These pages were originally written as part of an introduction to an undergraduate course in arranging and composition, so please don’t expect a thorough treatise on the subject. Hopefully this will be useful for those starting off on a journey discovering the enormous range and depth of this topic.


Composition is the creation of an original musical work. It involves the creation of a melody, and in the case of a song, lyrics. The composer often supplies a harmonic and rhythmic content but in most countries the copyright in the composition exists only in the melody and lyrics. (Possible exceptions would be a work for percussion instruments with no pitch). In the case of modern dance/rap music the copyright in the composition is often claimed by the programmer, but this is a grey area currently disputed under current law.


Arranging involves taking the bare essentials of a musical work, in some cases just the melody, and creating a means by which that work can be transformed into a musical performance. It is often the case that an arranger will also use the harmonic and rhythmic structure suggested by the composer, but will frequently desire or be briefed to change or develop these aspects.

Traditionally arranging is done by means of a written score but can also be done by communicating verbally with the musicians and relying on their memory to recreate the arrangement (Often called a head arrangement). In current pop and dance music computers are often used to generate sequenced backing tracks, usually referred to as programming. This is also a form of arrangement where electronic instruments are concerned (e.g. synthesisers and samplers), but is not within the scope of this book and needs to be dealt with as a separate subject. Computer programmes are also available that will translate sequenced information into musical notation, so that parts conceived aurally may be communicated in a conventional score. In this case knowledge of conventional arranging techniques can still be very useful and in many cases essential.

Arranging may involve the creation of original melodic ideas such as counterpoint and backing figures, answering phrases, introductions and so on, however the copyright ownership of the composition will always remain with the composer, along with the rights to all performing and mechanical royalties. A separate (beneficial) copyright exists in the arrangement and belongs to the arranger. This allows the arranger to grant specific or restricted use of the arrangement by whoever has licensed such use (usually by a payment to them arranger). An arranger can be commissioned to write a piece of music either for all uses (a buyout), or for specific limited use. E.g. an arrangement may be commissioned solely for use on the radio. In this case a fee would be negotiated only for such usage. If the client then wishes to use the arrangement on TV, in a film, on a recording, in a lift, on a karaoke, at an exhibition etc, then they must apply to the arranger for a further licence to allow this, usually with another payment.


Orchestration involves taking a given arrangement and assigning it in parts to different instruments, usually in the form of a written score. An arranger may employ an orchestrator.

It is essential to gain a basic working knowledge of the instruments for which one is writing. This includes their ranges of pitch and dynamics. Many instruments produce a tone that varies depending on the pitch; for example the flute is quite weak in its lower register and in a normal acoustic environment would not be able to compete with louder instruments. Some instruments are transposing instruments; i.e. the pitch that sounds is not in the same key or octave as the written notation. Scores can be written these days with transposing instruments either notated in concert pitch (non transposed) or in their own key.