In an age where we hear music predominantly through recordings, it’s easy to confuse a particular recording with the essence of a song. To me, any recording is like a brand new house. After all the months of choosing carpet, tiles, cabinets and colors, you’re left with the final product. However, the blueprint of the house defines the layout of the rooms, how many floors it has, the dimensions and shape of the house. The recording process is similar to the building process, but different words are used to describe each. Musicians casually use the terms “tune, “arrangement”, and “production” all the time, but what do they mean and how do they relate to one another?
What IS a song, anyway? The answer seems obvious, but you may have never stopped to think about the essence of a song. In my opinion, the song can be boiled down to three elements: melody, chords (harmony), and lyrics. Think hymns, lullabies, Christmas carols, patriotic songs. I bet it’s difficult to read the words “Oh, say can you see…By the dawn’s early light” without hearing the melody in your head (if you’re from the United States, of course). This is an example of a song in it’s purest form – a clear, unique melody tied to a set of lyrics. This is what the word “tune” really refers to. It’s like the blueprint of a house, laying out the shape and form of the song. Here’s an example of how powerful one person singing a song can be. Thousands of people sit silently, hanging on each note until they’re so moved that they start cheering and clapping.
That’s what a song REALLY is at it’s core, but there are a lot of ways to dress it up…
If a song is simply a tune you can whistle, a little jingle that sticks in your head, it seems pretty bare. There are infinite ways to add dimension and complexity to a song, though. Adding more instruments is the most common way to dress a song up. This is part of what the word “arrangement” means. Songs can be arranged for any set of singers or instruments, the same way a house can be made from any set of materials and colors. Here’s an example of The Star-Spangled Banner arranged for five male voices. The rich harmonies made possible by other singers add contrast and dimension to the tune. Moments making this especially clear include 1:03, 1:17, 1:26, and 1:37.
The next example (for choir and orchestra) illustrates the other part of what “arrangement” means. John Williams expands on the song’s basic form by adding a horn introduction (at 2:30), a musical interlude (at 4:28), repeating lyrics (at 4:48), and a musical conclusion (at 5:26). This is like building an additional room, or adding a deck to an old house. The sections of original music enhance the the form of the song while the large ensemble decorates the tune with active counter-melodies and supportive harmony.
Another arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner (my personal favorite) also demonstrates how the form of a song can be changed without making it unrecognizable. You can hear the guitar mimicking bombs, gunfire, and even quoting ‘Taps’ near the end, but the melody of the national anthem carries us through all the chaos. If this arrangement were a house, you might find a gun collection in some secret room.
Collectively referred to as “production”, the choices made in the studio have dramatic effects on the sound of a song. Is there a hook? Are there riffs? Do the drums sound like they’re in a huge cave or a tiny apartment? Do the horns sound like they’re far away or up-close and personal? Do you incorporate drum loops and samples into your song? These questions represent the total freedom afforded to musicians in the studio. It’s comparable to choosing paint colors, cabinet handles, furniture, etc. This is where the song comes to life, where the house becomes a home. The following is an example of a fully produced song. You can hear male and female vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, and drums.
It’s easy to take all of these elements for granted when they’re presented in a full production. We assume that this song MUST be sung by Frank Black, the intro riff MUST be played with that particular guitar tone, the drums MUST be played with the same patterns and accents on the recording, etc. We assume that if any of these elements is changed or interpreted then the song ceases to be itself. We don’t make this mistake, however, when looking at a house. Gutting the carpet and installing hardwood floors doesn’t affect the blueprint. In music, we can go back to that blueprint whenever we want. The song ‘Where is my Mind’ can be reduced to melody and chords, played on one instrument:
Jon Brion did a great interview about the difference between a song and a performance. The Song Reader by Beck Hansen (a collection of songs released purely as sheet music) has a foreword that expands on the topic as well. When you’re listening to music you have to ask yourself if it’s the production that appeals to you, or the song itself that you love. The challenge is to separate the two in the first place.