Ways of Thinking About Song Arrangement and Track


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I have spent today playing around with some ideas for a new book I am in the early stages of working on. There are a lot of sweeping statements in there at the moment – but this is where I am so far – 2500 words in one day! I am interested in any examples of any of the ideas I am discussing – or let me know if you don’t agree. This will also act as some basic lecture notes for my students.

The first thing we need to consider when considering the difference between song arrangement and track, is to consider the ontological differences between them. As discussed in a previous post, the song consists of the basic melody, the chords, and outline of the form. The important thing to remember is that the song has no specific sound, the arrangement is a specific setting of the song and the track can be considered the specific recorded strands that make up a record (for example a drum strand or guitar strand)

In his book, The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks Making Records, Albin Zac is clear that the Song Arrangement and Track are ontologically independent – so we can discuss them independently and collectively. When we look at the attached mind map, we can see the Song, Arrangement and Track being part of the record – but how can we use this to talk about music?

Regarding the song, it is interesting to consider how the copyright of a Song is divided up into two components: lyrics and melody – so the copyright is divided, usually into 50% lyrics, 50% ‘music’, or variations thereof. Probably the most famous exemplar of this agreement is the work of Lennon and McCartney, who were known for their symbiotic lyric/music working relationship. This ‘even split’ however becomes much more complicated when a band composes a song through the rehearsal process – where they may simply develop ideas via jamming. The copyright issue then potentially becomes far more complicated, as we have to ask the question – who owns what? On the one hand, bands like U2, who regardless what they produce, tend to divide the royalties between the band members equally. Where as bands The Beatles or the Rolling Stones for example, attribute(d) copyright far more specifically. This however has its complications, as musicians such as Bill Wyman (the original bass player in the Rolling Stones) for example recounted in an issue The Australian, he felt he was simply not getting the songwriting credit he felt he deserved.

So – regardless what song we are analysing, it is useful to consider, how it was put together? How is copyright divided and why? What impact can copyright strangleholds have on the creative process and band dynamics? At the turn of the last century, through to the Tin Pan Alley era, it is interesting to consider how songs were often considered as independent entities, often represented via sheet music – which at one point would be played on home pianos and, after the emergence of the record industry, were usually recorded by more than one artist. An indicative example of this would be the countless versions of songs released as part of the American Songbook – for example ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘Stella By Starlight’, ‘All The Things You Are’, etc. However, over the years, we have gradually begun to relate songs to specific arrangements and recordings. For example, when we listen to classic songs like The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ or Louie Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ – it is difficult to disassociate them from an ‘original’ – despite the countless cover versions that have taken place over the years. Suddenly the concept of a song is no longer an abstract entity – it somehow becomes ‘real’. As we will see later, in some instances, these perceptions can be ‘age dependent’ – depending on the version we heard first and how that particular recording resonates with our past.

During the Tin Pan Alley era of course, songs were written in spaces that looked like small basic rehearsal rooms – basically a small room and a piano. A typical process would be a songwriter or songwriting team given the task to write the song, which was then given to an arranger, which was subsequently taken to the recording studio to be made into a record. So the Song – Arrangement – Track took place not simultaneously but in a linear fashion. It was also common during Tin Pan Alley period that the person/people who wrote the songs, where not those who performed it. This is interesting, as since the era of the ‘singer-songwriter’ in the 1960s, we take this union for granted – a relationship that for this writer at least results potentially in a greater perception of authenticity. This of course begs the question – where does the song we are analysing fit in on this continuum? It is important to point out the separation of singer and songwriter is by no means a phenomenon of the past, nor indeed a clear separation – with Paul McCartney writing of ‘Step Inside Love’ for Cilla Black, or more recently Ed Shearing’s un-named song for Justin Bieber being indicative examples where the demarcation lines can get blurred.

Both McCartney and Shearing are indicative examples of the tendency of songwriters to be the individuals who are celebrated in the history of popular music. Even if this is disputed – one this is for sure – songwriters usually get most of the money! It is interesting to consider how the role of the arranger performer has changed over the years. How do the mainly anonymous arrangers who worked on the Tin Pan Alley era catalogue, through to celebrated arranger/producers such as George Martin, through to sampling and the modern day DJ relate to each other? How are they similar and distinct? How has the role of performers, who are not songwriters, developed since the emergence of Elvis Presley for example?

It is also interesting to consider how the awareness of songwriters has (possibly) become subsumed because of the way we consume music. If we listen to music via social networks and streaming, no longer having access to album/cd covers, has the arrangement and track become more noticeable than some songwriters (the person who instigated the song in the first case)– as we no longer see their names? It is also intriguing to consider if there is a generation emerging that simply don’t care who wrote the songs. An indicative example of this would be represented in TV programmes such as XFactor – where the performer takes a very firm precedence over the songwriter – using the song a vehicle to instigate their stardom. This show of course is a series that (usually – not always) celebrates the disunion of the songwriter and performer – possibly one of the reasons why it is not associated with high notions of authenticity?

Not being a songwriter in the traditional sense, my own experience with the songwriting process has usually been in the rehearsal room, where fragments of ideas are brought into this space, then fleshed out by band members. With this process, the rehearsal can be seen to be responsible for formulating what the song is – it is essentially used as a compositional tool, while the ‘arrangement’ of the song take place simultaneously! This of course can lead to copyright issues – unless you adopt the democratic approach to songwriting attributed to U2 above. With copyright being such an important part of the music industry, it is important early on to consider intellectual property ownership – it therefore makes sense to discuss ‘percentages’ at the end of rehearsals – not once a record is released!

Depending on the sort of music you are participating in, it is also important to consider the role of computer technology in the songwriting process. This can range from simply using the technology to arrange a song, cutting and pasting sections, correcting mistakes, experimenting with sounds, to the technology actually being responsible for the basis of a song. For example a songwriter could sit down at a workstation with little inspiration, but the use of a drum groove, a sample, or an inspirational sound could instigate the song itself. With this type of creativity, the song – arrangement – track are no longer a linear process, but simultaneous – they all depend on each other. Unlike the song, which as mentioned earlier was originally represented via sheet music or a lead sheet, arrangements of songs are represented either via performances, or recordings, unlike ‘classical’ music, which are represented via a score. The difference between these of course is that scores don’t display any instances of ‘real events’ (sounds) – they are a guide to performance rather than the performance itself. Albin Zac, influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin would say that these recordings/arrangements are autographic – they display traits of specific events, which are recorded permanently via the track. This leads to questions regarding the publications which transcribe the instrumentation of specific popular music songs – what do they actually achieve? We need to be clear about this, they are useful to consider a particular dimension of the instrumentation and texture of a song, which may lead to us being able to understand notes and rhythm relationships, but if we want to replicate the recording exactly – we need to listen to it. This is also the case when attempting to understand why particular instrumentations are put together in popular music – the sounds and production values, alongside the actual notes need to be considered. This of course leads to the concept of the track – the specific recordings of the above-mentioned instrumentations.

It is important to point out, that just as lyrics and music have a separate copyright, so does copyright in the recording. It is important to remember that when a record is played on the radio for example, both the songwriter(s) and owners of the copyright in the recording get paid. The owners of this copyright are usually the record company – unless you do what artists such as Frank Zappa achieved – and buy the copyright from them. Illegal use of copyright in the recording is of course one factor that can lead to copyright infringement cases. It is possible to steal the intellectual property of a song, by illegally using a melody, riff or chord sequence for example from a well-known tune. What is more common however, since technology easily facilitated it, is infringement of the record or track – better known as sampling. When I was a child, I distinctly remember a series of albums entitled ‘Top of The Pops’, cover bands performed where chart hits of the day. I used to always wonder why it was not possible to simply release a record with the original artists performing the hits of my childhood. It was only later I found out that this was related to prohibition of copyright in the recording – where as the artists give permission for the cover version on these records, the record companies did not. It was not until the releases by labels such as KTel that compilation albums featuring original artists became more pervasive. These legal issues will not be covered here, but it is interesting to consider the various other relationships between song, arrangement and track when analysing music. When we listen to specific recordings – how can we differentiate then from live performances – in other words how is the track distinct from the arrangement? As already noted, is it possible to ascertain from interviews or indicators in the recording what the process of putting the song together was? Was it simultaneous or linear? With the above information in mind – we can begin to think about these processes.

If we consider the song ‘Puppy Love’ as a very brief indicative example. The original song was written in 1960 by Paul Anka when he was 17, reporting on the break up of a teenage romance. This was followed by a version of Donny Osmond in 1971, then S Club Juniors in 2002. It is interesting to consider how three different versions of one song interrelate. Working backwards, when listening to the version by S Club Juniors, it is fascinating to compare it to the earlier Donny Osmond version. Firstly, it is easy to hear that the S Club version has deliberately incorporated the Osmond arrangement – having a similar instrumentation, use of backing vocals, and similar emotive leave vocal. Most importantly, it is exactly the same length! It is clear that an attempt has been made to copy the Osmond arrangement and market it to a different audience – so it appears new (to the younger audience). As mentioned earlier, I suggested that many songs such as ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles have a clear ‘universal’ original – but this appears to break down with songs such as ‘Puppy Love’. My own reference is firmly positioned with the Donny Osmond version, which I remember hearing as a child. However, many of the students I teach today recall the S Club version as linking into their childhood. Additionally, the original version by Paul Anka would have been heard by my own parents generation as an original, with my mother being a teenager when it came out. What makes songs such as this so interesting is a listener’s generation has a clear part to play in what they consider to be the ‘original’ version of a song – which is not necessarily the literal original.

So, we can discuss how and why songs have been developed via arrangements and tracks, in addition to how and why they resonate with us – depending on our age. When we listen to the original mono recording by Paul Anka, the influence of the arrangement is immediately obvious on the later versions, it being easy to hear instrumentations such as strings, and most importantly – the emotive voice – as part of the arrangement and track respectively. When we consider the emotive vocals, it is also interesting to consider if it is ‘real’ or ‘fabricated’. In the case of all of these instances – I would suggest the latter. In a similar way to Michael Jackson’s famous emotional outbreak in the recorded version of ‘She’s Out of My Life’ – which was often replicated live, the emotion in all versions of ‘Puppy Love’ appear to be ‘producer led’. Although I have no evidence to prove this – they all sound like they have been told, by the person leading the session to sing the song with a particular vocal quality – which of course would resonate with the record companies audience demographic. More work of course needs to be done in discussing how this emotionalism is delivered and received – but that is another discussion (although the evoking of nostalgia appears to be the object of all three records). It is also important to consider the differences between recordings – for example they are all in different keys – so why? The first version is sung by a 17 year old boy, the 2nd a 12 year old boy and the third a group of teenagers. Does this have something to do with the choice of key? As a final unifying point, when Paul Anka wrote the original song, it is suggested he used the Tin Pan Alley linear framework – despite the fact that he sung the song. After writing the song, he would have had the song arranged, prior to it being recorded – although at the point of writing, I don’t know if he recorded the vocals live with the ensemble (I suggest not). Interestingly, I would imagine that the Osmond and certainly the S Club versions would have simply added vocals to a backing track, but strong supporting traits of the producer led emotionalism outlined earlier.

That’s it for now – I will add to these as I move toward publishing the book – more later.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology, podcast and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ways of Thinking About Song Arrangement and Track

  1. Pingback: Arranging music – Haig Armen

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