018 at 14:48

4 Answers 4


You don't need a degree, but you need to know a great many things to arrange for an ensemble. Here are just a few examples I can rattle off the top of my head:

  1. The ability to read your own score. Yes, this sounds very basic, but it's important! And not necessarily easy. An arrangement could have many staves per system and this takes a lot of getting used to.

  2. The ability to transpose for instruments that are in different keys, e.g. the parts for a Bb trumpet and a piano need to written one whole step off from each other. There is software that can help with the grunt work, but you need to understand it conceptually.

  3. An understanding of the range and limitations of the instruments you wish to arrange for. For example, a flute cannot really play below a middle C, a violin cannot play double stops at certain intervals, etc.

  4. A bit about harmony and voice leading-- essential for every musician, really, but especially important if you're going to be writing the harmonies.

  5. Experience with the instruments you're arranging for and how to blend them together. In Rimsky Korsakov's famous tome on orchestration he makes specific suggestions (e.g. strings and brass should not be put together unless also accompanied by woodwinds; dissonant notes should be given to instruments with a different timbre, e.g. in a brass ensemble you might give the dominant 7ths to the french horn since it has a sound that is distinct from the other instrumentrs), although his thinking may be a bit out of date. The best thing is to work with the instruments as much as possible. A bit of knowledge of acoustics/physics of sound could be very helpful here as well.

  6. Knowledge of correct musical notation, both in general and for specific instruments. You may already know the order the sharps are supposed to be written in a key signature, but you must also know how to notate up-bow and down-bow for the violin, for example, or how to write a roll on a snare, or how to write sostenuto marks for a piano.

  7. If you're writing jazz, chord notation, in a style that is friendly to jazz musicians (for example, "Fm/C" instead of "iv64")

  8. Clefs that you don't already know. If you already know treble, you need to learn bass clef too, and possible C clef for certain instruments. This can be really frustrating and hard to learn.

I'm sure there's more. I'll come back and edit if I think of anything else.


No, you don't need a music degree to arrange, but you are lifting the lid on a gargantuan can of possibilities, so there will be many things that you need to take into consideration. You have mentioned 'songs' and the tag is 'orchestration'; that's a very broad scope. Orchestration is a specialised subset of arranging. In your searches for resources, stick to the keyword 'arranging', lest you be swamped with eye-watering orchestral detail. So as not to scare you off, here are a few starters:

  1. Scoring software, such as Sibelius, will be your new First Best Friend. If you enter a note that is too high for the cello/crumhorn/ukulele/baritone to play comfortably, the software will warn you by displaying it in red.

Scoring software allows you to hear the parts/instruments in combination, so you can tell if they are working. The software also helps you to learn the conventions and symbols required for a good score.

  1. You will need a working knowledge of harmony. There's no way around it.

  2. Find some recordings of arrangements you like and transcribe them. This is 'going to college' for any arranger.

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    Engraving s/w (e.g. Sibelius) is great at range checks, but it isn't going to flag a passage that is unplayable or not idiomatic. Experience & asking questions will help with that aspect. Maybe a bit of book-learnin', too. Commented May 22, 2018 at 3:10

I would ask, what instrument you play. If you play Guitar or Piano then in some sense you are always performing some of the tasks listed in other answers given above. You are harmonizing, creating interesting voicings, etc. For arranging for an orchestra it is crucial to understand the ranges of the different instruments and what generally sounds "good" on each, or what will come out clearly. You need to know what the instrument is capable of doing so you don't "kill" your band. Unless you are Zappa. I've heard that Duke Ellington would frequently arrange in ways that did not follow classical rigor, and there is no shortage of great composers that did NOT go to college for a degree in music. Typical in all of the arts, you need to practice your art. Formal training will never be a waste of time but is not a prerequisite for accomplishment. If you already know basic theory and standard music notation there are a lot of work books on harmony theory. I can't remember the one I learned from but it was a good foundation. It started withe basic theory then went into 3 and 4 part harmony and eventually evolved into orchestration and arranging.


No, you won't need a degree. Primarily you need experience in performing songs that HAVE been arranged. you need to know what you want. Maybe you will convey this to the other musicians by preparing a precisely notated score and parts, maybe you will explain and demonstrate. A whole lot of very successful songs have been 'arranged' this way!

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