Robert Estrin - piano expert

What's the difference between a Composition and an Arrangement?

Discover and learn more about these two important musical categories

In this video, Robert explains and helps you understand how a composition differs from an arrangement.

Released on June 12, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to I'm your host, Robert Estrin. Today's question is what's the difference between a composition and an arrangement? Well you've heard these terms and there's actually quite a bit of difference, and there's differences within each of these. Compositions simply are musical pieces that are conceived from the beginning to the end with all the markings, expressiveness, the instrumentation, and generally if it's a great composition you want to learn it exactly as it's written so you can impart your nuance of expression from the framework of the piece. So the notes, rhythm, expression, and phrasing are just as the composer intended and of course you bring your unique voice to it just as an actor does to lines of a play.

Now an arrangement is where a piece is written for one group of instruments or it maybe is simplified or embellished for the same instrument and it could be written for whole different groups of instruments or one instrument. So you could have a piece for example that's written for the piano that's arranged for an orchestra or the other way around. Now there are different types of arrangements. Some are just for convenience. You might want arrangements of Christmas songs to play at parties and they can be at different levels. In these cases, sure you have creative license to embellish or simplify at your whim.

But there are other arrangements that are great compositions into themselves, sometimes referred to as transcriptions. Some notable transcriptions are Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, originally written by Mussorgsky for the solo piano, arranged, transcribed for symphony orchestra by Maurice Ravel. And the orchestral version is much more widely played and heard, and it is a phenomenal piece as an orchestral work. So there are example of, for example the violin partitas of Bach arranged by Liszt, by Busoni, and others. And these transcriptions also hold their own as compositions on their own right.

So be able to identify the difference between arrangements and transcriptions so that you're sure that you are being faithful to the score in the case of something that is carefully crafted as compared to more of a convenience for people to play and share music in a more casual setting in the case of many arrangements that are simplifications or embellishments of popular music.

Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin here at
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 22, 2015 @2:44 pm PST
I have been searching unsuccessfully for an arrangement for piano only of the Entry of the Gods in Walhalla. Does it exists? Any publisher I can contact? Thanks!
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on April 22, 2015 @4:15 pm PST
Dear Fulvia, yes, a transcription of that does exists and I have a copy of the entire "Das Rheingold" transcribed for piano. We could actually get it published on VSM, but it is over 147 pages of great music, and a lot of work from our part to engrave it from scratch in the short term... but we'll consider it for the future!

In the meantime, if you are interested, please, contact me at:

Be sure to make your email to my attention (Fabrizio Ferrari) so that I'll be sure to get back to you with the copy I have (as a PDF file)

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on June 12, 2013 @11:22 am PST
I have heard "arrangements" of Dvorak's Humoresque for violin and piano, and for other instruments. With respect to the former, I have Cds in which one famous violinist plays Humoresque without double stops, and other famous violinists like Kreisler who played it with a lot of double stops, or another who used a few double stops and not the same double stops as Kreisler used. So what I'm saying is that there is nothing wrong with taking an arrangement and changing it to suit your own preferences...whether that means adding extra double stops, taking out double stops, or even changing the type of double stop in a passage (as for example from thirds to sixths), adding accidentals here and there, etc., long as the end result is pleasing and adheres to the spirit of the piece.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on June 12, 2013 @11:53 am PST
Yes, of course, I agree with you, Arrangements have no "limits" and may be quite different from the original composition. I am sure Robert agree with me on this. If you look at the past, musicians used to improvise on just simple melodies and make their own "arrangements" on the fly! So, that's completely natural and, in my opinion, music passion brings musicians to improvisation and arrangements creation. It is a fascinating subject indeed.
Robert - host, on June 12, 2013 @1:52 pm PST
Creative license in embellishing musical compositions varies depending upon the time period of the music. Romantic showpieces in particular are often times altered to showcase the technical and musical style of the performer. Baroque music offers opportunities for creative license with ornamentation. Generally, classical period music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven are generally performed for the most part as written.

Arrangements and transcriptions are by their nature open to enhancement since they are already changed to accommodate different instrumentation. Humoresques was originally a piano piece, so it presents fair game for violinists and other instrumentalists to impart their signature in performance.
Christoph Leroy on June 12, 2013 @7:11 am PST
In this case is harmonizations the same as arrangements?
Robert - host, on June 12, 2013 @1:53 pm PST
Harmonization is generally the practice of taking a monophonic song or melody and adding chord structure of some type.
LUIZ SETTE * VSM MEMBER * on June 12, 2013 @6:27 am PST
Hi ! Wonderful comments, as usual. I would add if I may another sort of arrangement very popular in 19th century and beginning of the 20th. I mean Piano Reductions of orquestral pieces, including full symphonies and opera overtures. Many were called paraphrases of concert. There was a preference for 4-hand or some 2-piano works. I myself own a rare 2-volume book of opera overtures, a real treasure with wonderful and well written ( advanced level) 4-hand piano work.
Robert - host, on June 12, 2013 @1:55 pm PST
There is a wealth of musical arrangements of great symphonic repertoire. This is because before the advent of recording, vast numbers of people could never hear these works if they didn't live close to a major city that had an orchestra. So, it was the only way to experience these great compositions.
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