What makes a great arrangement?

A question often asked is – what makes a great arrangement?

It’s great if it’s written with the lyric and against the melody (has oppositional countermelodies), and organic reharmonization of the original chords.

With the lyric” means the feeling of the accompaniment should reinforce the meaning of the lyric. Accompaniment is feeling, while the vocal line is a blend of meaning and feeling. It’s easy for an arranger to get wrapped up in the musical devices he’s exploring while forgetting the meaning of the lyric at any particular point of the song. Great arrangers always consider the lyric, and reinforce its meaning with their choices.

Against the melody”  can mean:

  • The countermelody can happen in the holes in the phrasing. Every vocal line has resting points because the singer needs to breathe and songs are written with that in mind. A good countermelody might occupy those spaces, offering connecting material leading to the next phrase. These events could be as short as a couple of beats at the end of a bar, or two bars worth of transitional material leading to the next section of the song.
  • The melody occurs around notes that can be described as the “primary colors” of the harmony, another way of saying “chord tones.” There are two or three primary colors in every harmonic instance, beside the root of the chord which is assumed to be in the bass. A good arranger will write his countermelodies by ornamenting the other primary color, unused by the vocal line at that moment. There are exceptions. If the countermelody echoes the vocal line, it will use the same tones, rhythmically displaced. If the vocal line passes through all the primary colors, the countermelody might be written against the landing point of the melodic line.
  • Another form of countermelody can exist in a different rhythmic density than the melody. If the melody is active, the countermelody can be static, and vise-versa. This might be a secondary countermelody, introduced after the first.
  • The countermelody can oppose and resolve to the melody at times. This device heightens the tension and challenges the vocalist, but can produce very satisfying resolutions.

Organic Reharmonization means the chords used or implied by the arranger are derived from the functional scheme of the original harmony. Chords derived from a tonal system have a function within that scheme, most simply described as “home” and “away.” The tonic (or “I”) chord is “home,” and anything else is “away.” The primary ‘away’ functions are subdominant (“IV”) or dominant (“V”), each of which can be expressed by a variety of substitutions. Chords can be varied in countless ways through the use of diatonic substitutions, neighbor chords, interjected dominants, passing chords, and other devices. Some arrangers might discover a different functional scheme that they like for a song, but if they use it in the arrangement, they’re re-composing the song, and the reharmonization is no longer organic, violating the composer’s intent.

One common device that great arrangers use is the superimposition of a progression over a region of static function in the original song, increasing the density of harmonic events, which is an accepted and commonly used technique. The savvy arranger will do it while respecting the functionality contained within the source phrase of the original material.

About Jon Burr

Jon Burr is a composer, arranger, producer, recording engineer, bandleader, bassist, and educator from Yonkers, NY.. and a Finale user since 1996. As owner/operator of Arranger for Hire, he serves music arranging and production customers from around the world. A veteran touring bassist, his performance credits include Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, The Hot Swing Trio, Stephane Grappelli and many others. Arranging customers have included the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Chilean Astronomy Society, The Milpitas Community Concert Band, The Honey Taps, The Montclair Kimberly Academy’s annual musical, and many others. He writes for and leads his own ensembles, including the Jon Burr Quintet. His arrangements for Swedish YouTube artist Kim Andersson have received over 5 million views on Facebook and YouTube.


  1. newscale62 says:

    The devil is in the details. The truly iconic jazz arrangers such as Nelson Riddle, Thad Jones or Gil Evans understood that there should never be a gap in the flow, that all decisions with regard to instrumental colors, rhythm, structure, harmonic devices, and about 20 other specific musical areas must be given equal consideration.

  2. Jon…this is a wonderful post. I got lost during Organic Reharmonization, though. You’ve written this so well, though, that even with my relatively minimal degree of musical literacy, I understood it up to that point! Thank you. I shall share. (It’s nice to be one of those “many others” mentioned in about Jon Burr. 🙂 )

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