What Does an Arranger Do?

An arranger reworks a preexisting composition in various ways by changing one or more of the following musical parameters, which sometimes alters the composition's emotional impact: instrumentation, orchestration, harmony, tempo, and genre. Most arrangements preserve the basic pitch content and formal structures of a piece, but there aren’t any hard rules to follow. Such creative freedom allows for a great deal of self-expression and artistic potential. An arranger often has to add original material to a piece by writing an introduction or an ending, or by reharmonizing the harmonic material of the piece.

Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt” is a good example of a modern song that has been arranged in a number of interesting and artistic ways. The song was originally composed for Reznor’s band, Nine Inch Nails, and was released on the 1994 album The Downward Spiral. The original version features many high-level production techniques including experimental synthesis and programming along with guitar, bass, drums, and a lead vocal. The song fits comfortably within the industrial rock genre that Reznor helped create. In 2002, Johnny Cash released a very intimate and overwhelmingly vulnerable version with acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards, strings, flutes, and one vocal track. In 2017, Eric Whitacre published an acapella version featuring contemporary composition techniques in place of the programmed synthesizers of Reznor’s original.

A more traditional example of an arrangement might be Neal Hefti’s version of Cole Porter’s song “I Get a Kick out of You,” arranged for Frank Sinatra. Porter composed the music and lyrics to a musical called Anything Goes in 1934, and the song “I Get a Kick out of You” was one of the tunes from that show. Many artists have sung many different arrangements of the song, but Frank Sinatra’s version is one of the most famous.

Arranger at a Glance

Finding Work and Advancing

Because arranging is mainly a freelance endeavor and jobs are obtained through word of mouth, building a portfolio of good work and developing relationships with musicians, composers, and producers is the clear path to success.

Producers, composers, artists, and publishing companies
Professional Skills

Broad understanding of musical styles, sight reading, notation, theory, harmony, composition (DAW and software libraries), transcription, orchestrations, conducting, communication, networking

Interpersonal Skills

Arranging is suited to people who relish spending time alone but also are able to communicate well with composers, producers, and artists about a vision for a piece of music. The ability to compromise and manage one’s ego is crucial because an arranger will sometimes need to incorporate other people’s ideas, like them or not, into the finished product. 

Work Life

Arrangers generally make their own hours, but they also work on tight deadlines to complete projects in time for a recording session or performance, which means the lifestyle is both flexible and demanding. As with any freelance job, workflow can be unpredictable. Until you are a well-known, in-demand arranger, plan on spending some portion of your workday hustling for gigs.