Music Orchestration Made Easy: Learn Secrets of OSCAR-winning Orchestrator
The orchestra is the ultimate ensemble. Musically, it can do almost anything – and it’s capable of expressing every imaginable emotion. But if you’re an inexperienced music orchestrator, or you’re used to writing for virtual instruments, how do you make a real life orchestra sound good?
In this blog, we’ve set out some of the most useful music orchestration tips. But before we get to the techniques, let’s start with an important question:
What’s the difference between arranging and orchestrating?
Arranging takes the original composition then adapts and develops it. It may be given different instruments or voices, re-harmonization, additions, modulations and paraphrasing.
With orchestration, the musical substance remains essentially unchanged, but the melodic lines are given different voices. Sounds simple?
Actually, one of the main difficulties with orchestration is also one of its greatest advantages: you’re writing for real musicians playing real instruments, and they have limitations. More about this later, because the definition above also brings up the next question.
When would I use orchestration?
You may want orchestral power behind a vocal track, or use it to bring a movie soundtrack or TV ad to life. Whatever you’re orchestrating, because the musical substance doesn’t change, try to have the whole piece in place before you start. It makes the process much easier.
In short, well-composed music will always translate better to the orchestra. It’s worth taking the time to make sure you’re happy with the notes before you start deciding which instruments should play them.
There’s a lot of choice when it comes to instruments, and finding the right voice for each line can be daunting. Before you start, it’s worth knowing how the orchestra is laid out:
The size of the orchestra is up to you, and largely depends on your original musical idea. A cinematic film score may need the supercharged power of a full-size symphony orchestra. A vocal track may need the more intimate sound of smaller chamber orchestra.
As a general rule when it comes to the orchestral weight and force, brass and percussion are the strongest, followed by the strings, then the woodwind. However, if you’re new to orchestration then there’s only one sure-fire way to gauge each instrumental family’s power and sound: listen to them.
Balance, blend and instrumentation
As an orchestrator, finding balance and blend is the most important part of the job. After all, you’re aiming for rich orchestral colour. You don’t want instruments competing against each other, or drowning out the vocal line in a muddy wash of sound.
To make sure that each line is clearly heard, here are some things to bear in mind:
What’s the vertical relationship between the parts? The top line of the texture is easiest to hear, the bass line the next easiest. The most difficult voices to hear are those in the middle.
How many instruments are playing the line? The more players, the more powerful the line. However, be careful how you use this. Firstly, constant full-on intensity will sound tedious and secondly, more power equals less blend. Group instruments by tone colour, not register. For example, a trumpet may play at the same register as a piccolo flute, but that doesn’t mean they’ll sound good together.
Which register are they playing? There’s a huge difference between virtual and real-life instruments. A keyboard-generated instrument has pretty much the same tonal colour and dynamic weight, regardless of register. The actual instrument, played by a session musician, will sound entirely different depending on whether it’s in the low, middle or high registers.
How much space between the parts? The further apart the instrumental voices, the easier it is to discern one from the other.
How much movement is there? The more a part moves, the more it sticks out. Make it move less and it will blend into the background.
And here are some useful tips on how to use different instruments:
For a high-register melody, 1st violins are generally a good choice – and with two violin sections at your disposal, you can use the 2nd violins for countermelody and harmonic resonance. For extra density, try doubling the violin melody with woodwinds an octave lower.
The violas – and sometimes the 2nd violins – are often seen as the “engine room” of the orchestra, providing strong forward movement with repeated notes and rhythms. They work well under vocals, but they can also add lush richness to the melody line. Double the viola with the bassoon in its tenor register for incredibly sonorous, penetrating tone colour.
Doubling the cello with the double bass with give your bass line more impact. But remember, both instruments are capable of more than just bass lines. Mix things up a bit by crossing voices – give the violas the bass line and put the melody in the cellos. Your double bassist will also thank you for the occasional melody.
A string section isn’t a keyboard. They can deliver long, sustained notes – and in a supportive harmonic role they can add a unique smoothness. Look for the shared notes between chords and hold them through as much as possible. If you want more rhythm you can use the same idea, but with repeated notes.
For string chords, you don’t always need to score them from the bottom up. Give the chord space by moving the third an octave higher and scoring it for the 1st violins.
Using pizzicato (plucked) strings is a great way to add texture. For lush resonance, score them at a quiet dynamic, combined with a legato woodwind or vocal melody. A louder pizzicato dynamic will produce a more aggressively percussive sound.
With woodwind, you have a flexible palette of tone colours at your disposal, so it’s worth taking the time to get to know each instrument’s individual characteristics. Rimsky Korsakov, who knew a thing or two about orchestration, described them like this:
- Flute — Cold in quality, specially suitable, in the major key, to melodies of light and graceful character; in the minor key, to slight touches of transient sorrow.
- Oboe — Artless and gay in the major, pathetic and sad in the minor.
- Clarinet — Pliable and expressive, suitable, in the major, to melodies of a joyful or contemplative character, or to outbursts of mirth; in the minor, to sad and reflective melodies or impassioned and dramatic passages.
- Bassoon — In the major, an atmosphere of senile mockery; a sad, ailing quality in the minor.
As a section, the woodwind have great sustained legato possibilities. But they’re also athletically adept at quick runs and flourishes. For melodies that can use them in octaves with each other, distribute the line in fifths, sixths or thirds between the instruments or with other sections.
Woodwind and strings resonate well together. Grouping individual woodwinds with strings is a useful way of changing the mood and timbre without altering the harmony or melody.
The most important thing to know about the brass section is that it’s very powerful. So be careful how you use it, otherwise it can dominate everything else in the orchestra – especially in higher registers.
Trumpets, trombones and tubas have roughly equal amounts of power – with the sound becoming more brilliant as they move up the register. Bear in mind that French horns have about half the strength when playing forte.
The brass are generally less flexible than the woodwind, but they’re great for playing dramatic swells from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again. Woodwind and brass together is a common combination in orchestration – and the winds can come to your rescue if you’re worried about brass over-domination. The sharper brass will always cut through, but the winds provide a soft pillow, making the sound sweeter.
Brass mutes, and stopped notes on the horn, are a useful way of adding a wider variety of tones. Muted brass creates a more edgy, nasal sound in the lower registers.
Percussion instruments provide an enormous range of timbres. Metal, skin or wood, some pitched, others unpitched – they’re one of the most effective ways to add excitement and atmosphere. But you need to use them wisely.
Think of them like seasoning – accents at key moments. Don’t be tempted to use the percussion as a driving rhythm section. It evens things out too much and flattens the texture. A snare, timpani or cymbal crescendo at the end of a musical phrase is far more dramatic than a hi-hat pattern behind absolutely everything.
Few notes on limitations
As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog, one of the most exciting moments in the orchestration process is when you hear it played by a live orchestra. Your musical idea has transformed into a living, breathing reality – with colour, resonance and almost unimaginable depth.
The trouble is, it’s being played by real human beings. Woodwind players need to breathe between phrases, the brass can’t play quiet sustained notes in their upper registers, no string player on earth can play pizzicato at 160 bpm. What’s more, unless you’re careful about the practical playing ranges of each instrument, you may have a mutiny on your hands when you get to the recording studio.
The best way to avoid this is to learn as much as you can about the practical possibilities of each orchestral instrument. Learn their playing ranges, how each instrument sounds in different registers, what they’re capable of technically, their orchestral timbre when blended with other instruments. And if in doubt, ask. Musicians are always happy to answer questions.
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