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Orchestration 101Part 1

scorecastonline.com · by Stellita Loukas · February 1, 2012

The idea behind our orchestration articles is neither to re-invent the wheel nor to overpopulate the net with yet another repetition of what has been written, re- written and written once again in several blogs, sites, forums, etc. The idea is to bring you the same material, re-structured, re-organized and enhanced.

Through a series of articles, I will present some instrumentation and orchestration principles not in the textbook approach adopted by various other sources, but in a meaningful more structured and concise mannerexactly as I would structure my personal notes for fast and easy reference. Being a geek at heart, I got into the habit of note-taking early on in my academic life and I have found that concise and easy to browse notes can save A LOT of time. If you are like me (i.e. without a 30-year experience in orchestrating), there must be times when you don’t remember something and you find yourself browsing through several books or online sources to find it. That’s exactly what we are looking to avoid here (as well as any bald patches from excessive head scratching)! So, the idea behind this series (or of any other article in the SCU channel for that matter) is to make our lives easier and help us focus our time and energy in the actual task for writing music.

What This Is

Taking Rimsky-Korsakov’s approach and the excellent framework/structure of “Principles of Orchestration Online”, I will present the essence of instrumentation and orchestration in as a concise, quick and easy manner as possible, adding material from other sources and a good dose of humor where needed. Additionally, our resident musicologist Yaiza Varona will offer an extra dimension to everything; a behind-the-scenes look to help you better understand why orchestration has come to be what it is today.

What to Expect

For each orchestral section you will get two things : instrumentation notes (ranges, registers etc.) and orchestration techniques (how to use the section to play the melody and how to orchestrate the harmony within the section). After the examination of each orchestral section, we will provide you with sequencing, mixing and production techniques relevant to the instruments of that section.

Do not expect to learn to orchestrate like a pro merely by reading these articles. It takes a lifetime of studying, researching and applying to master the art of orchestration. But, we all have to start somewhere, right? Take the notes presented here and try to apply one technique at a time. Study how the greats have done it and try to understand why. Unfortunately the pill for the ‘ultimate internalization of knowledge’ has not been discovered….yet. Don’t expect – like me a few years back! to learn everything overnight. Give yourself a break and most of all, ENJOY that you can spend time doing what you love!

A Clarification

When referring to specific pitches, the “Roland” MIDI system is used, where Middle C=C4.

Also, instrument names and abbreviations come in many different shapes and colours. The ones used here are :

Violins = VlnViolas Piccolo = Picc.Flute =

= VlaCelli = VlcBassi = C.B

FlOboe = ObEnglish Horn = E.Hrn

Clarinet = Cl

Bass Clarinet = B.ClBassoon French Horn :

= BsnContrabassoon = C.Bsn F.HTrumpet = TrpTrombone = TrbTuba = Tb

So, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get started!

Instrumentation VS Orchestration VS Arrangement

Three different but easily confused terms. Let’s get them straight :

The term Instrumentation is used to describe two things; 1) the selection of instruments used in a composition, and 2) the properties of musical instruments (construction, timbre, sound production, ranges, sound characteristics etc).

Orchestration is the distribution of ‘roles’ to different instruments in a composition. Orchestration usually entails the writing of countermelodies and accompanying lines.

Arrangement is the process of taking a composition/song and altering/adapting it to another form, style or orchestration. The term ‘arrangement’ is very common in jazz music where the so-called ‘jazz- standards’ can be found in many different arrangements.

So, what does all this have to do with us composers? Let’s say you sat at your keyboard or picked up your guitar and came up with a nice melody and a chord progression. How do you turn this into a full-fledged composition? Having in mind the mood and atmosphere you want your music to exude, one of the main decisions you have to make is what instruments to use in your composition; i.e. choose your instrumentation. That requires a good knowledge of the particular characteristics and capabilities of the instruments available to you.

Having chosen your palette and having in mind a general outline of the form of your piece, next step is to decide how to distribute your material. There are three very basic elements in each orchestration : the foreground material (i.e. your main melody), the middle-ground material (the countermelodies and certain fill- ins, runs etc) and the background material (accompanying lines, mostly the harmony and rhythm). Keep in mind that generally, the ear cannot discern more than three elements at any given time. Therefore, you must have at most 3 different ‘roles’ at the same time otherwise the listener will get lost in translation. This is where a good knowledge of orchestral devices (doublings, instrument combinations etc.) comes in very handy.

One of the most important ‘rules’ of orchestration is variety and surprise. Keep your listeners alert by giving them little surprises every few bars. A good rule of

thumb is to change the orchestration or small bits of it every few phrases or at every new section.

Orchestral Ensembles and Mixing Principles

The seating of the orchestra did not come to be what it is today for no reason. The careful placement of each instrument on stage and the size of each section has been carefully determined with mixing in mind, In the time of Beethoven and Wagner, Neve or SSL consoles were a tad expensive and hard to transport and folks preferred to do the mixing completely out of the box…without any box really!

The main principle underlying the nature, formation and seating of the orchestra is balance. Louder and more dominant instruments are placed in the rear and come in small numbers. Instruments with less carrying power (e.g. strings) come in larger numbers and are placed at the front of the orchestra. By learning how to orchestrate you will make the mixing process much easier. Remember that a bad orchestration cannot be fixed in the mixing phase.

Stay tuned for the first installment of String writing coming shortly as well as Yaiza Varona’s Musicological look into the origins of the orchestra!