Making an arrangement of a piece of music is fairly common practice among leisure-time music groups. By the letter of the law, you need permission from the copyright holder to make any changes to a piece of music. This applies to the music and lyric copyright and includes things like key changes, removing a verse, or repeating a chorus.
However, there is perhaps some common sense to be applied. Where the changes are minor you might decide that getting permission is an unnecessary administrative burden for you and the copyright holder/publisher.
The decision about what is a minor change is up to the arranger. A good question to ask yourself is, are you fundamentally changing the nature of the piece? If you are, then you should ask for permission. But if you are maintaining the original nature of the piece but making small adjustments to suit the piece to your group and get the best performance from your group, then they might be viewed as minor. If you do take this view you should, of course, make sure you pay PRS fees for any live performances.
Examples of fundamental changes
- Rescoring an entire piece to be played on a different instrument(s)
- Adding a significant number of new instruments
- Changing the style of the song – for example, a bluegrass version of a Delilah
- A creative interpretation of a piece that changes its feel and style.
Examples of minor changes
- Changing the voices from SATB to STB to suit the voices available
- Octave or key changes to suit the instruments you have available
- Removing or repeating a chorus or verse
- Repeating a section and making some changes to make the repeat seamless
- If you are missing an instrument, rescoring for an instrument you do have
- Editing or simplifying technically challenging sections.
Another consideration is how you will use the arrangement. For example, even for minor changes, if you plan to use the arrangement beyond performance by your group (e.g. making it available to other groups) then seeking permission is a good idea.
If you plan to make more significant/fundamental changes then you should get permission from the copyright holder, which you can do by contacting the publisher. If you do an internet search for the name of the publisher and ‘permissions’ then you will normally find an email address or online form to complete.
It can take some time so make sure you ask for permission well in advance of the performance (at least two months ideally). Sometimes permission will come with a condition – such as a limit on the number of performances or whether you can make a recording.