Episode 9 of the Art of Composing Podcast. In this episode, you’ll learn some valuable questions to ask yourself before orchestrating anything, and then my technique to efficiently learn the art of orchestration.
What is in this episode:
- Why you shouldn’t orchestrate… yet.
- Valuable questions to find out if you are ready for orchestrating your own music.
- My technique for orchestrating your own pieces quickly, efficiently, and without getting overwhelmed.
Listen to the Final Orchestration of Sketchy Business From the Podcast
Download the Score and Sketch Sheet
Here is an example of a descriptive sketch. Notice, just the melody, the chords, and a description of what I want to do.
That is followed with actually sketching ideas. Here is Section 1.
I then turn it into a full score, which you can hear and see below.
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Resources and Links Mentioned in this Episode:
Hey everyone, we’re back with another art of composing podcast. In this episode, we are going to learn about orchestration. What is it, and why you should or shouldn’t be doing it. We are also going to go over, my technique for orchestrating small, practice pieces that sharpen your orchestration skills.
Orchestration, the technique of composing for orchestra is something that everyone needs to eventually learn. But when you are just starting off, I liken it to treasure hunting on the beach. You walk around with a metal detector, (aka your ear), looking for a chest of buried gold from 200 years ago. Turns out, all you find are the occasional bottle cap, maybe a quarter, and a lot of wasted time.
So my first question to you is – why are you orchestrating?
Just like many of you, I attempted to orchestrate pieces of music when I was younger. And I still have those files on my computer. Guess what, they’re pretty terrible.
I mean, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, I was 15 at the time, and I just wanted to copy what I heard from my favorite composers. There is nothing wrong with that desire. But just realize, your first attempts to orchestrate anything, unless you happen to have a perfect memory, and an absolutely phenomenal ability to transcribe, well they’re going to be bad.
I am just going to say it. Beginning composers generally shouldn’t orchestrate. At least not in the way they think they should.
Now there are many reasons for this, and we will talk about them in just a little while, but I think the main reason is, because there is just a lot of stuff you need to know, to orchestrate well. Certain things seem easier, especially with music notation software like Sibelius, but in reality, the art of orchestration is just as hard as it has ever been.
You need to know range, characteristic instrumental sounds, some acoustics, common and uncommon playing techniques, how players read their music, proper notation practices, how to layout your score, voicing techniques.
These are just the surface.
So, I thought in this episode, I would go over what I think is kind of like a test, you should give yourself, before you get deep into orchestration, and then some suggestions for attacking the problem that is the orchestra.
The first thing to do is ask yourself, why do I need to orchestrate at all? All of us have our favorite composers. I am sure, if you are like me, you’ve pictured yourself conducting your own masterpiece in front of a huge orchestra with a grateful audience behind you. Chances are, your piece sounded somewhat familiar – kind of like one of your favorite composer’s masterpieces.
But the reality is, orchestras cost a lot of money, and there are fewer and fewer of them around.
I realize that everyone needs to be “true to their art” in the sense that you have to compose the sounds you hear in your mind. But to a certain extent, we still have to follow the rules that the world plays by – and one of those main rules is money.
If you are a relatively new composer, chances are, you are the one that will organize your first concerts, not someone else. Maybe with the exception of winning a competition or writing for your school orchestra or band. You’re probably not going to get a commission from the LA Phil, or any other major orchestra, unless you’ve already had some successes.
But let’s say, for argument sake, maybe you do have the money to hire an orchestra. When that moment comes, you want to be really sure, and I mean really sure your music is good.
Just recently, I finished recording a piece for 11 strings, horn, flute and harp. We had some limitations, because this is for the UCLA Film Scoring Program, and there were quite a few people in the class, and we were also recording, so the piece could only be 1 minute and 20 seconds. Not a very long piece at all. But I still spent a good two weeks composing, tweaking, checking instrument ranges, asking questions on facebook groups, and so on. And I still felt nervous when the moment came. I didn’t want all my classmates, my teacher, and the players to not like the music.
Unfortunately, due to the contract the music is recorded under, I can’t play the recording on the podcast, but overall it went very well. This size group is nothing to sneeze at, 14 players, but it is certainly no 100 piece orchestra. I am only now starting to realize, just what that means when you set out to compose a major orchestral work.
But there were a few things that I had going for me, coming into this orchestration experience that I think you need to think about before you attempt to orchestrate as well. First, this was the culmination project on a semester studying pretty much nothing but orchestration. So I was deep into Samuel Adler’s book, as well as some Behind Bars, by Elaine Gould – which is an excellent book on notation.
I also have had a lot of experience composing for much smaller groups, and especially solo piano.
This leads to my next question:
Are you able to compose effectively for 1 or 2 instruments?
Have you written a bunch of music for solo instruments, or solo with piano? If not, that is where you need to start. You’ll find, overall, the compositional problems are the same – developing your music, transitions, building interest, tension, relaxation, suspense, and so on.
But if you can’t handle two staves, how are you going to handle 16 or 20, or 30. Just the size of the staff paper alone means you are doing a lot more work than you otherwise would be… just drawing barlines, let alone, key signatures, dynamics, articulations… and oh yeah, you have to write music as well.
Writing solos for each instrument is also a great way to learn about those instruments separate from the problems of orchestration.
For instance, if you are writing for brass and strings, balance can be a huge issue, especially if you have a small string section. The brass will easily overwhelm the strings.
But do you know how hard it is to balance a solo trumpet – its not. Its already balanced. You don’t have to worry about who has the melody, how to double, what kind of texture to use – its just you and the trumpet. This frees you to worry about the music, and the playing characteristics of the solo instrument.
From there, start to write accompanied pieces for each instrument. Hindemith actually wrote sonatas for each of the main orchestral instruments. This is a great way to get comfortable with their capabilities.
I have personally spent a lot of time writing for just piano, and for a fair amount of solo instruments. Much of the music has not been fully engraved, and published, but I still got the benefits from it.
These kinds of exercises lead to another thing that I had going for me leading into this orchestration class – a good grasp of form.
Form to me, is a very important topic, because it is basically how music manifests itself through time. It is the one inescapable thing in music. You can take away harmony, you can emancipate the dissonance, you can use noise, randomly generated sounds, and even no sound at all, like John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
But you can’t escape time. Music happens over time. Even if the music is one beat, at 300 bpm, it still happens over time.
And form, is the way we think about music over time. This doesn’t have to be classical form, although I think every composer should at least understand how classical form works, but just any system of logical form will help.
Orchestration is inseperable from form. One of the key roles of orchestration is to clarify form. Traditionally, this meant to highlight different sections of the form with different orchestral textures, colors, and techniques. But it may mean something different in different genres. If you are writing minimalist music, the form will mean something completely different, you may highlight the form by not making drastic changes in texture or color. Contrast that with something like stravinsky’s rite of spring, where the orchestration and how it changes is one of the key characteristics of the music.
The best way to get form under control, is once again, to compose for piano, or other small ensembles first, really understanding how to develop form with the other tools at your disposal – melody, harmony, rhythm, development and so on.
Once you can do that, then when you get to the orchestration part, you will at least have an idea about how your form changes, and how that will effect your orchestrational decisions.
And let me say a quick work about orchestrating from a piano sketch or piece, versus composing straight to orchestra.
I think there is a misconception going around that in order to be a legitimate orchestral composer, you need to compose your work straight to an orchestral setting. Part of the problem are quotes like this from Principles of Orchestration by Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov.
It is a great mistake to say: this composer scores well, or, that composition is well orchestrated, for orchestration is part of the very soul of the work.
This would lead a young budding composer to think, “Oh man, if I don’t conceive my piece as fully orchestrated, I am not legit.” But this is not true. Everyone needs to start at the bottom. No one starts from the top. Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, and his students where also great. But he is talking about the pinnacle of orchestration, not the bottom. He knows this. This is why he wrote a book on the principles of orchestration. Its because people are not born knowing the comfortable range of the horn, or how to balance out a small string section with a brass section.
I think his point is, that when you conceive of music, you hear it as a specific kind of sound in your mind. You should, as you grow as a composer, strive to get as close to that sound as posssible. If you hear a melody as a trumpet melody, then you should write it for trumpet. If it is for violin, then write it for violin. Great orchestrators can hear the different tonal colors in their mind before they write, they don’t have to rely on program like sibelius or use expensive orchestral sample libraries.
But chances are, you have not built up that skill yet to a comfortable level. I personally feel I am just starting to scratch the surface of being able to effectively hear a sound in my head and imagine what that will mean on paper. So I recommend starting from smaller sketches, or piano music and orchestrating that. You can use other composers work – which you must obviously have the rights to – or you can use your own, which is the most preferable.
One of the greatest examples of this kind of exercise, is from Maurice Ravel. He took a series of compositions, called Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Mussorgsky, and he orchestrated them. The orchestration is outstanding, and the pieces are relatively short, self-contained compositional worlds. This means that you should study them. One of the hidden gems in this suite, is Promenade. Because Modest Mussorgksy basically took the same material and recomposed it several times throughout the suite, you can get a glimpse into creating contrast with both harmonic, melodic, and orchestrational means.
Ravel took these pieces and created something really amazing from them. And you get the benefit of being able to listen to both the piano, and the orchestral versions.
My next question is less of a compositional one, and more a general requirement for a composer.
Do You Really Understand How an Orchestra Works?
I think anyone who really wants to learn to orchestrate well should play in an orchestral setting, at least for a while. This doesn’t have to be a professional symphony orchestra. It could be a wind band, a marching band, a chamber orchestra, even a big band. Its best to choose one that is aligned with the kind of music you want to write, but its not completely necessary. I grew up playing in wind bands my whole life, with only the occasional symphony orchestra experience.
The most important things you learn in this environment, is how real players play music. You get to hear the intonation problems, the stamina issues, balance issues. You get to see how beginners shudder in fear when the conductor calls them out, or how the guy that really practiced his part, plays it about 3 dynamic markings too high, because he wants everyone to know that he knows how to play it.
You get to see what good parts look like, and bad parts look like. And most importantly, you learn how an ensemble really works together to create good music. You start to feel the form, the different colors, and the tonal interest created by the composer or arranger. Not to mention, you become intimately familiar with your own instrument.
So I recommend getting online, and finding a local community orchestra, and trying out for it. If you don’t play an instrument, pick one, learn it, and join. There are plenty of groups out there. If you can’t find one close, look for one further away, or try and start one on your own. There are plenty of people around you that play instruments. You can also get a lot of great public domain music online through sites like IMSLP. A lot of the time, they even have parts. But if they don’t, a great exercise for any composer is to copy a score. You will learn a ton.
So once you’ve asked yourself these questions, maybe you’ve decided that you want to still write for orchestra. Nothing can disuade you. Well that kind of drive is good, but it can also get you wrapped up in some unmanageable pieces of music. Go on any site with that has new or young composers posting their music, and you’ll see plenty of Symphony No. 1’s. What you don’t see are a lot of small study pieces.
A Symphony is by nature, going to be difficult to write, because traditionally, they are long. Even in Mozarts day, you are writing 25 to 35 minutes of music. That is a lot of music. Especially if you want the music to be good. What ends up happening, is these beginner composers, will write something half-way between film music, and minimalism, with a touch of something else. This way, they can pick a simple four chord progression, and repeat 100 times, called in modern-minimalistic-atonal-tonality… and you have a symphony.
Unfortunately, no one will probably listen to it, and they won’t learn much from it.
So to avoid this, I recommend another kind of composition. A compositional exercise if you will.
Steps to Orchestration
Write a short piece of music, something around 8-12 twelve bars. Basically this is your theme. You can write in any style you want, but for this example, I will write in a tonal manner. To start with, I recommend writing on paper, with only chord symbols or roman numerals. This means you are focusing on the melodic line – which is afterall, what single line instruments play.
Once we have a simple theme, we are going to orchestrate that line in a general way. At this point, we are not worried about what instruments will play specific elements. We are just figuring out what elements to use in the first place.
This is when it helps to start naming things. One of my teachers was a big fan of giving names to different kinds of textures, for instance, a primary element, is the main melody you hear. A secondary element, would be any supporting melody that goes with that primary element. A pad, is any chordal element. You can also change up that pad, making it a rhythmic pad.
I like to give names to a lot of things, but some of these are like inside jokes, that it will take too long to explain in the podcast, so just naming it how you imagine it will help.
So for instance, we could start with the first version of the theme.
Let’s say, we want it to have a prominent solo primary element, supported by a high sustained pad. I want it to be delicate.
At this point, I generally like to switch to Sibelius, my notation software. The main benefit of this, is I can copy and paste things quickly, as well as add clean text, and other symbols.
Maybe in the second version, I want the primary element to drop down an octave, and become stronger and louder. I also want the pad to become a rhythmic pad. I want the bass instruments to come in and add gravitas to the piece. Finally, I want to add a secondary element, to counter the primary element.
Hopefully you can see what we are doing here, we are arranging the piece using words and descriptions. This means we are making decisions beforehand. I like to say often that composing is about making decisions. Every note you write, you are making a decision. It helps to split those decisions up and make them at different times. If you start with a blank score of twenty instruments, then you are making a lot of decisions all at once.
Notice, I haven’t even said what instruments or how many I am using. It is very general at this point.
Finally, in the third version, I am going to have a much more regal feel, somewhat reflecting that this is the end of my piece. I want the it to be homophonic, with the primary element supported by a chorale underneath moving in the same rhythm. The secondary element may poke it’s head out occasionally. There is no rhythmic pad, but there are melodic fills.
The way I sketched this out is with a five line sketch system.
Each staff has a role, so when your eyes scroll the page, you will start to quickly see what each element means in your orchestration quickly.
But if five staves feel like much, you can also sketch on a grand staff just fine.
Now start to fill out these ideas.
Now that we have our sketches, it is a matter of chosing the instruments that best fit. At this point, I won’t go deep into why I am chosing what I am for this, because there is a lot that goes into it. I am generally thinking of the colors of each instrument, how the work together as ensembles, and pairs, how they should be voiced as sections, and what kinds of roles are characteristic for them. For instance, it is very characteristic for the strings to play a rhythmic pad as a section, as well as the brass section. But it is less characteristic for the tuba, the piccolo, and the viola to play a rhythmic pad as a section. Maybe it will work, and these kinds of short pieces are a great place to experiment. But it is good to get what works under your fingers first, and experiment from there.
Note that I also wrote short transitions between the different sections. How you transition becomes more important as the orchestra becomes larger, because you can have huge differences in sound between one section to another.
That basically does it.
I don’t consider myself a master of orchestration yet. But I do have some practical experience with it, and doing these kinds of exercises, which are short, and targeted will really help you in gaining the experience needed to write for a real orchestra.
It will also be much easier, to take a thirty second piece or one minute piece, and get it read by a local orchestra, than it would taking a thirty minute piece.
Orchestrating is a wonderful art, but like anything else, you need to be ready for it, and willing to put in the hard work in order to succeed.
So let’s go over what we learned in this episode:
The definition of orchestration is: the arrangement of a musical composition for performance by an orchestra.
Key to this definition is that you are arranging a composition and that it will be performed.
The questions you should ask yourself before attempting to learn orchestration are:
Why do I need to orchestrate at all? Am I doing it because the music needs to be orchestrated, or because everyone else on the internet seems to be doing it too.
Am I able to compose effectively for 1 or 2 instruments? If you can’t handle one instrument, how will you handle ten or twenty.
Do I Really Understand How an Orchestra Works? Have you spent time listening to real orchestras play, and practice. Even better, have you played in one yourself. The experience is invaluable for a composer.
Once you’ve asked these questions and you still want to compose a piece for orchestra, here are my steps for orchestration.
Step 1 – Write a short piece of music, something around 8-12 twelve bars. Write this as a single melody with chords.
Step 2 – We take that theme, and we orchestrate several versions of it, in a general way. We do this, not by writing the music first, but by describing it with elements like primary elements, secondary elements, pads, bass lines, and melodic fills.
Step 3 – We sketch out these descriptions in a standardized way. I like to use a five line sketch system with the primary element, secondary element, pad, bass, and melodic fills each on their own line. It also can help to add a separate percussion line if you have percussion.
You could do this on a grand staff if you want. Whatever works best for you.
Step 4 – Orchestrate each version. You will also want to write short transitions between the sections so the change in texture is not to abrupt or striking. You can do these transitions after the fact.
Thanks again for listening to the art of composing podcast. If you like the podcast, leave a five star review in itunes.
You can find the shownotes for this episode at artofcomposing.com/episode9 all one word.
Also, if you are interested in starting your journey towards becoming a composer, head on over to art of composing.com / start, watch the video and then sign up for the free composing course. It’s an 8 video course with exercises and worksheets and it is designed to get you up and running quickly, by composing your first classical piece.
Live long, and prosper!