Idea Generator

In this article, I will emphasize the notion of generating lists to spark one’s imagination and provide a structured approach to writing music. Let’s start with listing the roles of an arranger, so that we can see what aspects of a piece are subject to manipulation.

Things Arrangers Typically Do: (Arranging Techniques)

  • Determine key, tempo, time signature, feel(s)
  • Interpret melodies
  • Feature soloists; guiding and framing their solos
  • Plot overall shape & density [big picture]
  • Structure the form, using:
    • intros and endings
    • solos
    • solis
    • backgrounds (behinds solos and solis)
    • shout choruses
    • added sections (such as adding a bridge to a blues)
    • send-offs
    • interludes
    • vamps
  • Stimulate interest through the use of:
    • modulations
    • reharmonizations
    • dynamic contrasts
    • feel and tempo changes
    • articulations
    • creative orchestration

Next, let’s consider the various styles one might consider adopting. Limiting oneself to swing rhythms exclusively is not necessary. In fact, fusing jazz with other styles helps to keep the music from becoming inbred and predictable.

Feels, Styles, Grooves:

  • Swing
  • Shuffle
  • Waltz, jazz waltz
  • Ballad: subdivided in:
    • eighths
    • triplets (12/8)
    • sixteenths
    • tempo rubato
  • Dixieland, “Trad”
  • Boogie Woogie
  • Cajun/New Orleans street-beat
  • Ethnic music:
    • Latin American:
      • Samba
      • Bossa Nova
      • Afro-Cuban
      • Salsa
      • Cha-Cha
      • Meringue
      • Songo
      • Tango
      • Rumba
      • etc.
    • Caribbean
      • Calypso
      • Soca
      • Reggae
  • European:
    • Legit/classical styles (with or without drum timekeeping)
    • Balkan 9/8
    • Polka
    • March
    • “broken” straight-eighths (E.C.M.)
  • African drumming
  • Native American drumming
  • Popular Styles:
    • Rock ‘n’ roll
    • Funk (eighth or sixteenth-note subdivisions)
    • R & B/Gospel
    • Hip Hop
    • Blues (Chicago, Memphis, etc.)
    • Disco
    • Smooth jazz, jazz-rock fusion
    • Thrash metal
    • Electronica, semi-electronica, “break beats”
    • Country 2-feel

Because music is often discussed and broken down into the three constituents of melody, harmony and rhythm, let’s examine each category, considering how and what one might choose to alter, control and edit. I often draw upon the following list of ideas when arranging and composing.


  • Transpose/modulate to a different key
  • Embellish
  • “make it bluesy”
  • Follow the lyrics to maximize emotional impact.
  • Repeat
  • Incorporate counterpoint: 2-part, 3-part, within a fugue / canon.
  • Place the melody on the top, bottom or in an inner voice.
  • Play it in double time or half time.
  • Change note durations, using augmentation or diminution
  • Truncate (make shorter/cut off)
  • Apply retrograde (backwards), inversion (upside down), and retrograde inversion (backwards & upside down) permutations.
  • Generate it from a 12-tone row.
  • Eliminate predetermined rhythmic values.
  • Is the melody derived from a scale? What scale? Manipulate the scale from which it was derived (major to minor, minor to major, change modes, etc.)


  • Change meters (3/4, 4/4/, 5/4, 7/4, 6/8, 9/8, mixed meters, etc.)
  • Add or remove bars
  • Rhythmic displacement
  • Rhythmic canons
  • Change note values
  • Double time & half time
  • Double time & half time FEELS
  • Rhythmic expansion, contraction, inversion
  • Rhythmic retrograde (rhythm played backwards)
  • Polyrhythms (simultaneous occurrence of 2 or more rhythmic phrases of unequal length)
  • Clavé (son or rumba: 3,2 or 2,3)
  • Triplets as a rhythmic basis
  • Hemiolas and groupings
  • Isorhythms (repeated rhythmic pattern)
  • No time; rubato; conducted
  • Vamps, ostinatos, riffs
  • Stop-time


  • Reharmonize (more vs. less chords)
  • superimpose dominant cycles, ii-V’s, the Coltrane matrix
  • modal harmony (less changes over longer periods of time)
  • non-functional harmony
  • Formulaic, functional progressions
  • Extensions, upper structures and alterations
  • Tonicization, secondary dominants
  • Tri-tone substitution
  • Diminished passing chords
  • Parallelism (diatonic, chromatic)
  • Modal interchange
  • Sus chords
  • Slash chords (triad over bass note, triad over triad, etc.)
  • Quartal and quintal structures
  • Bitonality & Polytonality
  • Transpose to different key
  • Diminished scale harmony.
  • Pedal points / ostinatos
  • Tone clusters

Lastly, altering the tempo is an often overlooked, yet effective device with the potential to dramatically refashion a piece.


  • Fast, slow, medium, everything in between
  • Tempo changes
  • Accelerando, ritardando
  • Tempo rubato, no tempo
  • Multiple tempos at once
  • Metric modulations

At its heart, arranging is about decision making. The process becomes a whole lot easier when the options are clearly laid out in advance. I don’t consider any of these lists to be complete or definitive. There is plenty of room for expansion. During in-class brainstorming sessions, my students inevitably have something to add each year. If you would like to share your additions to these lists, I’d love to hear from you.

© 2020 Earl MacDonald

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