The symphony orchestra is one of the most versatile mediums of music performance, which is capable of producing an almost infinite number of different shades of expression. However, in order to successfully utilize its power, one must first have a solid understanding of the general principles of orchestration. This article is meant to serve as a crash course in the basics of classical orchestration for beginner and intermediate game composers to enhance their use of orchestral sample libraries and in turn, increase their profitability as composers.
For the sake of brevity, this article assumes that the reader has a general understanding of music theory and is familiar with and has access to an orchestral sample library such as VSL, EastWest, or Garritan. In addition, we will focus only on the traditional instruments of the classical orchestra, excluding later additions such as the saxophone and drumset.
As you begin your journey into the art of orchestration, it is prudent to understand these three axioms set out by master orchestrator Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in his definitive guide to orchestration, Principles of Orchestration
I. In the orchestra there is no such thing as ugly quality of tone.
II. Orchestral writing should be easy to play; a composer's work stands the best chance when the parts are well written.
III. A work should be written for the size of the orchestra that is to perform it, not for some imaginary body as many composers persist in doing.
He continues to talk about the different stages that the beginning orchestrator will pass through in his/her journey towards becoming a master orchestrator:
The student will probably pass through the following phases:
- The phase during which he puts his entire faith in percussion instruments, believing that beauty of sound emanates entirely from this branch of the orchestra—this is the earliest stage.
- The period when he acquires a passion for the harp, using it in every possible chord.
- The stage during which he adores the woodwind and horns, using stopped notes in conjunction with strings, muted or pizzicato.
- The more advanced period, when he has come to recognize that the string group is the richest and most expressive of all. When the student works alone he must try to avoid the pitfalls of the first three phases.
Overview of Orchestral Groups
Before we begin learning how to incorporate each one of the instruments into our compositions, we must first learn as much as possible about each instrument so that we can make informed decisions when deciding which instrument should play a given part. The orchestra can be broken down into 4 primary groups or families: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
The string section is made up of four different instruments: the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, each of which is constructed basically in the same fashion as shown in the diagram of a violin below:
The primary differences between the string instruments are their sizes, ranges, and tunings. All are tuned to fifths except for the double basses that are tuned to fourths. Below is a useful chart for the ranges of string instruments:
The most common tones are produced by initiating the vibration of the strings through either bowing or plucking. This can be done through an almost infinite variety of different articulations, more so than any other orchestral group. Based on the completeness of your orchestral library, many of these articulations may be available for you to use.
Common string articulations
- Détaché - Each note is played with a change in bow direction from down to up with the bow remaining in constant contact with the string. This articulation can be played at practically any speed up to about sixteenth notes at 160 bpm.
- Staccato - Each note is played with a fast attack and a fairly abrupt release. Players shouldn't be expected to play staccato any faster than sixteenth notes at 110 bpm.
- Spiccato - Similar to staccato in that there is a fast attack and an abrupt release, yet the sound is produced by bouncing the bow off the string. Maximum speed is around sixteenth notes at 132 bpm.
- Jeté/Ricochet - The bow is thrown against the string and allowed to repeatedly bounce off of it, which allows the player to play at very fast speeds. This articulation is most commonly started with a down bow giving an accent to the first beat.
- Tremolo - A rapid succession of unmeasured down and up strokes. It can have a mysterious tone at low dynamic levels as well as produce the strings' loudest sound possible.
- Portamento - Played with the bow in constant contact with the string emphasizing exaggerated slides in pitch between successive notes; can produce an eerie, haunting effect when used appropriately.
- Con sordino - A mute is applied to the bridge of the instrument producing a muffled, less brilliant tone.
- Pizzicato - The strings are plucked, most commonly with the first and second fingers. This gives a relatively fast attack and a medium release to the tone that is fairly moderate in loudness.
The basic members of the woodwind family are the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. All other woodwinds, excluding the saxophone family, can be considered variations of these four instruments. In general, woodwind instruments are less flexible than the strings, being less capable of producing as many different shades of expression. Nonetheless, they are well suited to producing rich, colorful tones that vary greatly depending on the register.
Below is a table of the primary woodwind instruments with tone descriptions for each of their registers:
Rimsky-Korsakov describes the tone qualities of the primary woodwind instruments in the following excerpt:
- 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
It is accurate to say that the four primary woodwinds are all of equal power and can be balanced with a 1:1 ratio. However, the same cannot be said for their variations (i.e. piccolo, bass flute, english horn, small clarinet, bass clarinet and double bassoon) that have the tendency to vary in power.
Though less flexible than the woodwinds, brass instruments possess a powerful resonance that is unmatched by any other orchestral instrument. When played forte
, they can dominate even the thickest of orchestral textures. They possess a remarkable ability to play swells from pianissimo
as well as playing decrescendos inversely.
The ranges and timbres of the brass instruments are quite similar with the sound becoming more brilliant as the higher registers are approached. Trumpets, trombones, and tubas have roughly an equal amount of power. The horns however have about half that strength when played forte
. In order to properly balance when the rest of the brass is playing pianissimo
, the horns should be playing piano
. When the rest of the brass is playing forte
, two horns are needed for every one trumpet, trombone, or tuba:
1 horn playing p = 1 trumpet playing pp = 1 trombone playing pp = 1 tube playing pp
2 horns playing f = 1 trumpet playing f = 1 trombone playing f = 1 tube playing f
Here is a chart of the ranges of the primary brass instruments:
Additionally, brass instruments can make use of mutes to decrease the volume of tone. Unlike string mutes that have a deadening effect on the sound by reducing the energy of upper frequencies, brass mutes create a more edgy, nasally tone by reducing the energy of the lower frequencies. Furthermore, stopped notes can be used by the horn and less frequently the trumpet to produce a wider variety of timbres.
Percussion instruments can be a bit more difficult to encompass because of the sheer number of different instruments and mallets that can be used, so we will have to concern ourselves with only the most common. We can break them down into two groups: 1) percussion instruments with definite pitch and 2) percussion instruments with no discernable pitch
Percussion instruments with definite pitch
- Kettle-drums (Timpani) - indispensable member of any concert orchestra; made from a calfskin or plastic drumhead stretched across a large kettle made most commonly of copper; capable of producing all dynamic levels from explosive fortissimo to barely audible pianissimo; well suited to performing gradual drum roll crescendos and decrescendos.
- Glockenspiel - metal bars arranged like piano keys that are attached to a portable frame and stricken with mallets; produces a high pitched, penetrating tone that is easily audible in most orchestral textures
- Celesta - very similar to a piano except that the strings are replaced with small steel plates; produces an astonishing, brilliant tone similar to that of the glockenspiel.
- Xylophone - wooden bars arranged like piano keys on top of a freestanding fixture; played with mallets; produces a crisp, dry and penetrating tone
Percussion instruments with no discernable pitch
- Snare drum - cylindrical shell made of metal or wood with drumheads stretched over both sides; curled metal wires (snares) are strung across the bottom drumhead giving the snare it's distinctive sound; most commonly played with drumsticks
- Cymbals - two large, metal plates with concave centers held with straps; normally ranging from 17 to 22 inches in diameter; most commonly crashed together although many different articulations are possible
- Triangle - metal rod bent into a triangular shape with one open corner; typically struck with a brass rod
Choosing How Many of Each Instrument To Use
Although there are many different combinations of instruments that you can use to make up a full orchestra, there are some general guidelines that most orchestrators adhere to in order to achieve the balance of sound necessary for all instrument parts to be heard.
The first question you must ask yourself is, "How big of an orchestra do I want to use?" The bigger the sound you want, the bigger orchestra you should use. If your piece is ever performed by a live orchestra, you may find that the conductor requests the piece to be arranged for a smaller or larger orchestra than you originally intended, but for our purpose of composing for an orchestral sample library, we have total control over how many instruments we invite to the party.
We can break down these different sizes into three basic categories: small, medium, and large. Below is a table of the most common instrumentation for each of the different sizes. By no means are these set in stone, but they form a solid starting ground for developing the balanced sound we seek to achieve.
As for the percussion instruments, these can be added at your discretion but should be done with care. Most percussion instruments have the ability to cut through even the thickest of textures, and it is very easy to have them take the focus away from the other instruments if their parts are not chosen wisely. Nonetheless, they can add brilliance, color, and emphasis to your arrangement unlike any other family of instruments. They key is to remain tasteful.
Orchestral seating charts can be arranged in a variety of different ways, but most follow a basic setup procedure that has been proven through the centuries to maintain balance of sound amongst the different instrument groups. When setting up your digital audio workstation file, it's a good idea to use panning, EQ, reverb, and volume to place each instrument in a three-dimensional space based on a seating chart. However, be mindful that some orchestral sample libraries automatically place instruments within this three-dimensional space for you, so be careful that you aren't panning something that is already panned.
Below is a typical orchestra seating chart with the strings scattered across the front of the stage, the woodwinds directly behind them, the brass behind the woodwinds, the percussion in the far left corner, and the piano, harp, and double basses in the far right corner:
Even though most seating charts you see will be very similar if not identical to this setup, this is only one way to organize an orchestra. Feel free to experiment with your own seating charts, and you may discover something that works better for you. One thing that I have found to work quite well is to do everything as shown above but arrange the strings from left to right as follows: 1st violins -> cellos -> violas -> 2nd violins. This seating arrangement allows the ability to create cool stereo effects between the 1st and 2nd violins while having the more omnidirectional bass frequencies that come from the cellos emanate from the center as is common in most popular music recordings.
Now that we are familiar with the different instruments of the orchestra and have a good idea of how to incorporate them into a cohesive ensemble, we begin our life long journey of discovering how to artfully extract the most possible beauty from this collection of versatile sound producing devices. With so many choices of instruments, the task can seem a little daunting at first, but through practice, we can recognize patterns that will help guide our decisions and yield powerful and provocative orchestral textures.
Before we begin assigning parts to instruments, it is very important that your music makes sense to the ear in an absolute sense. What I mean by absolute sense is that if you were to have one or two pianists play the entire composition, would the music be easily digested by the ear with clearly defined musical lines or would it be difficult to discern the different parts from one another? If the answer is the latter, you probably want to revisit the composition of the music before you attempt to orchestrate it. Well composed music will always translate better to the orchestra, so take the time and make sure you're happy with the notes before you start deciding which instruments should play them.
Balance is arguably the most important factor in successfully orchestrating a piece of music. During orchestra rehearsals, a large percentage of time is spent on adjusting the dynamic levels of individual instrument parts to assure that all parts are audible and an even, balanced texture is achieved. Our goal as orchestrators is to minimize the need for these dynamic adjustments so that every instrument is clearly audible and free of conflicts between instruments with little effort by the performers. The end result will have a greater sense of cohesion, rather than sounding like a pack of misfits all competing to be heard.
The different factors that affect balance are as follows:
- Number of instruments playing the line. The more players that are playing a given line, the louder and more powerful the line becomes. That being said, equal numbers of instruments of equal weight in tone will produce an even balance. For example, two flutes playing a melody line in unison will balance evenly with two bassoons playing a bass line in unison.
- Instrument's family. As a general statement, brass and percussion instruments are the strongest members of the orchestra, then the strings, and then the woodwinds. Careful consideration must be taken when balancing parts among the different families. It is often best to balance each family within itself to achieve an even balance in the whole orchestra.
- Instrument's register. The quality of tone and degree of weight varies greatly depending on the instrument's register. It is very important to understand these differences to properly balance textures. Refer to the range charts given in the "Overview of Orchestral Groups"
- Vertical relationship to the other parts. The top line of a texture is the easiest to hear, the bottom line is the next easiest, and the middle voices are the most difficult.
- Space between parts. The farther apart voices are from each other, the easier it is to discern them from one another.
- Degree of movement. The more a part moves, the more it sticks out within a texture. The less a part moves, the more it fades into the background.
- Dynamics. Although, balance through instrumentation is commonly the best approach, certain instances call for instruments to play at different dynamic levels. Suppose you want to have your first violinist stand up and take a solo. You would likely want to have the orchestra playing two dynamic shades lower than the first violinist so as not to drown him/her out.
One of the most interesting aspects of orchestration is the blending of timbres. Just as an artist mixes paints to produce different shades of color, an orchestrator blends timbres to produce different shades of sound. With the sheer number of instrument and articulation combinations, the possibilities for different timbres are virtually infinite. As an orchestrator, it is your job to experiment with all these different combinations and discover the ones that best suit the music you are orchestrating.
It is important to understand that the more instruments you have playing a given line, the less colorful the line becomes, but with loss of color comes gain in power. As you begin blending timbres, there are a few different factors that tend to produce better results:
- When the instruments are in the same family and even more so in the same subgroup (e.g. single-reeds).
- When the instruments are evenly balanced with each other (e.g. 1 trumpet playing f = 2 french horns playing f).
- When the instruments play adjacent voices.
- When the instruments play parts that are similar to each other, especially in articulation.
- When none of the timbres attract more attention than the others.
- When the intervals between the instruments remain relatively consistent.
A major part of making decisions when it comes to balance and blending is function. It is important to understand how a given line functions in relation to all the other parts. For this purpose, we can break it down into three different functions from greatest to least importance: melody, bass, and accompaniment. The following methods can be used to help maintain a clear function throughout your arrangement:
- Keep line on top of the texture
- Double on the unison or in octaves
- Use instruments with greater strength
- Use the more powerful registers
- Use louder dynamic markings
- Keep line on the bottom of the texture
- Double on the unison or in octaves
- Use instruments with powerful low registers
- Use louder dynamic markings
- Keep lines in the middle of the texture
- Use less doubling
- Use instruments with lesser strength
- Use the weaker registers
- Use instruments of similar timbres
- Use softer dynamic markings
Although there are many different techniques to achieve favorable results when it comes to orchestration, there are no rules set in stone. Sometimes the best moments are those when the rules are broken. For example, the opening of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" is a bassoon solo played at the very top of the bassoon's range that has a plaintive, almost piercing quality to it. Most orchestrators would never dare give that part to a bassoon, especially not at the very beginning of the ballet. But that is what makes the music so great and innovative is that he took chances and broke the rules, and it paid off. At the premiere, the music had such a profound effect on the audience that a riot broke out in the concert hall!
Some other things you can do to become a better orchestrator are:
- Learn as much as possible about each instrument. The more you know about each of the different instruments, the more comfortable you will feel giving parts to them. Get to know some orchestral musicians. They know more about their instruments than anyone else and can provide you with a wealth of invaluable knowledge.
- Read books on orchestration. The purpose of this article is to be a crash course in orchestration and was by no means meant to cover all the topics associated with orchestration. Go to your local library and check out some books on orchestration.
- Practice and experiment. There is no substitute for experience, so don't be afraid to try new things. Even if the results are not as favorable as you had hoped, you're learning. Over time you'll develop an arsenal of techniques that you can use to achieve any hue of expression you desire.
Stravinsky has been quoted for coining the phrase, "Good composers borrow, great composers steal." Even if you try your hardest to sound exactly like someone else, you'll only end up sounding like yourself trying to sound like that person. No matter what you do, you'll always sound like yourself, so why worry about it? Steal away! They've already done a lot of the hard work for you, so take advantage.
Furthermore, if you're going to steal, steal from the best. Why would you ever want to steal from an average composer? It's only going to make your music sound average. Steal from the best, and your music will reflect that.
Orchestration may seem intimidating at first, but the more you do it, the better you will get at it. The orchestra can be the most versatile medium you will ever use, so spend time to get comfortable with it. Leonard Bernstein said it best in his 1958 broadcast of his Young People's Concerts
series, "The right music played by the right instruments at the right time in the right combination: that's good orchestration."
- Rimsky-Korsakov, N. (1912). Principles of Orchestration. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
- Berlioz, H. (1855). A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration. New York, NY: Novello, Ewer and Co.
- Blatter, A. (1997). Instrumentation and Arranging: Second Edition. New York, NY: Schirmer Books.
- Shatzkin, M. (1993). Writing for the Orchestra: An Introduction to Orchestration. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
- Bruner, T. (1988). Basic Concepts of Arranging and Orchestrating Music. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
- Holm-Hudson, K. (2004). Guide to Instrumentation and Arranging. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky.
- Leonard Bernstein -- Young People's Concerts. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from Leonard Bernstein's Official Website