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To make an arrangement of a musical composition is to rewrite the composition for a new set of musical forces, vocal or instrumental. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony may be arranged for balalaika ensemble, for example, or, along more traditional lines, a Schubert song for voice and piano may be arranged for violin and piano.

In the process of arrangement, a piece may be shortened, lengthened, simplified, or made more complicated. The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms may all be subject to alterations of one kind or another, and the piece may be completely transposed, that is, shifted to a different key. An arrangement does not involve a complete change of identity, however: the original composition always remains recognizable.

The reasons for making arrangements are most often practical ones. A junior high school orchestra might need a simplified arrangement of a difficult work, for example, a pop singer might need songs arranged for his particular backup group, a composer might feel that in an arrangement calling for fewer musicians a piece will be performed more often, a violinist might feel that an arrangement of a Schubert song would make a perfect encore piece ... or a balalaika ensemble might feel the need to make a splash. In some cases, an arrangement may actually represent an improvement, a sprucing up of a work that frankly needs it. And when the original forces are not available, an arrangement may be the only way to hear a piece at all.

Arrangements are often made by composers themselves, or by ARRANGERS, musicians who have specialized experience and training but who don't necessarily compose original works. Arranging is by no means just a mechanical task: it can be done sensitively, ingeniously, and beautifully, and it can also be done badly. The best arrangements, while not intended to replace the original, are always interesting. They bring a welcome variety, and can prompt us to listen to a piece with fresh ears — to hear things in it that we may not have noticed before, or to hear the whole piece in a different way. The violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891–1976) collaborated with the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) on a number of arrangements for violin and piano of works that Stravinsky had originally written for orchestra. Dushkin wrote, "There are two ways of approaching the problem of making arrangements. One is to make playable music for the desired instrument. The other is to go back to the essence of the music and rewrite or recreate the music in the spirit of the new instrument." Stravinsky, according to Dushkin, "was interested only in the latter."

TRANSCRIPTION is another word for arrangement. The repertoire of pieces for solo viola, for example, is not as extensive as the solo cello repertoire, therefore violists often play cello works that have been "transcribed" for viola. A REDUCTION is also an arrangement, but of a specific kind: a work for large musical forces is "reduced" to a version for smaller forces. In practice, reduction almost always refers to a "piano reduction," an arrangement for piano of music originally written for orchestra or instrumental ensemble. Again, the reasons for making such arrangements are practical: many pieces, whether concertos or works with vocal soloists and/or chorus, involve the accompaniment of an orchestra, and it's a lot easier to schedule — and pay for — a pianist to rehearse a piece than a full orchestra. You don't need as big a room, either. In the days before phonographs and radios, piano reductions were also the only way people could become familiar, in their homes, with many chamber music works and with the great works of the symphonic and operatic literature. The piano as a "home entertainment system" in middle-class families exploded in popularity in the nineteenth century, and music publishers did big business in reductions for piano and for piano, four-hands (two players).

An ORCHESTRATION is the opposite of a reduction: to orchestrate a piece is to arrange it for orchestra. Some composers write mostly at the piano. Their music starts out in a version for piano (or with piano accompaniment instead of orchestra), and they either orchestrate it later themselves or hire someone (an arranger) to orchestrate it. The use of such arrangers is most common in the fields of popular music, film music, and Broadway musicals.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.