Why Cover Songs Are More Educational Than You Think

When we listen to music, it’s easy to focus on the singer’s lyrics or the trumpet playing a solo, but music isn’t just melody; it’s a collaboration between different instruments and voices playing different parts.

The way that these different parts collaborate to play a song is called an arrangement, and understanding more about arrangements is a key way to deepen your knowledge of music.

Musical Interior Decorating


If the song itself is a blueprint, an arrangement is a furnished house. An architect decides where to put walls and doors and windows and makes sure it’s built so the roof isn’t going to cave in—then somebody moves in and adds the furniture and details that make it their home.

A composer writes a melody and harmony and gives a song its structural backbone. It’s the arranger’s job to turn this outline into a fully-formed piece of music, to turn it from a sturdy structure into something detailed, personal and lived-in. They do this by assigning a song’s musical ideas to different instruments, often adding new sounds and ideas along the way.

In many cases, the composer and the arranger are actually the same person. Both of these roles are essential in creating great music, which is why when we teach music with our app, MusiQuest, arrangement is an integral part.

Arrangement in Action: Cover Songs

One way to start to hear arrangement in action is to listen to different arrangements of the same song, commonly known as covers. Here are three versions of Paul McCartney’s song “Eleanor Rigby.” I chose this song for two reasons: it’s one of the most-arranged songs of the 20th century, and its original recording is one of the best-known arrangements in popular music.

Listen to how these artists furnish this sturdy piece of music.

Arrangement 1: Paul McCartney

The original uses only voices and a pulsing string octet (4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos) for a haunting feeling.

Arrangement 2: Ray Charles

The Ray Charles version expands it to a full R&B band—complete with piano, drums, bass, hammond organ, and a horn section—and gives it a soulful groove.

Arrangement 3: Chick Corea & Gary Burton

Chick Corea and Gary Burton perform it as a duet, and improvise around the song’s harmony in a modal jazz style.

At their core, these three arrangements are all the same song, but each artist interprets the song completely differently. The arrangers have changed the instruments, speed, rhythm, form, and harmony of “Eleanor Rigby” to make their own unique interpretations. Each small choice—how to voice each chord, when to get louder and softer, when each instrument enters and exits—changes how listeners hear the song, and plays with our expectations and emotions. Arranging is a complex and precise art. 

Why Arrangement Matters

When learning an instrument, students often get stuck in the particular role that their instrument usually plays. Ask a typical violinist about chords and you won’t get a good answer. Put a melody in front of most drummers and you’ll get a confused stare.

Not only does understanding arrangement help you compose more interesting music by broadening the palette of sounds available to you, it also helps you better play together with others.

Even for non-musicians, understanding arrangement can make listening a more active experience, and a more rewarding one.

photo credit: mo riza on flickr

photo credit: mo riza on flickr

Our app, MusiQuest, has a curriculum that teaches music with a focus on arrangement. We start by teaching five nearly-universal instrument parts (melody, harmony, chord, bass, and drums) through examples, stylistic exploration, and creative prompts before expanding into notation and other more specific topics.

By teaching music through arrangement, we build a holistic picture of music from the beginning of a student’s journey. We believe that understanding what those roles are and how they interact is the foundation of a lasting and meaningful relationship with music.

Now that you know a bit more about arrangements, see if you can notice them in the music you listen to. Watching a YouTube video with an a cappella version of a pop song? Taylor Swift playing an acoustic version of one of her songs? Two songs combined at a live award show performance? Consider the choices each arranger made, and think about how they change your experience as a listener.

Make your own songs inspired by the music you love with Edify's new app MusiQuest. Now available free for iPad.

Header photo credit: Quill & Ball on flickr