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    What Do You Mean by The Term "Arranging"?

    This semester I have the pleasure of teaching our Instrumentaion & Arranging class for the first time in this century. In preparation for the teaching of this course I did some research on what is meant by those two terms because I like to be clear about where I am headed when I guide a group of students down a new academic path. I am writing to you today because the word "arranging" seems to have a variety of meanings depending on genre and purpose. Since this is a course for classical music students, not jazzers, I gave them an assignment to arrange Chopin's Prelude No. 7 (A major) for string orchestra. Some of the students stuck with the notes handed to them by Chopin and others added melodic and harmonic materials that were not in the original score. This dichotomy led us to a discussion of what we really mean by arranging. For me, the prelude in question is a perfect masterpiece just the way it is and so assigning its materials to the members of the string orchestra was rather starightforward once a plan was set in place. That Is, for me, the essence of arranging. I then wondered what would happen if I added one nice touch to an inner voice with the intention of embellishing the original piece.The result was, in effect, 99% Chopin and 1% Jablonsky. I am asking you now if what I did was a true arrangement or was it an arrangement with recomposition. In other words, if I add just one or more new pitches to the Chopin mix, what is that process called in your neck of the woods. Do we need better terminology?

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    • 10 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • You write that the Chopin prelude "is a perfect masterpiece just the way it is," but of course it is a perfect masterpiece for piano, not for string orchestra. If you just assign all of the original notes in their original registers to strings, I would say you have not done any arranging at all, but have simply orchestrated the work. In my neck of the woods, arranging (nearly) always includes some meaasure of recomposition. Ravel's, or Gortchakov's or Ashkenazy's, orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition is an arrangement. Copious "recomposition" was required to make it work for orchestra. I think one should expect this in recasting any piano work.

    • I claim no authority on these terms, but I do differentiate between the following four words:

      1) Instrumentation

      2) Transcription/Orchestration 

      3) Arrangement

      4) Re-composition


      For me, "Instrumentation" is not an activity as much as the others are.  I think of instrumentation as the study of instrumental technique.  When my students in our "Orchestration" class learn things like the lowest and approximate highest notes the flute can play, as well as the quality of sound and projective capabilities in its various registers, they're studying what I consider to be "instrumentation."

       "Orchestration" (which I think of as a type of "transcription" -- or perhaps it's the other way around?) is the act of taking a pre-existing composition and bringing it to life with a different instrumentation.  Your Chopin assignment, in my view, is an "orchestration."  (And unlike Gregory, I would also call Ravel's version of Pictures an orchestration, rather than an arrangement.)  Though octave doublings may be added, and different instrumental techniques may be adopted to fit the new instrumentation, essentially, it is still Chopin's piece (or Mussorgsky's).  

      "Arrangement" involves some significant changes of the music itself.  Deletion of a phrase/section/countermelody, as well as additions of new material fall into this category.  Typically (I'm struggling to think of a situation where this isn't the case), an arrangement will also be, in part, an orchestration, in that most arrangements seem to be for a different performing medium than the original.  I do lots of arrangements (of various types of music) for marching bands...I change lots and lots of notes.  

      "Re-composition" is the creation of a fundamentally new piece, based on some aspect of the original, but treated in such a way that it is more new than old.  


      There is, of course, a lot of overlap between these definitions, and as such, it is difficult to say where the boundary lies between arrangement and transcription.  If we're talking about 99% Chopin and 1% Jablonsky, I'd call that a transcription (orchestration) rather than an arrangement.

      I'll be very interested to see what others say!




    • Zach,

      Your last defining sentence prompts me to question at what point a transcription becomes an arrangement. How about 90% Chopin / 10% Jablonsky? 75% Chopin / 25% Jablonsky? 50% Chopin / 50% Jablonsky?

      Is 51% Jablonsky a recomposition?

      Just for the fun of it, I did a transcription of the Chopin Prelude No.1 for string quartet and  then deconstructed it so that from measure 12 on notes began to disappear in all the voices, so that by the end very little of Chopin was left. Is that a decomposition?


    • I would suggest that the answer to the question of when an orchestration/transcription becomes an arrangement lies in Zac's use of the word "significant," although I do not think it is something that can really be quantified.  The less it sounds like the original, the closer it is to an arrangement.  As he mentioned, things like octave doublings and register shifts to me are not "significant" changes and are part of the orchestration process.  In order to be considered an arrangement, I would think it would need to have noticable changes in the melodic material, rhythmic character, harmony or something like that. 


    • Eric,

      Thanks for the input. I think we are getting closer to a defined distinction between transcription and arrangment, although many dictionaries use the one word to describe the other.

      The important distinction is the nature of the original composition. If it is just a tune, with or without chords, then the result is obviously an arrangement. If the original is a fully notated score then we need to distinguish between a strict adherence to the original pitches and rhythms in contrast to a free arrangement that includes new material that hopefully enhances the experience. The degree of new material will determine how close the new piece is to recomposition.

      I constantly remind my students in the early part of the semester that the lily does not need to be gilded as in the case of the A major Chopin Prelude.



    • Did George Martin add notes and more when he arranged the Beatles material/songs?  He most certainly did - reording innovations, string parts, horn parts, just about every instrument you can imagine including synthesizers and tape manipulation.  

    • Sorry for the misspelling, I meant "recording innovations."  George Martin arranged the Beatles music and added string quartet arrangements (including the addition of compositional parts - Yesterday), brass arrangements (including compositional parts - I Am The Walrus, Penny Lane, etc).  And there are many more examples like harp parts in "She's Leaving Home," clarinets in "When I'm Sixty Four," not to mention electronic tape manipulations in songs like "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" and "Strawberry Fields."  The purpose of an arrangement (among many other things) is to suite a particular performer's needs.  A Piece by CPE Bach might be arranged for trombones for example, yet in that case I doubt notes or compositional material would be added.  It's probably more common and acceptable to arrange and add material in Jazz and Pop genres and less so with Classical material.  

    • Sorry to disappear from this thread -- I'm still getting used to the "new" (to me) format of this discussion forum. 

      Anyway, yes, my percentages are completely ill-defined.  I wish I had a way of saying 75%/25% is the cutoff for me to call it an arrangement, but I just don't feel comfortable making that general a claim.  Case by case, for me.  But I think Eric has captured that better than I -- the less it sounds like the original, the closer it is to an arrangement.  

    • I don't mean to turn this discussion toward something too philosophical, but it seems when definitions come up, this is a natural outgrowth.

      Anyhow, while I agree with many of the definitions offered here on "transcription" vs. "arrangement," etc., the distinction fundamentally seems to rest on what we define as constituting a "musical work" in the first place.  And the definition of a "musical work" largely depends on what music theorists, composition teachers, etc. have traditionally found to be central concerns.

      Given our preoccupation with pitch-based theory and analysis, with a secondary focus on rhythm, we may tend to view "simple" orchestration as a different task than composition or "arrangement."  Our conception of pitch-classes leads us to ignore things like octave doubling as more significant "compositional" decisions in orchestration.  Other concerns like dynamics (which often need to be adjusted in orchestration to achieve balance), articulation (whose concerns and requirements often  change when notes are transferred to a different instrument), minor elements of texture, timbre, etc. are similarly viewed as incidental "transcription" choices rather than the stronger "compositional" ones involved in arrangement or re-composition that would alter pitch classes or rhythm.  (While I don't think anyone wishes to devalue orchestration or the choices involved in it, I do think that it's often taught and viewed as a "secondary" concern to pitch and rhythm choices.)

      I'm not at all criticizing this distinction, merely noting where it likely comes from.  If we have a broader conception of what constitutes a "musical work" (as happens with much traditional music around the world, not to mention some pop and jazz traditions), then our distinction between "transcription" and "arrangement" might similarly become more fluid or emphasize different elements.

      (Or, to put it in a more extreme fashion, I think one would change the Chopin work much more significantly by setting it in weird octaves for an odd ensemble (e.g., piccolo, hurdy-gurdy, aulos, electric bass, glockenspiel, and kazoo) than one would by altering or ornamenting a single pitch in an inner voice. To me, that orchestration would be a significant choice that fundamentally changes (recomposes?) the piece by taking it completely away from the timbral world of the original composer. Chopin could imagine performers ornamenting or perhaps even slightly altering his work with minor pitch alterations, if his different versions of some of his published works show anything. But I doubt he would endorse such an ensemble.)

    • My students and I have come up with an important distinction between differing qualities of arrangements--if people who know the original work laugh during the performance of your arrangement you are probably in trouble.