Principles of Music Arrangement: Unity

The second most common question that I get about the Ableton Cookbook Live Course is: What is arrangement?

The first most common is: Does this cover Dubstep?

Well, I thought that it might be a good idea for me to shed a little light on the second question, on the subject of arrangement, since it seems to befuddle almost everyone. Here it goes:

Arrangement is the process by which a musical sketch becomes an entire piece of music.

To whit: A quote from an old dead guy.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once claimed (in his boring and almost unreadable Lectures on Aesthetics) that, just as the material of painting is paint and the material of sculpture is stone, the material of music is time. What makes music music is the way that it unfolds and changes over time. Break even the greatest track into millisecond snippets and it sounds like garbaggio or an Alva Noto track.

And so, how we divide up the 3-7 minutes of our track (12 if you’re making a Larry Levan disco edit) is extremely important and merits real thought. This, opposed to the increasingly prevalent practice of making a 16 bar section and copying it and pasting it to fill 4 minutes. Of course, making every bar entirely different would also be totally unlistenable.

As you can see, the question becomes complicated very quickly. Luckily, there are a few guidelines that we can look to before we dive into how to actually lay out a track in Ableton. If you have ever studied graphic design, you might recognize these principles of composition or arrangement. I’ll be laying out one principle of arrangement (with examples) per day over the next week.


We have all heard a breakcore song that really appears (or maybe is) not really one song, but 17 bits pasted together. This violates the principle of unity, in that the pieces do not cohere into one unified whole. The last 20 seconds of a Shitmat song could be the first 20 seconds of another Shitmat song, it doesn’t seem to matter (disclaimer: I love Shitmat). So, we need to make sure that the different elements of a track are unified in some way. The different ways of doing this are what distinguishes a great composer from someone who is good at generating new sounds, but doesn’t flesh them out. One very common unifying element is to have a melodic fragment that recurs.

Amen Babylon – Shitmat

The most popular (and best) Aphex Twin and Squarepusher tracks are extremely varied and bizarro, but there is always a little melodic element or rhythmic figure that ties them together and provides unity. Listen to the way that, through the rhythmic minefield that is Windowlicker, the recurring, sampled melody keeps coming back. Even on the outro (about 4:30 forward), the same melody is retained, but dropped a few octaves, modified a bit and given to a different instrument. Kind of sounds like a disorted guitar, but that seems too normal for Aphex.

Window Licker – Aphex Twin

Finding new ways to add variation while preserving the unity is a difficult job and requires some creativity. Check out this James Blake song. While most people use a unifying background element (like a break, chord changes) while varying the melody or at least the lyrics, James decided to flip it. The melody of this track is repeated like 9000 times. But the instrumentation behind his voice keeps changing. I think that this song is boring, but I like his fresh approach to the problem.

Wilhelm Scream – James Blake

Do yall have any other examples of good unifying principles in electronic music?

2 Responses to “Principles of Music Arrangement: Unity”

  1. Du-ality February 24, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    Can someone tell Theo Parrish that Larry Levan called and wants his track lengths back? Not really, Theo’s a master of gradually building and maintaining interest even in the longest simplest of tracks (I could probably listen to Soul Control for hours – I think I have).

    • Anthony February 24, 2012 at 2:51 am #

      Theo is a certifiable genius.

Leave a Reply