Archive for March, 2011

Orchestration – A short primer

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

The study of writing for orchestra is one of my passions. It’s something of a personal journey of discovery, so I don’t think I’ll be giving away any secrets by talking about it. I have my own bag of tricks, just like anyone, and after 10 years with TUSAB and copying for Jim Kessler, I still pick up new things every day. I could talk for days just about writing for strings or brass alone, but there’s too much to cover. I imagine it’s why orchestration books are so thick.

I have some basic rules that I follow, and continually revise. Everything else is details.

1. You must know the instruments.

With all instruments, you must learn the basics, like what they’re called in various languages, what clefs they read, what their transpositions are, what their possible and PRACTICAL ranges are (many people forget this), and most importantly, what they do, or how they function within their particular ensemble. Form follows function, and understanding the function is paramount.

2. Orchestration goes hand in hand with composition.

The sound of the instrument being written for usually determines the character of the composition, and/or vice versa. Some pieces are written to be somewhat universal, with no instrumentation in mind, or for the possibility of infinite combinations, like the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Most others are written to be played by one combination of instruments, and only one, with little or no variation.

3. Don’t make the instruments do things they can’t or shouldn’t do.

Young composers tend to want to push limits in music, which is fine. Trying to get a ‘cello to play a Bb below the staff, however, is neither clever, nor smart. If you want to do that, the better way is to physically change/improve the instruments, or come up with a new one.

4. Write for what you have, not what you WISH you had.

It sounds obvious, but is done so often that I feel it needs mentioning. Band music sounds lousy when played by an orchestra, but people still try to do it. A harp isn’t a piano, and vice versa.

5. Study scores.

If you want to write a book, the assumption (or the hope) is that you’d probably be well-read. It’s the same with music. Practicing writing is vital, but so is score study. Writing music, I feel, is related to drawing as well; good music has as much of a look to it as it has a sound. Come to recognize writing that has withstood the tests of time by how it appears on a page and its relationship to how it sounds. Over time, you’ll learn what will always make them sound good, and with trial and error what will NEVER sound good. Which scores to study are a matter of debate. Maybe I’ll get into some of those in the next post.