How Can I Learn About Rock Music Arrangements?
February 7, 2021 10:40 AM   Subscribe

I write songs mostly using GarageBand for iOS. I would like to get better at making arrangements that follow rock (and pop) "protocols" or "standard practices." I've been listening to rock and pop music forever (since Jerry Lee Lewis and The Big Bopper, actually), but I have little idea of how a rock band arranges songs. I want to learn more!

So, for example, as of now I know that a rhythm guitar plays chords in a simple fashion, and a lead guitar plays a melody, and I know what a bass line is. I know that drums go boom boom boom and, recently, I learned a little bit more than that (like what a "fill" is), but I don't really know how to arrange a rock or pop song using artificial instruments in a program like GarageBand.

I have been using the loops provided in GB and they're of course very helpful! I could just use them and forget about learning more, but no! I want to make my own musical arrangements. Unfortunately the Apple loops seem mainly to be audio clips (as opposed to midi), so you can't analyze them note by note! (sad)

To give you some perspective, I was a music major in college, with an emphasis on composition (in the "modernist" classical style), have been playing classical piano since I was 5 years old (and, at different times, the cello and the oboe), folk guitar since age 10 (emulating Joan Baez's finger picking), at the age of 35 took some pop/jazz piano lessons and finally got free enough to get my eyes unstuck from the page and improvise a little bit), etc etc, love the Beatles, the Stones, etc etc,(pretty much dropped out of pop music after that until They Might Be Giants ('80's), but still do not know how to WRITE a bass part, a rhythm guitar part, a lead guitar part, and a drum part, or even if those are the parts I'm "supposed" to write. I don't even know if the bands themselves write any of this down! Am I still too "glued to the page"??

Here is what I REALLY want: I would like to see some rock or pop songs (preferably some I actually am familiar with, like the Beatles or Blondie's "Heart of Glass" or something like that) displayed as if they were composed using GarageBand for iOS! that is, I'd like to see a track called "Rhythm Guitar" with the actual rhythm guitar notes! the lead! the drums! etc. - for Beatles songs! That would be ideal. Would anything like this exist anywhere? (of course I have googled extensively before asking this question and found nothing like this, although there is much information that is "This"-adjacent).

Finally, to show you where I exist now in this universe, here is a shitty recording of me singing my song "I'm Great -- But Wait" (composed for MetaFilter's own Theme Music Facebook group a number of years ago). It uses Apple loops and a tiny "riff" I did myself. I like it but -- the arrangement is 95% CANNED (and MUDDY). I feel as if I am flailing in the dark, hence, my question. thank you for your patience.
posted by DMelanogaster to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Song Exploder dissects songs and shows how they work, often with discussion of arrangement, how the parts fit together, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:53 AM on February 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Since you mentioned the Beatles, their "Complete Scores" are pretty impressively thorough for most of the songs. Amazon doesn't include a preview but happy to send you some photos if you want to preview it.
posted by jeffjon at 11:11 AM on February 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Take 10 pop songs and try to recreate them. You can find some isolated tracks in YouTube, but honestly it’s better practice to listen and pull apart with your own ears. Likewise, you could find charts and leads, but it’s much better to discern those on your own.

I wouldn’t start what something complex like Pet Sounds or prog rock. Try some Tom Petty, early Beatles, The Cars. The basics.

The worst that happens is they don’t sound quite right, and you go back and tweak them until they do. Actually, that’s the best that happens.

Also, for every rule or heuristic you’ll find great songs that go against them. Part of the fun.
posted by argybarg at 11:36 AM on February 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

Learning common structures is much easier. Any sheet music is going to show you the structure of a song, and it'll be easy to quickly see patterns (intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, outro); but as far as what individual instruments play, that comes down to just listening to the songs intently.

Bands don't write any of that stuff down. Aside from the fact that most rock musicians don't have musical background to write out parts, it's just not needed in a band setting. Someone might have some suggestions about what another instrument plays, but generally it's more about feel than specific notes. I doubt Keith Richards ever told Bill Wyman what notes to play (unless it was a specific riff in one part of a song). So, It's VERY uncommon to find sheet music that shows things like rhythm guitar parts, unless it's integral to the song. Also, much of that stuff is at least partly improvised, so although there may be a basic part throughout the song, there are going to be a lot fo rhythmic variations, which would take many, many pages to notate. In broadway scores, you're more likely to find details like that, but even then, there's only so much you can put in. Original cast recordings can be used for reference for things like that.

If you want to learn how to write a rhythm guitar part, since you already play guitar, listen to the music you like and focus on the rhythm guitar parts. Then mimic it with your own flair. If you want to write DOWN the part, in my view, it's unnecessary, because unless you're recording with high-end studio musicians, it's going to be a waste of effort.
posted by jonathanhughes at 11:44 AM on February 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

This isn't your genre, but Trent Reznor has released multitracks of Nine Inch Nails music since the mid-00s.

Sometimes interviews/videos with producers or sound engineers are useful in the same vein as Song Exploder.

The Beatles aren't necessarily a good place to start, unless you're focused on the very early songs. For instance, here's a here's a write-up of 'Drive My Car', which shows how they stopped following the "standard" division of labour within a couple of years of hitting the big time.

But I'd agree with argybarg: you're better off listening . And I'd start with garage band / punk / new wave -- for instance, Blondie's "Call Me" which has isolated bass and drums and the Rock Band bass/guitar combo).

Oh, here are a lot of isolated bass and drum tracks.
posted by holgate at 11:46 AM on February 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I know nothing about playing or composing music, but recently on YouTube I was listening to a humorous Axis of Awesome "4 Chords" video and (as YouTube tends to do) it directed me to a related video from "Ken Tamplin Vocal Academy" where he talked about Chords vs. Melody and played examples on his guitar. I thought to myself that he did a nice job of explaining it for someone like me with no knowledge. FWIW.
posted by forthright at 11:47 AM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rick Beato has a YT channel where he dissects famous pop/rock songs: "Why is XXX song so great." He's got well over a hundred of these, he's fun, knowledgeable and loves the music; worth a watch if you want to see how the great tunes were assembled from bits and bobs.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:15 PM on February 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

Since you mentioned the Beatles, their "Complete Scores" are pretty impressively thorough for most of the songs. Amazon doesn't include a preview but happy to send you some photos if you want to preview it.

I was coming to say this too. It's pretty accurate, although I'm sure there are places where one might disagree with their transcriptionists.

One point: I don't think this would work well in e-book format, if they sell that: to fit everything in one volume, the scores are set in small print, and I think it would be even worse than most of the Hal Leonard transcription books are in e-book format. There are 8 or 9 staffs (there is guitar tablature as well as notation, so that adds a couple) which would make a usable e-book layout even more difficult than it apparently normally is.

The drums are notated in the normal way that they write out drum music, with different parts of the kit each being assigned a note.
posted by thelonius at 12:18 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Respectfully, I think you might be overthinking this. I’m coming from a background of punk/alternative, where a lot of musicians have quite limited knowledge of theory. The basic songwriting process generally starts with someone playing a chord progression on rhythm guitar. Then the bass player will generally play the root note, and the drummer will play a simple backbeat. Then they’ll play it a bunch of times. As they play, the drummer might get an idea for a fill, or the bassist might play a wrong note that sounds good, so they’ll keep it. There’s not really explicit discussion like “I think the bass ought to play a countermelody here” or “maybe you ought to play a sus4 chord before you resolve to the tonic”.

And of course, each musician will do that slightly differently. A bassist like Flea, who’s a knowledgeable and innovative musician, will play along a lot differently than someone like Dee Dee Ramone, who generally stuck to eight-notes of the chord root.

One other thing to keep in mind is the difference between a “written” song and a recorded one. The written song is usually pretty barebones. Much of what you hear on the record, including nearly all lead guitar work and vocal ad libs, is overdubbed after the basic tracks have been recorded, often at the suggestion of the producer rather than the band themselves. Nobody actually plays the whole song with fills and stuff all the way through until after the song is recorded and they have to figure out how to play it live.

If you’re trying to do this yourself, start Ramones-level basic. Pick a chord progression and play eighth notes. Then add a simple bass-snare backbeat with eighth notes on the hi hat under it, and play the bass as root notes. On the last beat of the profession, hit a cymbal crash. From there, syncopate either the guitar (it’s easier to just strum than to do it in software) and/or the drumbeat. Tie the bass in with the bass drum so that if your beat is boom-boom-bap, you play two bass notes on the kicks and rest on the snare beats. Then play with your bass notes - mix in some 5ths maybe. It’s more of a feel thing than an intellectual exercise like most composition. But by that point, you’ll probably be close to hearing something that sounds like a song and you can take it from there.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:29 PM on February 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

By the way, your skill will go up exponentially when you have to write arrangements for other musicians. Find an excuse to do that.
posted by argybarg at 12:30 PM on February 7, 2021

Also, I just realized the canonical source for basic rock arrangements: Creedence Clearwater Revival. You can’t get a more perfect example of 4/4 two-guitars-bass-drums than that. But even then: listen to “Down in the Corner” and you’ll find confounding even such simple means can be.
posted by argybarg at 12:35 PM on February 7, 2021

One other thing to add: doing this in GarageBand is going to result in a very stilted, inorganic sound. The aforementioned Rick Beato, who I also recommend, has some videos complaining about this. The preferred option would be to play with live musicians. Barring that, there are isolated drum tracks on YouTube. Strum a guitar along with those (preferably tracks you’re not very familiar with, so your chords or strum pattern won’t be affected) and a keyboard or GarageBand bass.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:39 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

One very commonly used rock arranging idea is that, if you have multiple guitars, they should be doing different things most of the time. (In heavy music maybe it is more common that they double a part). You can hear a clear example in early Beatles music, where there is often an acoustic guitar steadily strumming normal beginner guitar chords , an electric playing accents of those chords, but higher on the neck, and George playing, I don't know, fills. They did the same thing on Motown sessions, they'd have three guitar players and they'd have a huddle and sort of divide up the guitar neck and each stay in their space.
posted by thelonius at 1:07 PM on February 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Little Beaver's brilliant guitar arrangement on Betty Wright's Cleanup Woman is a good example of this idea in R&B/Soul music.
posted by thelonius at 1:15 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Was going to recommend Rick Beato's videos, but was beaten to the punch. He's pointed out a surprising amount of stuff hiding in songs I've heard literally thousands of times and somehow had just missed out on despite actively listening many of those times.
posted by wierdo at 3:38 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm kinda along with everyone else here. I love GarageBand as a songwriting tool and useful thing for constructing basic loops, but it doesn't "rock" in the sense of a groove coming together. The thing that makes rock "rock" is an ineffable collision of quirks in individuals in the rhythm section meeting in one place. It's tiny bits that are not rigid that give jamming a unique quality: intentionally playing slightly before or after the beat, and slight syncopations within strum patterns in rhythm guitar. As mentioned, these quirks are unique to every band. (Also, a funky rock bassist is sometimes playing jazz inside a rock song, but hey we know that.)

50s Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues (as mentioned) is interesting stuff to study. I've recently gone back to comparing vintage New Orleans shuffle grooves to later rock musicians influenced by that style, which is fun.
posted by ovvl at 3:46 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ll third Rick Beato. I’m a lifelong country and rock musician who did it for a living for a decade, and a music professor of 25 years, if either strengthen my endorsement: I have learned things I didn’t know from him.
posted by spitbull at 3:47 PM on February 7, 2021

Response by poster: Listening to Rick Beato's analysis of a Cars song. AMAZING. This is great. I thought I needed to "read" the tracks written down, but maybe I don't. Also interested in the Beatles' scores. Such helpful answers -- thanks!!!
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:31 PM on February 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I found this video on The Genius of Ringo insightful. Might help you figure out what is feeling repetitive about your Garageband loops.
posted by clockwork at 5:41 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "One other thing to add: doing this in GarageBand is going to result in a very stilted, inorganic sound."

The question here isn't "how can I write funk", it's "how can I learn about rock music arrangements". Aside from the fact that GarageBand can function as a tape recorder and faithfully recreate any level of funk/groove/organics that are thrown at it, and aside from the fact that you aren't forced to quantize MIDI information (again, keeping whatever level of "non-stiltedness" you want), it's a perfectly fine tool for learning about and how to make rock music arrangements.
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would like to see some rock or pop songs...displayed as if they were composed using GarageBand for iOS! that is, I'd like to see a track called "Rhythm Guitar" with the actual rhythm guitar notes! the lead! the drums! etc. - for Beatles songs! That would be ideal.

You can most definitely do exactly this using either Guitar Pro (paid software) or TuxGuitar (open source). You can find literally thousands of rock and pop songs on Ultimate Guitar.

Ultimate Guitar (UG) actually has an embedded player that will give you a rough idea of what's possible, although the (I think MIDI) sound engine it uses to play back the tablature is of much lower quality than you can get with Guitar Pro. Some of the tab creators submitting music on Ultimate Guitar put up some amazing work- check out the versions of The Doors' LA Woman and Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms for an example; just keep in mind that the UG web player makes everything sound quite "computer-y"; the Guitar Pro version of Brothers in Arms is surprisingly close to the album version in some aspects.
posted by EKStickland at 10:17 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Adam Nealy has some great videos where he talks about arrangements of various songs. For example he has a take on Lady Gaga's mixed meter version of The Star Spangled Banner from Biden's inauguration. Or about The Girl from Ipanema.

David Bennet has lots of videos about music theory in popular music. Here is his video on songs written in 7/4.

Charles Cornell makes all kinds of content about music - but maybe my favourites are his improvisations to found content - like the megachurch pastor raving about Covid-19

David Bruce is a classical composer who sometimes talks about rock music. For example here is his outsiders take on pop music production.

Nahre Sol - fits into much the same category as David Bruce. In her case she tends to end up by composing something in the style she is investigating. Here is her video on pop music.

Dr Mix is more focussed on equipment and production - but he does some incremental re-creations of songs which are great fun. Daft Punk's Around The World for example.

Finally, musician and producer, Dan Baker, as a huge set of videos relating to Garageband. Some relate to the tool - some relate to music theory - but I particularly like his song recreations - like Electric Dreams on an iPad - or his reggae tutorial.
posted by rongorongo at 11:42 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Here's another great "What makes this song great" series like Rick Beato's: The Strong Songs podcast.

You mention that drums go boom boom boom. Kirk Hamilton says it's "thump, pop, and sizzle."
posted by booth at 6:24 AM on February 8, 2021

I think you've gotten some great ideas and suggestions so far.

One you might consider if you have the time and money is private lessons - specifically guitar/bass lessons from the sort of local freelance teachers that in non-pandemic times you would find at your local music instrument shop or Guitar Center or maybe in "continuing/adult" education at a local community college. (I assume most of them are teaching via Zoom for now.)

Every teacher like that I know 1) plays in at least one band which means they've created their own arrangements and/or figured out other people's arrangements & song construction by ear and 2) has spent a lot of time teaching songs to students where the sheet music or transcriptions are non-existent or indifferent at best. So they've got a lot of experience creating and considering the stuff you're interested in, and as long as you're willing to pay the fee I think a lot of them would be fine with less "teaching you to play the instrument" and more "teaching you how to listen to and understand the structure and parts of rock and pop music."
posted by soundguy99 at 6:37 AM on February 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

"... honestly it’s better practice to listen and pull apart with your own ears. Likewise, you could find charts and leads, but it’s much better to discern those on your own."

Seconding this.

What I do: find a good working space with laptop, headphones, pencil, paper.

Listen to the song, counting bars and marking out sections; my initial notes might look like:

4 bars intro
8 bars verse 1
8 bars verse 2
8 bars chorus
8 bars verse
8 bars chorus
8 bars guitar solo on verse progression
8 bars chorus
repeat and fade

or whatever. I often write down timepoints to help me get back to particular sections quickly.

Then I go back and fill in details--instrumentation, texture, chord progressions, transcriptions of individual rhythms or melodies, etc., with a focus on how particular sections and transitions and how they make me feel, and what style I think they're in and what aspects make me think that.

A program like "Transcribe!" is good for navigating through a song quickly, marking different parts, etc. But actually youtube is pretty good. It's worth learning the youtube keyboard shortcuts.

One odd tip: I find 2x playback helps me get the basic structure down faster. The structure really pops out at higher speeds, and I'm less likely to lose focus and lose track of the bar counts.
posted by bfields at 6:40 AM on February 8, 2021

Response by poster: The reason I want to SEE arrangements is that my ear is not good enough to pick out rhythm guitar, a piano part, a bass line, when they're embedded in the songs as a whole. And, while the suggestions of people talking to me, like Rick Beato, are great and interesting, they're not really answering my question: Where can I find "scores" of rock music, that is, the individual parts displayed either in music notation format or some other format as can be found, say, in the Edit section of a program like GB, Ableton, etc (the "graph" where a piano keyboard is displayed all the way to the left). I really don't think this is a terrible thing to want. Some people scrappily improvise with their bands; I don't.

When traveling, some people like to just walk around and see what they find-- I like to do that sometimes, but mostly I prefer walking around with a MAP. I like the "aerial view" of things (top down analysis?) I can't learn languages by "conversation;" I learned German by taking an intensive course in grammar. So, thank you all, and, especially, thank you especially to jonathanhughes, for understanding my question, and to EKStickland and rongorongo, for answering it.
posted by DMelanogaster at 10:11 AM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: and thank you to everyone who responded with great material too! (sorry, I sank into snark there for a moment - shackwacky, pandemic, 70 years old, icy streets, sick of everything, looking for SOMETHING to be clear and definitive (takes out tiny MIDI violin)).
posted by DMelanogaster at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2021

In terms of notation tools and formats - you might be interested in iRealPro (for Mac and iOs). This jazz/pop gig notation notation to show tempo, time signature, key, sections and chords. It comes with a large library of jazz and popular standards - and it is quite easy to experiment with your own compositions. The programme comes with a "band in the box" which will play the rhythm and structure to your song that has been specified - it is a tool for practice but also for composition and even for live gigs. Here is Dan Baker giving a review and demo. You can use this tools to make the structural arrangements of a song that you then import into a tool like GB with bass, drums, guitar all coming in as specified in the app - can be a good starting point for further production.

I am also going to mention Dan Baker's "Song a day during self-isolation playlist" - made last year. Each day he chose a song, arranged it for Garage Band production and recording, recorded all tracks himself and stuck out a video of the results: example Stevie Wonder's "Tell me Something Good". All songs shown with each track as a video window. It is a great idea of just how much you can do with this tool if you really know what you are doing. As mentioned above - his site includes tutorials showing how many similar songs were created.
posted by rongorongo at 10:59 PM on February 8, 2021

I never worked much with loops in Garageband, but I did work with its Drummer feature, which has some functionality to randomize the beats a little -- fills, and swing, and the opportunity to change from hi hat to ride cymbal on the same beat/etc. That's not MIDI either, though; for that, you want to look at some of the virtual instrument drum plugins. EZDrummer and Superior Drummer seems to be the standard; there are others that are cheaper but still good. I made an album on GB using Abbey Road Modern Drummer, and there are other concepts that allow drum parts that are even less rigid/'programmed,' like Jamstix.

I don't have solutions for sheet music for rock music, and won't try to talk you out of it and into just rolling up your sleeves. Best I have for you despite that: You say you have trouble picking out, e.g., a rhythm guitar part. I can relate. It might be worth seeking out demos of some songs you're familiar with. There's usually less instrumentation, sometimes a very minimal arrangement, like voice and guitar. Songs often change a lot from that stage, as anyone who's listened to the Strawberry Fields Forever demos knows, but you might be able to pick out chords and even rhythm. Then you could play along with the studio version, and some of the parts that aren't the rhythm guitar might stick out more and be easier to pick out.

You also could get a plugin like Voxengo Span that allows you to solo a frequency range. Thinking here of how hard it is to pick out bass sometimes on a finished song. With Span, you can filter out the frequencies outside the range in which the bass is playing, and hear it better. Could help with some other song parts too.
posted by troywestfield at 8:53 AM on February 9, 2021

I just saw a friend post about this arranging class starting next week:
posted by music for skeletons at 5:19 PM on February 10, 2021

You've gotten a ton of great information here (much of which I'm going to follow up myself, so thanks for asking this question!). Here are two other resources you might find useful:

Alan Pollack's Notes on ... Series is a comprehensive analysis of Beatles songs, with sections on form, harmony, and arrangement. They're really outstanding. A couple of examples: Nowhere Man, Lady Madonna.

The fantastic Beatles Complete Scores that jeffjon mentioned are part of the Hal Leonard Transcribed Score series, which also includes Steely Dan, Ben Folds Five, Chicago, and The Police (plus several jazz greats). The Hal Leonard site DOES have a few preview pages for the Beatles collection. If you have a good library system, you might see whether your library (or interlibrary loan) can get you a copy for you to preview.

Oh, and geez! music for skeletons' comment reminded me that there's a course on Arranging for Songwriter over on Coursera - free to audit. (Usually: click Enroll for Free, then look for the little Audit link in the popup and click that.)
posted by kristi at 4:23 PM on February 13, 2021

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