"What About Us" P!nk - Arrangement Analysis
I encourage you to do this type of instrument placement analysis on multiple songs to compare the various outcomes. You may start seeing certain patterns emerge.
What do you see? Does anything catch your eye about the placement of the elements? Notice how nothing really is as loud as the lead vocal. The vocal is certainly the most featured element of the song, so it makes sense that it should be the loudest.
But the more interesting thing happens when you look at the frequency placement of all the other elements. Do you see that all the instruments are playing parts that stay away from the area dominated by the vocal? Notice that not a single instrument takes up the same frequency spectrum range as the vocal. Some of them play lower, while others play higher. And although there may be some overlap with the lead vocal, no one is ever in the way of truly competing with the vocal.
Which brings me to:
Rule 1: Leave space
One of the best lessons I ever learned is from one of the greatest music producers of all time, David Foster (Chaka Khan, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Andrea Bocelli, Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Chicago). Foster once said, "Do you know what the three most important elements of a song are? The vocal, the vocal, and the vocal." Writing a good arrangement is all about making sure that nothing takes the attention away from the lead vocal.
Think of it this way: for each element that you add to your song, you have a series of decisions to make. The basic questions you will most likely be answering include:
What type of instrument am I choosing to add?
Where in the frequency range will this instrument be playing (low, somewhere near the middle, or high pitched sounds)?
How loud or soft will this instrument be playing?
How busy will I make this part? Will it have long sustaining chords or will it be busy with many short notes?
Making deliberate decisions on just those four parameters alone will help you write better song arrangements that allow your lead vocal to remain center stage.
So what does it mean to leave space for the vocal? It means being conscious of what each instrument is playing. Think of the lead vocal as a no-fly zone. Other instruments can sit close by, but none of them should be in the same space as the lead vocal.
As a general rule of thumb, try to make sure that the majority of your instruments are playing in ranges that stay away from the vocals. Piano and guitars, for example, have very wide ranges, which means they can play very low notes and very high notes. Since the vocal will probably sit in the mids and high-mids, make sure that your piano and guitars don't play in the same register.
Consider, for example, making your guitar play higher notes while having the piano play lower. That way you're creating a virtual empty space in the frequency spectrum for the vocal to shine.
Rule 2: Choose wisely
Our brain has an incredible way of focusing our hearing to isolate only the most important elements. Imagine this scenario: You're meeting a friend for dinner at a busy restaurant. You walk in and instantly hear your favorite song playing from the speakers above. The place is full of people. You get seated and take it all in. There are various conversations happening at the tables next to you, the noise of a dozen meals being prepped in the kitchen behind you, and lots of plates and glasses clinking as the waiters run around the room. This is a busy place.
But have you ever noticed how the moment you start a conversation with your friend you're still able to focus on what they're saying despite all the distractions? The human brain is kind of awesome that way. It puts everything it hears into two categories through selective filtering:
Important (the conversation with your friend)
Noise (the kitchen, the bustling waiters, the background music, etc.)
Put differently, your brain categorizes everything as either being Foreground or Background. Remember how when you entered the venue you noticed the music, but during your conversation, the music shifted to being part of the background? That's because your brain is constantly re-evaluating what's important. During the conversation, your focus is on your friend, but that focus can be pulled away if something new appears that attracts more attention. For example, when a fire truck passes by you'll notice it. If a table nearby starts singing "Happy Birthday," you'll notice it as well.
So how does your brain determine what is important? In music your ear naturally prioritizes what's:
Highest in pitch
This breakdown is very important to keep in mind as you're deciding what each one of your instruments should be playing. It's a bit of a contest for your attention, so whichever element checks more of those boxes will be the one that your listeners will focus on most. This means you have to choose wisely what you're having your instruments do.
For example, if you are adding strings to your song, be careful that they don't take the attention away from the lead vocal. If those strings are playing very high, they're loud and you give them a very busy part, your listeners will probably focus on the strings rather than the vocal. So instead, consider giving those soaring high strings a slow-moving melody consisting primarily of long notes. That way your listeners may notice the strings, but the focus will always remain on the vocal, which will be louder and more active of the two.