Arrangement is one of the most important (and often overlooked) aspects of creating music. It is literally the framework that holds a song together, and without a solid framework, the structure can easily give way.
For this tutorial I am going to be referencing most basic forms of dance music. Songs that have a 4/4 beat, and are usually built around 1, 2 and 4 bar loops. By grasping the concepts discussed in this tutorial, arranging songs in Ableton Live should come much easier.
How Songs Are Structured
Music is built on rhythm, melody and harmony. Most dance music is based on loops, these loops consist of the elements noted. Once the loops are arranged in a certain order, you have a song.
Dance music is arranged into basic sections, these are known as:
Main Section 1
Main Section 2 (or Refrain)
Lets break one of these elements down with a real world example:
The intro of this song runs from 0:00 to 0:59. The intro ends as soon as the tom roll enters. It is built around a 4 bar synth melody that is looped throughout the whole intro. Notice how the arrangement builds every 8 bars (2 of the 4 bar chunks).
Most dance music is built this way. Things are brought in or taken away in chunks of 4, 8, 16 and sometimes 32 bars.
The tom roll at the end of the intro is used as a transition from the intro into the first breakdown.
This is basically the idea behind an entire track. You develop melodies, counter melodies, beats, that all lock into the 1, 2, and 4 bar loop structure. Those loops are then introduced, dropped out, and re introduce for effect.
Working With Loops In Ableton Live
So now that we know how loops work, and how they can help organize our arrangement, lets see how they work in Ableton Live.
Create a new MIDI track in Arrangement View (Ctrl+Shift+T)
Starting on 1 of the beat ruler, highlight a section that goes up to 2 on the beat ruler (see below). The section should turn orange if selected properly
Press Ctrl+M to create a new MIDI clip
You’ve just created a 1 bar loop
If you would like to create a 2 bar loop highlight up until the 3 on the beat ruler, for a 4 bar loop, highlight up to the 5.
To change the length of the loop, you can locate the notes section in the clip overview and find the loop section. Locate where is says “Length”. The first number represents the bars of the measure, the second is beats, while the third is sixteenth notes (rarely used).
Organizing Your Arrangement
The best way to organize your arrangement in Ableton Live is by setting up Locators. Locators are play markers that allow you to add notes in Arrangement View. This helps give a visual representation where changes in the song will be.
Right below the beat time ruler, is the scrub area. You’ll see a small speaker icon when you hover your mouse over it
When you find the location you’d like to place your Locator, right click and select “Add Locator”
Name the locator so it’s appropriate to the section of the song
Double click a locator to start playback from it
The great thing about Ableton Live, is that Session View allows you to trigger off loops of a certain length in real time. Say you have three tracks each with one loop. Two loops are 1 bar and the other is 4 bars. Live will keep these clips in synch while you start and stop them. Great for improvised jamming.
Enter Live’s Session View
Start a new MIDI track by hitting Ctrl+Shift+M
Double click the first empty clip slot
A one bar loop has been automatically created
Drop your favorite virtual instrument on the track
Draw in some notes in the piano roll window
You can edit the loop length in the “Notes” window as mentioned earlier
Do those steps a few times with different lengths of loops. Once you’ve got a small army of loops you’re satisfied with, you can start and stop them in session view for instant arrangement ideas.
Finding The Right Formula
There is no right or wrong way to arrange songs, but I hope this guide has given you some insight into how it’s done. I’ve used dance music as an example, since most arrangements of that type are fairly repetitive and simple.
If you’re ever in doubt, it helps to take a step back and rest on your production for a night or two. Coming back to an arrangement with fresh ears can do wonders for inspiration.
Got any arrangement techniques you like to use in Ableton Live? Feel free to share them below!