What’s the Difference Between A Music Producer and Arranger?

Being a producer can mean a lot of different things in modern music and especially in the film and television industry. The arranger can wear many hats, but for the most part, the arranger is there to help arrange parts of the song for different instruments. In many cases, the composer or songwriter, and probably even the producer are also acting as the arranger as well.

A producer typically hires all the people working on a record; they hire people that will do the best job for the artist and for the record label. It’s not super common to hire someone whose role, specifically, is to arrange the music, usually just because many of these jobs are done by the same person. That said, what are the primary differences between a producer and an arranger?

A producer is a person who is responsible for the way the final project sounds, and the arranger is responsible for the arrangement, structure, and instrumentation of the music. However, sometimes the role is filled by the same person. 

Like most things, we can really dive deeper into this topic for the sake of elucidation. In this article, I’ll explain the main differences between the two roles because they aren’t exactly similar but have some similar qualities and characteristics. Being a producer means you produce something in a creative leadership role, which is somewhat self-explanatory, but what an arranger does, is arrange the right music for different instruments and also move song ideas around.

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The Main Differences Between the Music Producer And Arranger?

Musical Arrangement versus Production - What's the Difference Between Arrangers and Producers

What is Musical Arrangement and Production?

Before we talk about some of the differences between these two ideas, let’s first talk about arrangement as a principle. Arrangement, in music theory terminology, is the act of putting one’s own spin on a previously created work. For example, there have been many, many, many arrangements of the works of people like Beethoven and Bach, and also blues folk songs from artists such as Lead Belly.

In other words, it’s when an artist plays a song from another artist but they do it in their own unique way. In many cases, there is a change in tempo, a slight change in harmony, pacing, mood, or even a change in the key signature (Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments and accompanying Answer Book on Amazon are a great introduction to music theory principles).

Producers are in a creative leadership role when it comes to a musical project. They can hire people, do a bit of arranging, a bit of songwriting, or even play an instrument on the record. It’s a catch-all term for someone who has leadership over the final project.

Arrangement is an underutilized concept among music producers and other musicians, that much is for sure. Sometimes, all a song needs is a little more attention paid to how it’s structured and organized, ie, verse-chorus-verse-bridge which is what I mentioned in my songwriting tips article.

Another point I’d like to add is that an arranger is somewhat of a nebulous term. In reality, any musician who does a cover song of someone else’s work is kind of like an arranger. Moreover, you could also call yourself an arranger if you came up with the idea to switch some verses around in a song.

Ultimately, the point of terms like “arrangement,” “songwriter,” and “producer” is not just to confuse people. These are concepts that are used to describe a certain part of the creative process, and many of these skills are used by one person.

When people make music, it’s not like there is a totally compartmentalized approach where each person has their role and they never, ever step outside of it. While that may be the case when it comes to jobs like the mixer and mastering engineer (how to master in my guide), for the actual songwriting process, this won’t be so much of a thing because the beginning of the creative process is less scientific.

Arranger Roles Producer Roles
Recreates a pre-existing piece of music Directs the creative process in a leadership position
Arranges the songs for different instruments Might have songwriting contributions
Probably has a better handle on standard notation and music theory May have started out as an artist or is still an artist
Organizes a song for different purposes, ie, live performances. Helps in the recording process

You learn more about the producer role in this video here:

1) Arrangers Reconceptualize Pre-Existing Music

Bach - What's the Difference Between A Music Producer and Arranger?

Essentially, arrangers are people who are exceptionally good at reconceptualizing a pre-existing piece of music, whereas a music producer is an umbrella term for someone who is in a creative leadership role over a project.

Like what was said above, arrangers are not always separate people from the music producer or the songwriters. Arrangement is a skill in the songwriter or producer’s toolbox, so the need to hire someone who does this job specifically isn’t quite as common as you may think.

And if you think about it, it makes more sense for it to be this way. If you had to hire a different person to do every little thing, it would be a mess. With that said, there are people who do specialize in musical arrangement, like Simon Hale, for instance, or Nick Ingman, Booker T. Jones, and Richard Niles. Check out this Wikipedia page for a more complete list.

2) Producers Will Hire An Arranger If Arrangement Specialization Is Needed

Arrangers and producers are different when it comes to the big picture, but the producer, for example, by far, will wear more hats than the arranger. The arranger can help arrange music for anything from live performances to the arrangement for a record, even for multiple instruments, but that’s about where it stops. 

A producer will have the final say for the arrangement of the tune and, in the grand scheme of things, will have the last word on everything. They hire anyone that needs to be hired for a project, so of course, this means arrangers, writers, musicians, etc. 

3) Arrangers Can Arrange Music for Multiple Instruments 

Orchestra - What's the Difference Between A Music Producer and Arranger?

If you are a producer or writer and do not know how to write an arrangement for a string quartet or a brass section, you will hire an arranger (or an orchestrater). This person will likely be a musician that knows a lot about producing, playing, and performing. Their job as an arranger, though, will only be for the re-conceptualization of the music.

The arranger must know all the different clefs and how the music has to be conveyed to a live player. If they are not skilled in this, they may not do a very good job. Percussion is written differently than guitar, and bass is written differently from the guitar.

A great arranger knows this and can write for all of these instruments and more. This is one of the reasons why learning the piano is a great choice for musicians. You learn two of the most common clefs in music, the treble, and bass clef, and you’ll also have a handle on reading music. The piano learning program, PianoForAll (from their site) is a great place to start.

4) Producers Have The Final Say and Arrangers Don’t Necessairly

Producers are usually the final say when it comes to a record. They have a distinct vision that keeps them on track, but ultimately they want their artist to feel comfortable, so they perform well. The final outcome is their goal, and they work very hard to make sure the music fits the artist. 

An arranger doesn’t occupy the same role. Their job is to arrange the music until the producer and artist are happy. If that means re-arranging to fit the artist, that’s what they do. They typically have a lot of experience arranging music, which resonates in their work, but if they are not in the producer’s seat, they can’t exactly call all the shots. 

5) Arrangers Adapt A Composition For A Live Performance  

Live Performance - What's the Difference Between A Music Producer and Arranger?

Producers are with the artist from beginning to end, but not usually a part of the live performance. They make recommendations and help get the best live arrangements for a song. Some songs don’t sound the best without having an arrangement for live performances. 

An arranger might have to rearrange a song to fit a live setting. Maybe even set up segway into other songs for the entire band. A lot of this is done within rehearsals where the band or music leader sets the arrangements. Still, if you are working with big production and a lot of people, you will probably have a team of people to guide the artist, and in this case, an arranger will arrange the music for the accompaniment.

What’s the Difference Between an Arrangement and a Composition? 

Arrangement versus Composition - What's the Difference Between A Producer and Arranger

As we’ve stated previously, an arrangement is a reconceptualization of a pre-existing piece of work. It’s the act of putting one’s own spin on a piece or interpreting it in a different way. A composition is the source of the arrangement. It’s the original work that is being arranged.

Chances are that if someone knows how to compose a song, they likely know how to arrange it as well and the same can be said for vice versa. Some people have more of an eye for composition or arrangement, but these skills are fairly similar to one another.

Important Things to Note

1) Arrangers Can Have The Same Impact On A Song As The Original Composer

An arranger can take many creative liberties with a piece of music. Their primary focus is to preserve the original composition, but they can also rearrange chord progressions or rewrite an ending or beginning of a song. Their own experience and taste can come out of a composition they are working on based on what they like the most in the music, so their own taste can significantly impact the final product. 

Gear Mentioned

1) Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments (from Amazon)

2) Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments – Answer Book (from Amazon)

3) PianoForAll (from their site)