Sometimes I'll see on discogs.com a song will say string arrangements by so and so... and it's an original song by them.

  • Can original compositions be arrangements?
  • What makes an arrangement?
  • Can it be like making the song you composed in a certain style of music or genre than your first draft?

Cambridge dictionary defines arrangement as:

a piece of music that has had changes made to it [so] that it can be played in a different way, especially by different instruments

If the piece of music can be played in a different way, isn't that also considered an original piece?

  • arrangement : "3. a composition adapted for performance with different instruments or voices than those originally specified. 'Mozart's symphonies in arrangements for cello and piano'" – Google
    – Mazura
    May 24 '20 at 2:50

No. Arrangement is arrangement, original composition is original composition.

You can use same methods and techniques, but in arrangement you have a pre existing material per se. But you can queue and quote other pieces in an original composition by the way.


A "composition" is traditionally thought of as being the most essential musical idea of the song, mostly its melody. Arranging is the act of deliberately modifying or adjusting or adopting a composition. You tweak or refine some aspects of a composition. When you go and realize a song with several instruments, for example a string section, it involves many decisions about what notes and how exactly to play ... and these decisions may or may not be trivial. AFAIK it's up to the composer to decide whether or not the arranging work was substantial enough to warrant crediting the arranger for the work. For example harmony progressions can add significant dimensions to a melody. If your melody is just a few notes of a pentatonic scale, it can be harmonically quite colorless and odorless and bland, and to make it feel like anything you have to make up some harmonic movement. Is that an arrangement? If the composer or "composer" refuses to acknowledge it as an arrangement, tough luck.

Arranging credits have to do with how royalty money is split between people, so they might be used just as a way to get a certain split. Then again, what's printed on the record cover might not necessarily be the same as what's actually written in official information records. "You can call yourself an arranger on the record cover, but I won't give you a penny."

If you see "string arrangement by ..." or "horn arrangement by ..." on a record, it might mean that the band couldn't do those arrangements by themselves and they hired a string or horn specialist to do it.


I suppose it depends on how far you stretch the definition of 'arrangement'.

If I were to write a brand new song & sing it to you without any accompaniment, that could qualify as having been 'arranged for solo voice'.

Let's take the simple yet rather beautiful Yesterday, technically by The Beatles, but really written & performed by Paul McCartney… with string arrangement by George Martin

The 'song' as such is by Paul, arranged for solo voice & acoustic guitar.
When he first took it to the studio, that's all it was. By the time they left, however, it included 2 unison voices in some parts, & a simple yet very effective string quartet arrangement.

If someone were [gods forbid] to make a heavy metal version of that song, it would be still the same song, but arranged for heavily distorted guitars, bass, drums & probably a shrieking vocal ;)

It is widely known that George Martin - often called the fifth Beatle - was responsible for taking some of the simpler ideas & arranging far grander surroundings for them.
He never received official credit for any of this, though he is, of course, credited as Producer.

  • Definitions of words don't change depending on how far you stretch them, +1
    – Mazura
    May 24 '20 at 2:53

An original piece could be anything. Words, music and chord chart up to a full blown symphony.

What happens after will be the arrangement. It could have extra instrumental parts added, could be re-arranged with parts in different orders, changes of key, extra bridges, etc.


You can change aspects of one of your previous original compositions and create a new original composition that's also an arrangement. One example is Franz Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, which are slightly easier arrangements of an earlier set of extremely difficult etudes Liszt composed...which are themselves expanded reworkings of an even earlier set of etudes Liszt also composed. (Liszt has a habit of rearranging his earlier works.)

Video game themes arrangement-wise can do anything from quote each other to be extensions of each other to be pitch-shifted versions of each other (and probably more). I can come up with tens of examples of same-series video game theme rearrangements (one example is the sheer number of times the Kirby series has remixed King Dedede's theme).


Different (but connected) meanings of the word 'arrangement'.

The original way a song is put together - the instrumentation, the verse/chorus structure can be called 'the arrangement'. Maybe a songwriter came up with just a melody and lyrics then handed it over to an 'arranger' to flesh it out. Maybe the performers worked out this aspect of 'the arrangement' themselves and just brought in an expert 'string arranger' to add string parts.

Or maybe the song is finished, recorded and hits the charts. So the publisher hires an 'arranger' to make a version for school bands to play, or one for the Boston Pops. These are 'arrangements'.

We could also discuss the difference between 'arrange' and 'orchestrate'. Another time :-)


I'll add one thought that isn't already represented here. You added the Cambridge definition of "arrangement" that emphasizes that a piece has "had changes made to it," and ask:

If the piece of music can be played in a different way, isn't that also considered an original piece?

Simple answer: nope. But wait: can you make enough changes that it is no longer the same piece? Of course. Change all the notes and it's now a different piece. So how much change is necessary for it to count as an original piece?

That's a question that can't get a hard and quantitative answer, but the distinction exists. Vivaldi's Four Seasons has been arranged for probably every instrument by now, and most of those count as "arrangements." But Max Richter deconstructed the elements of Vivaldi's work and recombined them in the work Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons. Although he uses Vivaldi's material, and one might not call the resulting work an "original composition," it is unarguably a new and distinct work.

Wendy Carlos, in Switched-On Bach, recorded J.S. Bach works on Moog synthesizers. (Disclaimer: I'm not intimately familiar with the album, and copyright issues make it difficult to access. My perception is that she didn't significantly add to Bach's works, e.g. adding drum beats etc., simply arranged them.) While many shocked purists would deny that the result is "the same thing," this seems like a clear case of arrangement. (A similar experiment is "Cans and Brahms," in which Rick Wakeman straightforwardly crams the third movement of Brahms' fourth symphony into three keyboards (or is it four?), changing few if any notes in the process. The impact is certainly different than a symphony orchestra, but it's hardly an "original composition."

What about remixing? When a band writes a head-banging hit and then, 20 years later, releases a gentler easy-listening cover so their aging fan base can shop to it, is that an arrangement? (Probably.) If their song is chopped up and glued back together in a techno remix, is it an arrangement? (Arguably not.) Is it an original composition? (Uh... arrrguably not? It's a derivative work.) What about mashups? When Danger Mouse combines the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album to create The Grey Album, is that a new work? Well, all sorts of legal teams got excited about the question, but from an aesthetic standpoint, I think the combination is clearly a different "thing" than the two component "things." It's certainly not an "arrangement"!


Yes, if you use the word "arrangement" in the same sense as "orchestration." But, the usage of those terms can be a bit mixed.

"Orchestration" is the art of selecting instruments in a composition. "Arrangement" is adapting existing music for different instruments than the original composition. Those are just basic definitions.

But sometimes "orchestrate" is used for an arrangement when a full orchestra is used in the arrangement, such as Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy's orchestration of Satie's Gymnopedie. Those are certainly arrangements, but the credit is often stated as "orchestration by..."

And sometimes we have the reverse. As you say, "arrangement" is often used in regard to an original work, like in Stevie Wonder's album Song in the Key of Life. His credits read: "produced, arranged, and composed by..." So, in a song like Sir Duke the brass is not an arrangement of some previously existing version of the music for different instruments. The whole conception was Wonder's, including the use of the instruments, but the word "arrange" is used instead of "orchestrate." I suppose the reason "arrange" is used instead of "orchestrate" is because an orchestra - apparently synonymous with string instruments in the pop world - was not used.

I think this is the real answer to your question: "arrange" is often used synonymously for "orchestrate."

I think it's worth mentioning the uncredited contribution of arrangers, especially because the meaning of the word "arrange" it tied up with the idea of what is original creation. Many times an arrangers contributions are vaguely credited or simply completely uncredited despite contributing original musical content, especially melodic content. For example the credits for the strings in the recording of Buddy Holly's True Love Ways are simply "orchestra directed by Dick Jacobs." But the strings aren't simply doubling the vocal part or fleshing out a chord progression, they contribute unique melodic material with elaborate interplay with the vocal. In cases like those the arranger isn't just orchestrating there is significant original composition too.


I think the word original composition and composer would be too triumph to describe the pathetic effort of any pop song producer today. Song writer seems more adequate to me. The setting of a song for an orchestra or a band can be called an arrangement, not more than this.

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